THE BARRY EFFECT
How Moonlight director Barry Jenkins finds the right chemistry in his latest Oscar contender
BARRY JENKINS KNOWS how to cast. Just look at the stars of 2016’s Moonlight, whose careers were juiced from appearing in the Oscarwinning drama. Trevante Rhodes got a plum role in The Predator, as exmilitary tough-nut Nebraska Williams; Mahershala Ali stars in the upcoming Green Book as a jazz virtuoso. Both of those films, as it happens, played at the Toronto Film Festival in September, alongside Jenkins’ new movie, If Beale Street Could Talk. “I’m always in contact with those guys,” says the director, “so I was trying to find a way to get them on the carpet for a mini-reunion. But sadly, we couldn’t work it out.”
The next likely recipients of a Barry Jenkins career-boost are Kiki Layne and Stephan James, the actors playing Tish and Fonny, the love-struck duo at the heart of Beale Street. Based on a 1970s-set James Baldwin novel, the story gave the pair extremes to play, from romantic ecstasy to despair as Fonny is unjustly imprisoned. “We saw a lot of people,” says Jenkins. “But once we got the two of them together, it was just clear this was the right path. From the very beginning there was passion and some kind of fearless sensuality and connection between them.”
Their test didn’t take place in a sterile casting room, but a real home in New York that had been rented for the occasion. “We got a camera out and filmed a couple of scenarios,” Jenkins explains. “One was a scene that’s actually not in the film, a prelude to the first time they make love; the other was the most acrimonious prison visit. Just to see both sides of the relationship: the pleasure and the strain.”
Then it was onto the 32-day shoot, which was similarly split into two distinct phases. Swoony melodrama, with shots of James and Layne gazing into each other’s eyes, followed by gritty prison sequences. There’s one throughline throughout the tale: the couple’s feelings for each other, which never dim. “The story is fuelled by love,” sums up Jenkins. And thanks to its stars, there’s plenty in the tank. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK IS IN CINEMAS FROM 18 JANUARY 2019
Empire spoke to Barry Jenkins at the Toronto International Film Festival on 14 September. Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are bonded by love. Below: Director Barry Jenkins on set.