Late in the new movie Moonlight, two men sit facing each other in a diner booth. One or two other patrons of this Florida hole-in-the-wall mill about, but we watch this pair, their faces, as a song pours out of the jukebox.

“Hello stranger,” the woman in the song goes. “It seems so good to see you back again. How long has it been?”

Each man says nothing with their words but their eyes speak in paragraphs. They stare at each other as the music plays and we, the audience, are left paralyzed by their faces.

It is exceptional acting, rare acting, and it’s moments like these that make Moonlight one of the year’s best films (read our review here). In that scene, Trevante Rhodes plays Chiron, the movie’s main character, and Andre Holland is his childhood friend, Kevin. Both actors were recently in Washington and sat down with The Diamondback to talk about the film.

DBK: Both of you were in such a unique position in this movie because it’s told in three parts and you were just in act three. I could see the younger versions of both of these characters in your faces but how much did you pay special attentions to the young versions of your character in parts one and two? Or did you just try and start with a clean slate to create who this man is at this point in his life?

Trevante Rhodes: Well we wanted to get an idea of … the younger version, but Barry [Jenkins, the film’s director] didn’t allow us to do that. He forbid it, actually. He didn’t want us to mimic the younger versions or anything like that. He really wanted to depict how we change drastically throughout our lives by picking three specific points in these people’s lives. He did that in choosing three different actors. I personally think it was the most ingenious decision. It was really about capturing the essence of who the person was as opposed to us looking or acting alike.

DBK: I actually first heard about this movie a while ago because you (Andre) did a podcast with Andy Greenwald about your work on (the Cinemax show) The Knick and I’m a huge fan, so I was listening to that and at the end of that podcast you said you were working on this movie Moonlight, and it was something you sounded so excited about. So how early on could you tell that this film was going to be different?

Andre Holland: Yeah when I first read it I knew. I knew it was going to be special. Because I read a lot of things, man, and most of it you read the first 20 or 30 pages and then you kind of fall asleep and then you read a few more and it’s like, ‘C’mon let’s get to the point.’

And I usually read with a notebook beside and take a few notes like, ‘Okay, this scene doesn’t work because of this,’ or, ‘I think it should say this,’ and by the end I look at the notes I’ve made and ask, ‘Well, do I really want to have all of those discussions to try and fight for these things?’ But then I read this script and I didn’t have a single thing about it to say. I just thought, ‘This is exactly as it should be.’

And then Tarell [McCraney, the playwright whose work In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue the movie is based on], I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: Terrell is my favorite playwright. I’ve known about his work for a long time and he uses language in a way that nobody else that I know does. He’s a young black boy from the Pork ‘N’ Bean Projects in Miami and I put him up there with Shakespeare, with Oscar Wilde, with the best of them. He’s on that level in my opinion. So I’ll do anything that he invites me to be a part of.

DBK: Trevante, in so much of your performance I was stunned by just your facial acting. Just subtle changes in your countenance said so much. How much of that was you trying to react to the moment, and how much of it was Barry telling you, ‘Okay try and look like this’?

Trevante Rhodes: The wonderful thing about Barry Jenkins is that he lets you live. He doesn’t say I want you to do this. He just let us be, in the space. When I booked the role I called him to ask about certain characteristics and he told me, “I wrote them and now I’m washing my hands of them. He’s for you. Any and everything you want to do — he’s yours. I’m going to be there to help you stay within the realm of where we need to be but this space is for you guys.” So there was never a moment where he said ‘Look like this.’ We just understand that [Barry] is someone that likes to linger and he gives us free reign to pre- and post- the scenes to get into it. A little improv here or there. And he would just tell us, ‘I’m in your grill right now so make it count.’

The actors I admire the most are the ones that don’t really have to say anything but you get everything you have to get, just from a look or whatever it may be. That’s the best acting. So to have a director who put that much faith in us to where he put us in a position to do that is huge.

DBK: This is a movie about how the younger versions of ourselves can shape us, and since I’m from a college paper I sometimes ask: What were you both like in college and how do you think that shaped the actor you are now or how you approached this movie?

Andre Holland: In college I was terribly shy. I was in an acting program at Florida State University, and I had come from Alabama so I just never felt like I was good enough or smart enough or talented enough, so I felt like I had to scrap and fight to earn my place. But shy is the big thing.

I think I still am shy and probably always will be an introspective kind of person. But I think that’s one of the reasons why I love acting so much is because it gives me an opportunity to let go of that and dive into somebody else’s experience.

Trevante Rhodes: For me, I was a college athlete. [Rhodes ran Track & Field at the University of Texas]. I think being an athlete you have to have this kind of persona of tough. And we were good so success was this thing that was always there. And in the movie, Chiron has Juan as this embodiment of success. That’s what winning is and succeeding is. I’ve always been able to put what I think success is in my mind and reach for it. So the fact that Chiron did the same thing, putting Juan up on a pedestal, I can relate.

Questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.