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Tarell Alvin McCraney: The Man Who Lived 'Moonlight'

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose semi-autobiographical script was turned into the film "Moonlight," talks to NBC OUT about turning life into art.

by Dan Allen /
Tarell Alvin McCraney attends "Moonlight" Cast & Crew Hometown Premiere in Miami at Colony Theater on October 15, 2016.Aaron Davidson / Getty Images

Years ago when playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote the deeply personal "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" as a drama school project, little could he have imagined that it would one day be turned into a major Hollywood movie, let alone one that would be generating serious 2017 Oscar buzz. Drawn from McCraney's memories of his own search for identity as a queer youth in Miami's poor and tough Liberty City neighborhood, "Moonlight" tells the story of young Chiron, who despite painfully losing his mother's attention to crack, is ironically taken under the protective and nurturing wing of a local drug dealer and his girlfriend (played by Janelle Monáe). The film also follows the arc of Chiron's relationship with his childhood friend Kevin, a powerful and sexually charged bond that shifts dramatically over the film's three chapters, following them from age 10 to age 16, then jumping ahead to their early 30s.

After creating his original project, McCraney headed to London for a writing residency with the Royal Shakespeare Company and nearly forgot about it, until it was discovered by director Barry Jenkins. While searching for ideas to follow up his 2008 film festival hit "Medicine for Melancholy," Jenkins came across "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" — and while not himself gay, Jenkins was strongly moved by Chiron's story, especially since it otherwise mirrored Jenkins' own difficult Liberty City upbringing (McCraney and Jenkins even went to the same elementary and middle schools, though they never met as children). With McCraney's blessing, Jenkins converted the story into "Moonlight," and the rest is now cinematic history in the making. Masterfully directed by Jenkins, flawlessly acted by a fantastic cast, and giving an unprecedented glimpse into what it means to be young and poor and black and gay in America, the film is also powerfully universal as the story of one man's quest for identity.

NBC OUT spoke to McCraney — who's also the writer of the acclaimed "Brother/Sister Plays" trilogy, as well as a Steppenwolf Theatre member and the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant — about the phenomenal "Moonlight" on the eve of its Friday opening.

Did you ever envision anything like this when you were writing "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue?"

No. I always knew that it would be better served as a film than a play, but I always thought that it would be something kind of small and independent. Let's just say I could not have expected this to happen. But after Barry showed me one of his first cuts of the film, I did know that there was something beautiful about it. And I also knew Barry could bring to it something that I just could not. I love the art of collaborating, especially with someone as talented as Barry.

I'd been hoping to read your original play before we talked, but I'm told it was never actually published or performed. With the movie's buzz and imminent success, are there any plans for it to be performed or published now?

Absolutely not. First of all, it was never a play [despite rampant reports to the contrary]. It was always scripted in a way that was about the visual life of it. So for example, there are no "Lights up on" or "Curtain opens on" or "Enter stage left" sort of instructions. All of the instructions in the original script "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" are like "CUT TO: Black washing his face," and "CUT TO: Little standing in the middle of a field." So to try to put that on stage would be — crazy, I think. (Laughs) And would probably have some theaters not ever wanting to work with me again. So one of the reasons I think Barry had such a good time turning it into his own screenplay is that there were things he could just kind of unfold right there. The circular nature of the original script didn't lend itself to the kind of open storytelling that I think Barry wanted, or as clearly as he managed to do so well. So he put it in a narrative linear form, still keeping the same three-part structure, just adding in acts.

 Writer and executive producer Tarell Alvin McCraney attends the 'Moonlight' Official Competition screening during the 60th BFI London Film Festival at Embankment Garden Cinema on October 6, 2016 in London, England. Jeff Spicer / Getty Images

So your original work jumped around in time more than the film does?

