Barry Jenkins’s drama Moonlight (in limited release starting today, and wide on Nov. 4), is quickly becoming this season’s most buzzed-about film. It tells the story of Chiron, a gay, black boy growing up in poor Miami, and follows him through his teenage years to adulthood.
Trevante Rhodes, 26, plays Chiron as an adult, still contemplating his sexuality and his role in the world. Rhodes, a college track star who was discovered by a casting director while jogging on the campus of the University of Texas, says his experience on the film was an amazing time. “I feel like I’m kind of spoiled, because everything about the film was so incredibly special and I know that’s not something that happens all the time,” he tells PEOPLE.
“It talks about a subject matter that is so prevalent today,” he says. “Being a black man in American is relatively difficult right now, being a gay man in America is incredibly difficult and so being a black, gay man, like I’ve said before, can be perceived as the worst possible thing right now. So it is something that we need, that the world needs, and I’m thinking it’s a beautiful thing that people are receiving it. I didn’t think we were ready for something like that. And it’s really surprising and really refreshing to me to see that people are.”
The film, which earned him a spot on PEOPLE’s Ones to Watch list, had an impact on people before it was even released. “When the trailer dropped for the first time it was interesting because it’s a two minute trailer, and I didn’t really expect people to come up to me,” he says. “But in the gym I had people come up to me teary-eyed and express their love and gratitude for the work. It’s just the most insane thing.”
They key to playing Chiron, he says, was not to assume a difference between being gay and being straight. “I was born loving women but I easily could have been born loving men,” he says. “It’s the exact same sensation… You don’t fall in love with someone [just] for their physical [traits], but for their mental.”
“It was really just about me it was really just falling in love with the person that André Holland is,” says Rhodes of his co-star (pictured below). “I respect him, I love him for the father figure he is.”
“For me, it wasn’t about ‘pulling from’ [anything],” he explain. “One of my best friends is homosexual so I knew his struggle, but it wasn’t about pulling from that. I didn’t want to make it about that. It was really just about understanding people, understanding love and relationships…As actors and directors, I feel like our job, more so than anything else, is to shine a light on a subject and to let people know that they’re not alone.”
“I think the main reason why this movie is going to be so impactful, or I pray that it’s going to be impactful, is because in being so specific, it becomes universal,” he says. “If we can fathom stripping away sexual orientation, skin color, sex, we’re all the exact same: We just want connection. We just want love.”