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.

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