Ashton Sanders has been in the acting game for just under a decade and beyond to make a name for himself. Growing up in Los Angeles—the city of Car- son, to be exact—as the youngest of three brothers, Sanders has always considered himself quite blessed to come from a family that helped liberate his love for the arts and self-proclaimed “weird way of dressing.”
“I used to watch Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple growing up,” the actor re-calls of the spark that lit his career. “For some reason, that movie and book was just so gorgeous to me. I thought that it was kind of like a perfect film. And then obviously, everybody wants to be a Sidney Poitier. Denzel Washington, too, who I have now worked with. We’re all just trying to do the same thing, I think.” But let it be known, Sanders wants to be his own person. “Because sure, people inspire me, but I’m not putting them on mood boards and trying to model a career after them. You know what I’m saying?”
After graduating from Grand Arts High School in 2013, Sanders began his studies at The Theatre School at DePaul University. Despite a few minor acting credits, including, as IMDb credits him, “Kid” in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, everything changed with his landing a role in 2016’s Moonlight—the Barry Jenkins directed coming-of-age story which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Sanders had always considered himself a fan of Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film’s co-writer. “While I was at DePaul,” Sanders recalls, “I was studying some of his work in one of my scene study classes. It was this piece called The Brothers Size, and it’s a part of this trilogy that’s really brilliant. Through him, I heard about Barry and a short film he did prior.” Sanders came across the casting opportunity, which he considers “the most casual,” and the rest is history. “When I first read the script, I just knew that nobody else could play it. I knew that it had to be me. I already knew that I was going to get the part. How? I don’t know. Intuition, I suppose.”
Going into the film, it was low budget and ultimately just a passion project for everyone involved—no one expected the film to explode like it did. “I got paid $1,500,” Sanders recounts. “I shot my part in, like, two weeks. The film was shot for six weeks, and so I wasn’t in school.” However, upon his return, he knew that it was time to drop out and pursue his passions full time. “I was getting calls from my agents and publicists like, ‘Hey, they want you to go and open at film festivals. Do this, do that. This movie is becoming this thing.’ And so I just decided to trust my gut. I just felt like I had already been at DePaul for two years and everything that I had learned there, I feel like, I don’t know, maybe it was just time for me to go cosmically.”
Jenkins, whose work as early as his 2008 project Medicine for Melancholy to 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, makes sure to ar- articulate his personal lens of Black identity throughout much of his work. For Sanders, it’s no different. “I’m a Black man in America, so I have to deal with my Black identity every day,” he considers. “I’m always identifying with some part of the Black experience. That is just another part of Moonlight specifically. I think it got so much acclaim because it is a part of the Black experience that isn’t talked about a lot and that hadn’t been explored and filmed in that way before. I think with Barry and I being Black men, working on a Black project, these are things that we just naturally connect on. He’s a great director and a great collaborating partner. I think for me, I wanted the embodiment of Chiron to be very honest.”
After Moonlight, Sanders’ career quite literally went from 0 to 100. In 2018, he appeared in Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer 2—a complete 180 in both genre and budget. “It made me realize you don’t need a lot of the money,” Sanders says of the drastic change, “that these studios make it seem like you need, to create something good. Honest- ly, coming off of Moonlight, especially with how much I got paid from it, I mean, I compare every experience to that. And I think a lot of the bigger budget stuff is kind of bull- shit. It was a great experience, though. I also loved working with Denzel Washington.”
And after playing Bobby/RZA in Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, Sanders’ latest turn is in I Wanna Dance with Somebody, opposite Naomi Ackie’s Whitney Houston as the infamous Bobby Brown. Despite having now played two real-life people on screen, the actor warns that it wasn’t all that stressful—the second time around, at least. “It’s a little less intimidating than you would think,” he shares. “But I think I only say that because this was my second time playing somebody who was alive. I think there’s a method to that—I couldn’t allow myself to get psyched out or intimidated by the portrayal. I want- ed to tap into cool, like, mannerisms, vocality, whatever, but most importantly, I wanted their soul to shine through the most, right?”
What is, most captivating, is the difference in preparation that went into engaging with the real life counterparts. “RZA actually reached out to me. He had seen me in Equalizer 2, and there was something that character that he said really resonated with. I turned down playing him twice, but RZA had been very involved in the creation of my embodiment of him and really put the character on to me. We’ve had countless conversations, countless dinners. I’ve been on his yacht in Marina del Rey. We’ve built a rapport. He’s somebody that I respect a lot and who will probably be in my life as an uncle of sorts for the rest of my life.” Yet for his most recent role, Sanders remains a bit tighter lipped. “In terms of Bob- by Brown? No comment. Because that’s just deeper than me.”
With a powerful collection of projects under his belt and a new year that has just barely kicked off, Sanders is eagerly looking ahead and refuses to put himself in a box with what he desires, from new roles and new experiences. If one thing is for certain, he will continue to fight to have his seat at the table. “I, for one, don’t want the industry to put me in a box, as they often do with Black actors. I’m working very hard for that not to happen to me, because it’s like, I’m not the one. I literally can play anything. Like, I literally can—I just need the opportunity. It’s difficult being a Black actor in Hollywood, much more difficult than being a White actor. White actors get more opportunities because of their Whiteness. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. I can’t tell you what is next. I’m just hoping it’s something that can further show you guys what I can do.”
In an homage to the fashion week dis- course happening globally right now, we were curious to pick Sanders’ ear over his fashion style. As someone who attended the Met Gala in 2021 and walked Prada’s F/W 22 runway, he is ever so confident about what his clothes say about him. “It’s very punk,” he says. “I wear black every day. It’s very Blade vampire. I mean, what you see on Instagram is what you get. That’s my style.”As for who he has his eyes on in the fashion scene right now, he tells us, “Glenn Martens is a cool guy and he’s killing it. I also really like Bottega Veneta and Rick Owens.”
Before he went his separate ways he couldn’t help but ask Sanders if there was anymore surprises at his sleeves, but to no avail—in the most Sanders way possible. “Oh, my God. I mean, I can tell you anything, man. But I think a part of my whole self is that I have this mystery about me. I think people are always trying to figure me out, and I think that’s something that comes naturally. I have a mystique,” he laughs.
I guess we’ll allow the mystique its breathing room.
Photographed by Brandon Bowen
Styled by Mui-Hai Chu
Written by Vincent Perella
Groomer: Euni J Lee
Flaunt Film: Nate Rynaski
Styling Assistants:David Gomez and Ryan Phung
Locations: Elk Development and Workshop Kitchen & Bar