Taking a quick glance at Trevante Rhodes' 2018 filmography, you’d think the actor was a natural born tough guy. There was his Afghanistan-bound U.S. Army sergeant in January’s 12 Strong. His wisecracking, alien-hunting marine in September’s The Predator. And his stoic postapocalyptic hero in Bird Box, which begins streaming on Netflix this Friday.
But it only takes a slightly closer inspection to see the softer, more vulnerable touches Rhodes layers into each of his many badasses. His heroes may look, and act, like roughnecks but Rhodes takes careful steps to humanize what are so often stock caricatures. And he’s captivating enough of a presence to accomplish the trick with no more than a furtive smile, a quiet stare, an unexpectedly hushed line reading.
Perhaps it’s a method he cultivated while filming his breakthrough, Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning drama Moonlight, which cast Rhodes as a drug dealer who fights, then embraces, his same-sex feelings for a childhood friend. Or perhaps the strong-but-soulful duality is a natural extension of Rhodes' own persona. He projects an extraordinarily athletic presence on and off the screen, but he’s almost muted in one-on-one conversation. If there’s further evidence required, visit his Instagram account: a mix of publicity stills, family shots and poetry that’s been written on his iPhone. One recent entry:
some mistake kindness
some let them...
what is weakness?
Rhodes is also humble – not quite willing to cop to any particular method when asked in-person how he mixes the tough and the sincere.
“I guess it’s just about showing full people – that we’re all everything,” the 28-year-old actor says during a recent interview in Toronto. “Being able to convey that honestly onscreen is always the goal, of trying to bring that layer of depth and emotion. That’s why I guess I want to try my hat at everything. Not that I haven’t seen that depth of emotion which I think is honest so far, but it isn’t as prevalent as I’d like.”
Rhodes probably gets his best shot at that, outside of Moonlight, with Bird Box. The film is an odd sell – half postapocalyptic thrill-ride, half sturdy character study. Based on the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, the movie follows a disparate group of survivors adjusting to a world devastated by supernatural forces that, if seen by the naked eye, take the appearance of their victims' greatest fears, causing them to instantly kill themselves. Any time someone has to venture into the outside world – and the plot demands characters do this quite a bit – they wear blindfolds for protection.
The comparisons to this year’s A Quiet Place – in which sound, not sight, was verboten – are unavoidable, even if Malerman’s novel came out four years ago, and Danish director Susanne Bier (In a Better World) offers an intriguing, character-driven approach to what could have been a standard high-concept thriller. This benefits not only lead star Sandra Bullock, who plays the pregnant artist Malorie, but Rhodes' Tom, an alpha male who ends up displaying as much sensitivity as he does gun-wielding grit.
“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to work with creatives who let me live and breathe my characters, and they’ve always been able to find interesting ways to capture that,” says Rhodes, who before signing onto Bird Box only knew Bier from her work on the AMC miniseries The Night Manager. “When I went back and saw her films, I realized what an interesting departure this is for her. And I’m always looking to work with people who are trying to push themselves, like me.”
It is that desire to push himself, physically speaking, that helped propel Rhodes to where he is today – albeit by pure happenstance. While a senior corporate communications student at the University of Texas, Rhodes was spotted by a casting scout during his regular run around the Austin campus. After graduating in 2012, he moved to L.A. and immediately began booking roles, eventually meeting Jenkins and securing the part that would change his life.
“Looking back, Barry cultivated the structure that I have today as a performer,” says Rhodes, who enthusiastically details everything he loves about Jenkins' latest work, If Beale Street Could Talk. “Barry’s one of my best friends now – he’s always helping me catch up on what’s quality, what he’s watching, what I should be watching.”
The desire to play catch-up with Jenkins is partly inspired by Rhodes feeling relatively fresh to the industry – today, acting is a dream, but it was never the dream. In fact, Rhodes spent most of his life holding back from tapping the large reservoir of emotions essential to the craft. As an adult, he couldn’t recall crying until just four years ago.
“Today, I just try to be honest and see what comes. I think that my upbringing more than anything provided some depth and understanding to that,” says Rhodes, who says he was bullied as a kid, and lacked a relationship with his father. “Now, I have an ability to go back and understand it deeper. That 100 per cent provided everything I need today.”
Bird Box begins streaming Dec. 21 on Netflix.