Yeah, it was simultaneous. So you saw pretty much a day in the life of each character at the same time. But that's why I say it's not a play, because you kind of can't do that on stage. You realize halfway through the script that it's the same life of the same person, but it moves at a swiftness you couldn't do on stage. It was just me trying to figure out moments of my life, and watching how, in very different portions of my life, I was still doing the same things. And you can see a nod to that with Barry's work. There are parts where they [Chiron at different ages] all get in the bathtub, they all rinse themselves in a certain way, they all do this thing in the mirror with water over their face with ice. And there are these moments that reflect — in each section — the other sections, and yet they're three different actors who are playing the same character, doing the same things.

I've seen a lot of gay movies in my day, and honestly, "Moonlight" is one of the most powerful gay-themed stories I've ever seen put to film. But of course it's also an incredibly powerful black-themed story, too. Do you think it does the story a disservice to focus solely on one or the other?

I think whatever way you have into it is valid and right. I think it diminishes something if we only make it one thing, for sure. Because it is not, it's just not. Whether or not it does it a disservice, it's more about what the truth of it is. It is a queer story, it is a gay story, it is a poverty story — you know what I mean? It is a story about drug addiction. Those things existed, and if we try to take them out or just make it about one of those things, I think it's more disingenuous to do that than anything.

Does Barry's film still feel like your own story?

Yep, even more so I think. To see it on the page is one thing, but to see it actually happen is kind of terrifying.

 Mahershala Ali and Jaden Piner in "Moonlight." "Moonlight" - A24 / IMDB

What's it like then to suddenly know that so many people are so moved by your story?

Hmm, I don't really know. I don't know if I've actually taken that part in.

I guess once the film's released it'll be even more apparent.

Well, I've watched the film again and again. I've gone into a kind of meditative state trying to figure out — I mean, these are large questions in my life that I myself haven't figured out. So I think the comfort, if there is any, is that other people are having the same moments of introspection, I'm hoping. And that feels right. It doesn't feel necessarily like a happy thing, because I don't want anybody to have to suffer through stuff. But I think it does feel necessary that other people are having a chance to wrestle with some larger issues, or at least issues that are less simple. When Chiron decides that he wants to become Black, what is that decision-making process like, and why? And what is he actually after, and where are the wrong turns we take? And what does it mean to wait for the touch of a person that also betrayed you — without giving too much of the film away.

Have you heard any reactions from other gay people who grew up in Liberty City?

Yeah. I think everybody in Liberty City, regardless of sexual identification, feels proud to have a movie that's about where we live, and that deals with the issues that we deal with, but doesn't kind of make a miserable portrait of it. I mean, it still looks like a beautiful place. You still see that there are good people there, and people who may do things that are less desirable, but who also have good hearts. I think that's very important.

Was there a Kevin in your own life?

Yeah.

Did the real story mirror pretty closely the Kevin in the movie then?

Well, the third chapter doesn't, for sure. But there are portions of it that are exactly like our interactions, yeah.

 Ashton Sanders in "Moonlight." "Moonlight" - A24 / IMDB

And have you been in touch with him? Does he know that the film is about to come out?

Nope.

Do you expect to hear from him?

(Laughs) Nope.

Do you have a favorite gay-themed film?

Most recently I loved "Tangerine," that's sort of a favorite of mine. But my all-time favorite movie is "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

What are you working on now?

I mostly teach at the University of Miami. I started a summer program for young high school women in the arts. I've been doing that mostly, just trying to create more opportunities for young storytellers to really get involved and engaged in the arts as early as I did.

 Trevante Rhodes in "Moonlight." "Moonlight" - A24 / IMDB

Have you had offers to write more original screenplays?

Yeah, but right now my focus is mainly on "Moonlight" and hoping we can reach as wide an audience as possible. It's thrilling to get that chance. To be able to tell this very intimate story on such a large canvas feels really great, and it's really exciting.

Do you plan to continue to tell gay stories in your work, or do you even think of it in those terms?

I mean, I think my record speaks for itself. I don't think I've created any play that doesn't have at least one queer character in it.

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