In Chris Eska’s new film The Retrieval – a Civil War era, post-Emancipation morality tale – young teenager Will, played by Ashton Sanders, travels north with his uncle to lure freed man Nate, played by Tishuan Scott, back down south, so that Will’s employer can collect a bounty on Nate’s head. We spoke with Ashton Sanders and Tishuan Scott. Here, Ashton Sanders talks about his transition from stage to screen, about the experience of filming in a commune like setting, and how he got into the mind of a thirteen year old living in 1864. Our review for The Retrieval can be found here, and you can find our interview with Tishuan Scott here.
Martin Keller: You’ve done a good amount of stage acting your whole life, so what was it like going from stage to screen?
Ashton Sanders: It was very difficult. I was fifteen at the time, when I was shooting the film. I didn’t even know what to expect. So, Chris actually had to fly to Los Angeles – Chris Eska, the director – he had to fly to Los Angeles to work with me. His word for me was less. He would say, “Less, less Ashton,” because I was so expressive with my face from doing theater and stage. Because that’s what I knew. But, we were there for eight weeks so I got adjusted to it. It was pretty much the same, just acting is pretty much…yeah it was the same thing. But it was pretty difficult.
I guess because the camera’s going to catch all the nuances and you don’t even realize if you’ve never done it, right.
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
I read that you lived together in a sort of commune and filmed, and wardrobe was making the costumes and aging them all at the same time. Which sounds like a film-making paradise.
I guess you could say that. We were housed in Gonzalez, Texas. So, Tishuan and Keston and I, we were all in one house. Tishuan and I, of course, stayed through the entirety of the film. But when cast members would leave, then other cast members would move into Keston’s room. So we pretty much became a family all in one. And across the street was a huge two-three story house where all the crew was housed and they would cook over there. It was really cool. So, yeah everything was definitely a little community, a little paradise. It was cool though.
Sounds like a good way to do your first onscreen work.
Yeah, yeah, most definitely. It definitely made me more comfortable with working with Tishuan and Keston, because they were so professional. And I learned so much from them on set, because this was my first time doing something of this professionalism. So I was just looking up to them. Keston and Tishuan made it very comfortable for me as well. It was really cool.
And was that helpful in terms of building the intimate relationships you have onscreen with Keston and Tishuan’s characters?
It’s actually funny because Keston and I became really good friends off set. So, looking back on it now and filming, I guess it made me and Keston want to work with each other more because our relationship was like the total opposite of Marcus and Will. Keston and I were always joking around and we were always going places together. He was like my big brother. Tishuan and I, we always had a good relationship. So it was easy to jump in and out of it. We were all just there to do what we had to do. We all knew who our characters were and what our character relationships were. So, we just did our work.
Can you talk a little bit about Will’s relationship with Marcus and Will’s relationship with Nate?
First, I just want to say, it was very difficult for me to put myself in this character’s situation. So, going to rehearsals, Chris kind of helped me establish my relationship with Marcus and with Tishuan. And once we started filming and I finally got it, I think that this film is a film about coming of age and it’s also a film of mentorship. And Will, whether it was good or bad, he got mentorship from both Nate and Marcus. Marcus taught him that, “Yeah life is rough, but you gotta do what you gotta do to live.” And Nate taught him how to be a man and how to be his own man. I think that was very important and that was something that I had to keep with myself as character going into filming. I think that the decision that Will had to make when Marcus died…everything that the audience was seeing on film was authentic for me. Because, I can’t even imagine a thirteen year old boy, 1864, would do at that time, you know.
Talking about that then, what can you bring to Will? You’re coming from such different places and his everyday is completely linked to his survival. How did you prepare for that? How did you take what you knew and brought that to Will?
Well, ok…Let me get my wording right because I know what I want to say. It’s just a lot because it took me a lot to develop this character. Once we started filming, we would have days where we would do rehearsals in the space first. So, first I had to put myself in 1864, but yes, bringing something to the character. I have certain situations in my life that I was able to relate to certain situations that Will was coming from. Not as drastic, of course, because I have never gone through anything as drastic as Will has gone through. But, just as simple as, like an uncle or a father son relationship between me and father when me and my father would disagree. I would be able to tie that in to me and Marcus. Marcus was also a big brother to Will as well. Me and my brother are very close, but we also have a strange relationship and we’re always going at it. But he’s always the big brother. He’s always establishing that. So I was able to tie that in as well. Tishuan and I…Tishuan would always talk about W.E.B. DuBois. And he would always share all of these things that he researched going into the character. And he would always share them with me. It would just be like, “Oh, I get it now. I get it now.” So, going into filming I was able to take the black history I knew, the black history that I learned, and my own personal experiences and put it into the character to develop with.
I think the movie is exceptional, in that, while the Civil War and slavery are important parts of the film, the movie’s so personal that in some ways it seems like it could be happening anywhere.
And the moral wrestling with that these characters are doing. I think that’s definitely one of the film’s strengths. Watching it, it’s pretty emotional and you can see how people would be making these types of decisions all the time.
Thank you. Thank you. It really means a lot. Like I said before, everything that the audience is watching was very authentic and I wanted the audience to get that from me and from my performance. It was my first time being on film so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how I was going to look. I didn’t know what it was going to look like. But I was just trusting Chris and trusting the production and I’m really glad that the audience is taking in the message and taking in our performances and really relating to them and connecting to them. It really means a lot to me as an actor. I know that it means a lot to everybody involved in the production. So thank you again.
You seem to talk more about Marcus and, as you said, that may have to do with your off set relationship with Keston. But Will’s relationship with Nate is sort of at the heart of the movie. Can you talk about that relationship?
Well, about Tishuan and I about our relationship…me and Tishuan have a…well we all are friends. We all have learned to love each other so whether it was me and Tishuan having a relationship or me and Keston having a relationship, I think that all three of us having that bond really helped us all in order to pull what we needed in our scenes. I love Tishuan. He’s a close friend of mine. We talk all the time. We were actually just at a private screening on Saturday. He’s a funny guy. I think that the sense of community on this set was really important because this film has a theme and it’s showing people history that’s not in the books, that people have never seen before. So it was very important to have a sense of community and brothership and family and I think that we all got that from each other, living with each other. I can say that for both Tishuan and I and both Keston and I. So I hope I answered your question.
Also while you were in this community setting of filming, the locales are empty and vacant. There’s wide sweeping plains and I know that a lot of it was filmed in state parks. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that as well. What’s it like to be out there?
I love the environment. It was really interesting because I come from Los Angeles, so I’m a city boy born and raised and of course we spent the majority of the film outside and we would do long nights. We did a night where we were shooting literally from, I think it was 6pm to 6am. Just for certain lighting for the sun. So we were doing scenes between until the sun came up. It really helped me as a character, especially wearing the material the people at the time were wearing. We had heaters but I was filming the majority of the time and I didn’t have time for a heater most of the time. So, I was really feeling what these people were feeling while at the same time I had to act like I used to this while saying my lines on screen. So it really helped me understand what these people were going through. And the scenery was beautiful. The cinematography in this film is stunning. Yasu Tanida did a fantastic job with the cinematography in this film. I’m blown away from it all the time. Just seeing it…just being there in the space is mind blowing too. Seeing the snow, the fresh snow falling here and walking on the fresh snow for the first time. It was my first time being in a lot of the environments that we filmed in. It was definitely an experience within itself.
Yeah, it sounds like it must have been pretty jarring.
It was beautiful man. It was beautiful.