For Trevante Rhodes of ‘Moonlight’ Fame, Acting Was Plan B
The actor talks about his move into producing and his unique journey to becoming an actor.
As a teenager, Trevante Rhodes looked destined to be a formidable athlete.
While he was born and initially raised in Louisiana, Rhodes moved to Little Elm when he was around 6 and soon established himself as one of the finest runners and football players at Little Elm High School. Not only did he play alongside the current Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley, he won a gold medal at the 2009 Pan American Junior Athletics Championship.
But then, disaster struck. “I tore my ACL in the first football game of the senior season in high school,” Rhodes said. “Then everything dropped.” While he had hoped to get a football scholarship at the University of Texas at Austin, he secured a track scholarship instead.
With a career as a professional athlete now unlikely, Rhodes began to consider his options. Having always regarded sports as being “very artistic”—especially in the way that you have to listen, react, and problem-solve all in the blink of an eye—Rhodes was attracted to performing, especially because it allowed him to still be the center of attention.
It proved to be a very wise decision. By the age of 26, Rhodes had already starred in the Oscar-winning Moonlight, one of the most lauded films of the last 20 years. Since then, he’s appeared in 12 Strong, The Predator, Bird Box, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and as Mike Tyson in the Hulu miniseries, Mike, which he also executively produced.
Rhodes continues his foray into producing in his latest movie Bruiser, which was released by Hulu on February 24. A taut and emotional drama, Rhodes portrays Porter, a drifter living a ramshackle life on a boat who gets more and more involved in the life of teenager Darious (Jalyn Hall), much to the annoyance of his well-to-do father Malcolm (Shamier Anderson).
The Texas Observer spoke with Rhodes about Bruiser, his decision to move into producing, and his unique but powerful journey to becoming an actor.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Texas Observer: Were you always interested in movies and performing when you were excelling as an athlete?
Trevante Rhodes: When I was at Little Elm in middle school, Nickelodeon actually came and shot a commercial when the school was out for the summer. One of my buddies was the main star, then he started to pursue it on his own. He was shooting a lot of things. Friday Night Lights was one of the things that was shooting in the Dallas area. My buddy was getting featured in that. So I was like, “Well, if you can do it, I can do it.” But then, you know, life got in the way. When I got to Austin, they were shooting a lot of shit in Austin. I was there for track. But a lot of times, we didn’t have to go to class because we were there when school was out and your training and shit. So I had this free time. Acting just became a thing.
What attracted you to it?
It was an opportunity to continue performing. I was always the guy who was getting a lot of attention. Whether it was sports or dancing or whatever, I was the guy. Given the opportunity to get in front of the camera, be around attractive people, and be with cute girls, it was a continuation of high school. I got paid to do that. Every once in a while, you get the opportunity to do something great—something that’s able to shift ideologies. I fell in love with the attempts to do that after doing Moonight. Before that, it was more about making money and being cool.
What was your big takeaway from studying at the University of Texas?
Nothing in particular. The thing that I really loved most about Austin was that it was a place where you could just do shit. You could just try shit. I guess that was just college. But Austin really is a place—at least in Texas, because it can be so conservative—where you can just do everything. I’m somebody who loves to do everything twice.
How did you get involved in Bruiser?
I saw [writer and director] Miles Warren’s short film. It was brought to me a couple of years back, right around the time that my son was about to be born. For me, that was really poetic. It made this the right thing to do because it was something I could dedicate to my son. It was a blessed opportunity. Also, because we have this social presence and social awareness in this particular area, it really leaned into what the film was about. It was my aesthetic. It was perfect.
What spoke to you about the story?
For me, personally, I represent both aesthetics and both fathers. It was this opportunity to show the yin and the yang of my perspective and who I represent. It gives you the opportunity to see both sides of that and the clashing of that. You get to see two Black dudes loving and wanting to love a son. Most of the time, you see absentee fathers. It just spoke to everything that I speak to as a man and as a creative. It was a great opportunity to dedicate this piece to my son. That’s everything to me. Everything that I do is representative of my aesthetic.
Why did you decide to move into producing? Did you want to have more control of the stories you told?
That’s an aspect of it. We also just want to have a better understanding and better handle on the business of what we do. That’s very, very important. I negotiate my own deals; I handle all my own shit. I’m trying to understand every aspect of it as well as creating stories that are reflective of that. Meaning, they’re about black ownership and owning your shit, not only owning your shit but knowing what you’re doing so you can do that. Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, people are going to take advantage of you. So being that person with that energy, everything I do is very important to me. In Bruiser, for me, that’s reflective of my character specifically and Shamier’s character. It’s trying to get people to understand that perspective of the character and really understand that you can do whatever the fuck you want to do as long as you stay consistent and work hard.
Have you faced challenges as you’ve moved into producing?
Absolutely. That’s why my career is the way it is. Every time I do this, there’s a battle for the particular character that I represent because they can be unredeemable. It’s difficult for people to understand why the character is necessary or if the character is even real. For me, this is what I see every day. Not only what I see every day, what I naturally represent. Before, I felt like I had to water myself down so that I could just make some money. Now, I just do what I do. I do myself. And I do it on the screen. Everything I do is for me now. Sure, there’s stuff like Mike, where I have to change. But for this, it’s me.
What do you want to achieve as a producer?
There’s an overarching [plan]. But I like to keep everything close to my chest. So I can’t say what it is. But everything I have done has had this pungent smell that has really attracted me. You can’t put your finger on it. It’s such a primal thing. I represent that. I represent that excitingly.
What do you want audiences to take away from Bruiser?
Personally, I hope that people take the depth of love that we put into what we do. Because, again, it’s dedicated to my son. It was a labor of love. I would also love for people to really appreciate the fact that we have two black fathers trying to be in this boy’s life. They’re trying to show this young man what manhood is in their own particular way. That makes him try to understand what manhood is himself. Hopefully, people who watch it are able to take something specific that’s reflective of them, too.