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‘Native Son’ Star Ashton Sanders Was the Most Unpredictable Actor of Matthew Libatique’s Career

Rashid Johnson's modern-day Bigger Thomas is the perfect marriage of Sanders' bold performance and Libatique's moving camera.

Ashton Sanders in "Native Son"

Ashton Sanders in “Native Son”

Matthew Libatique/HBO

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Matthew Libatique’s camera has captured kinetic performances ranging from Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” to Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born.” He’s even followed the unpredictable movements of Kobe Bryant and Mike Tyson. However, he said he’s never encountered a performer quite as unique and raw as Ashton Sanders, the star of HBO’s “Native Son.”

“He moves unlike anybody else I’ve ever put a lens to,” said the Oscar-nominated cinematographer. “I would nonchalantly take photographs of him and I would just look at them and say, ‘Nothing’s a right angle, nothing’s straight.’ In the best possible way, he’s just un-level.”

And it’s true: You can’t keep your eyes off Sanders as Bigger Thomas. The lanky “Moonlight” actor’s mesmerizing movements capture both the vulnerability and masculine energy of his afro-punk character in director Rashid Johnson’s modern adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1939 novel.

“I come from a performing-arts background and was trained to feel the character in my body,” said Sanders. “I’m not going to say it’s intentional, honestly, but the way that I approach my characters I guess they all have a specific, particular way of moving in life.”

Johnson didn’t want his modern-day Bigger to necessarily be physically defined as the imposing character in Wright’s book. He wanted his character to also embody a sense of anxiety he believed people, especially African Americans, feel in the present moment. The director saw Sanders as being the rare performer who could embody this dichotomy.

Ashton Sanders and Rashid Johnson on the set of "Native Son."

Ashton Sanders, Rashid Johnson, and Nick Robinson on the set of “Native Son.”

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

“There’s something about his vulnerability that needed to be present,” said Johnson. “The way that Ashton, not only in his physical presence as a person because of how thin he is, but because of his sensitivity, I always saw him in the role. Then his ability to turn on this intense and aggressive masculine energy — it was that dichotomy we were trying to find. Throughout the performance, he was constantly asking me, ‘Is this right?’ and I just had to constantly tell him, ‘You have to trust me on this one. We don’t have a choice. It’s you and me and Matty.’ It was this triangle.”

Libatique is renowned for his ability to match the rhythm and emotion of a scene with his camera. Whether it’s the handheld subjective fright of bearing witness to the world crumbling around Jennifer Lawrence in Aronofsky’s “mother!,” or the sure-footed steadicam bravado of Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man,” Libatique’s camera dials into the pulse of a film.

"Native Son"
“Native Son”

Johnson and Libatique were mesmerized by the way Sanders moved and wanted to preserve as much of it as possible. Part of the challenge, but also the intrigue, was Sanders’ own relationship with the camera. “Ashton, in an interesting way, is quite aloof as an actor, in that he doesn’t naturally face the camera as often as you would imagine,” said Johnson. “He doesn’t perform to the camera. He just lives within this sense of rhythm he’s chasing, so there was this kind of cat-and-mouse thing that was happening at times, where Matty was trying to find him.”

Johnson, who photoboarded the entire film, often called for Bigger to be captured in a medium shot using an anamorphic lens. This created a widescreen effect, which allowed a variety of landscapes to inform his compositions. Libatique, often using Movi rather than steadicam, learned to not chase Sanders. Although the young actor’s movement wasn’t always predictable, he had a strong sense of frame.

"Native Son"

“Native Son”

HBO

“It’s almost lyrical with him. You know he’s coming back,” said Libatique. “You need to trust that the man’s gonna make the composition happen within the stage setup. That’s when I geeked out, sort of cameraman-way, it’s just kind of the most amazing thing ever just to watch this thing transpire in front of you. He’s like a boomerang. He’ll just slide from one side of the frame, but he’ll come back.”

Both Sanders and Johnson believe Libatique’s intuitive camera is what allowed them to reach boldly for in their interpretation of Bigger. To play such a complex character, Sanders needed that flexibility of movement.

“Bigger is living in a world where he has all these hopes, dreams, aspirations, but also anxieties of being a black man, and anxieties of how the world sees him, of being different, of being other, not only within the world, but his own community,” said Sanders. “He’s obviously comfortable with himself, but we as people are vulnerable in a way. So in the most authentic way, I wanted to showcase that.”

Ashton Sanders and Bill Camp (as Mr. Dalton) in "Native Son"

Ashton Sanders and Bill Camp (as Mr. Dalton) in “Native Son”

Matthew Libatique/HBO

For the cinematographer, it was remarkable to watch how Sanders allowed those complexities to physically reveal themselves. “I love the scene where he first meets Mr. Dalton,” said Libatique. “There’s parts of that performance where he’s unmistakably him, but his tempo’s a little quicker, his mannerisms are more innocent. When he’s with his friends, everything is completely at his tempo. He’s in control of who he is and who he wants to be, whereas he can’t let his guard down when he’s dealing with the other part of society.”

As Sanders chose to interact with various characters, Libatque said he learned to take his cue. “All those choices felt very real to me,” he said. “Beyond his physicality, those subtle choices are successes because they’re relatable.”

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