Bird Box, Trevante Rhodes
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Credit: Netflix

Netflix's Bird Box star Trevante Rhodes had to figure out how to act while blind

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Dec 18, 2018, 5:00 PM EST

If you were mapping out Trevante Rhodes' path from relative unknown circa 2016 to starring opposite Sandra Bullock in a Netflix original movie a mere two years later, it's not hard to connect the dots from his breakout role as the adult Chiron in the Oscar-winning drama Moonlight, the type of part that puts you squarely on casting directors' radars. But according to the actor, the experience he picked up along the way in movies such as The Predator and 12 Strong proved just as crucial when it came to preparing him for the upcoming sci-fi/thriller Bird Box.

Based off Josh Malerman's 2014 novel, Bird Box comes with a plot tailor-made for a movie adaptation; in fact, the film rights were optioned before the book even came out. Its post-apocalyptic premise is equal parts The Happening, The Road, and yes, A Quiet Place. After mankind's been devastated by unknown creatures that cause anyone who sees them to immediately go insane and commit suicide, a reluctant mother must navigate a surging river to lead a pair of children to safety, all while blindfolded.

But while an unseen enemy works well on the page, it's a little trickier to dramatize on screen. How do you depict an entity so personal — we're told it takes the shape of its victims' greatest fear — and so terrifying it causes instant madness? The answer director Susanne Bier ultimately settled on was, quite simply, you don't.

As a result, the audience is never actually shown the mysterious beings. And neither were the actors charged with reacting to them in abject horror, according to Rhodes, who plays Tom, one of a small group of survivors who takes refuge in a nearby house alongside a pregnant Malorie (Sandra Bullock) after the initial wave of attacks. That leaves much of the heavy lifting to audiences' imaginations, and the acting abilities of Bird Box's cast, an impressive ensemble that includes names like John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Lil Rel Howery, BD Wong, and Rosa Salazar.

Which was just fine by Rhodes, who told SYFY WIRE that he vastly preferred being asked to act opposite nothing at all versus the more traditional, CGI-heavy sci-fi movie tradition of having a tennis ball on a stick for a scene partner. "Coming off The Predator, where we're looking at a little tennis ball? This was kinda easy, to be real," he says with a laugh. "Because it just puts it all in your imagination.

"For an actor, that's amazing. Because it's all performance."

Though Rhodes confirmed that the creative team at least discussed the possibility of showing the creatures: "We talked for a minute about what it would look like. But it just didn't work."

It's not just the creatures that Bird Box withholds either. The script (from Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer) also resists giving concrete answers to the who, what, where, how, and, most crucially, why? of it all. Theories are raised, sure, but no real explanation is given for the sudden worldwide invasion. And that's exactly how Rhodes wanted it. "The less I know, the better, really. I like to just leave everything to my imagination. As much as I can," he says, adding that the lack of answers made it easier for him to lean into the inherent terror of the premise and just react.

In essence, Rhodes and the rest of the cast was flying blind. Quite literally, actually — thanks to the blindfolds the group quickly realizes they'll have to wear in order to leave the boarded-up house for supplies. Watching the actors stumble around blindly through a supermarket parking lot, it sure seems like it's not just acting either; that their vision is genuinely limited.

"Properly. For sure," Rhodes says, laughing. "Nothing getting in... Except for when we were with the kids." Then production would remove a thin layer so he and Bullock could see "a little bit," for safety purposes.

In order to prep for the unorthodox bit of method acting, and make sure they weren't bumping into the set, or one another, or the camera, the cast went through a blindfold training session. "We had a blind man come in and provide some insight to how to maneuver around," he says. "Once you get comfortable, it was functional. I don't want to say easy, but it was functional."

Rhodes estimated it took him about a week and a half to two weeks to get to that point. "Where you would start sensing if you were by something," he says. Bullock, on the other hand, picked it up a little quicker. "I think Sandy just picks up stuff quickly. But she also had more time. Just saying," he adds, laughing. "She had to do weeks in the blindfold."

That included full days in a rowboat on a freezing cold river with two five-year-olds, which Rhodes jokes isn't something he envies her for.

Bird Box cast

Credit: Netflix

Beyond just making for a fun on-set anecdote and mini team building exercise though, being asked to emote while blindfolded presented an interesting acting challenge for the Bird Box cast. The eyes are one of the biggest tools an actor relies on to communicate emotion, Rhodes explains. And taking that away is a little like asking the former collegiate track and field star to run the 100-meter dash with one leg tied behind his back. (Just watch Rhodes' performance in Moonlight if you want to see how much the actor is able to convey with a mere look.)

"To take that away, you have to utilize everything else that much more succinctly," he says. "It was exciting to try and convey a story without that." Part of that meant leaning more on body language, but for Rhodes, it all came back to being as honest to the character, and to the scene, as possible. "Just doing the work to be the person. And then when you get in the space, just be present and be honest," he said of how he approached those moments. "And hopefully it conveys."

That effort to make this fantastical sci-fi premise feel as real and grounded as possible extended to the set too. The house the cast is stuck in for weeks on end wasn't built on a soundstage; it's a real home in Pacific Palisades, California. The windows were covered with newspaper and the cast was sequestered inside, which helped ratchet up the sense of cabin fever, Rhodes says. "It provided this really unique vibe that was necessary to keep us all kind of anxious."

It also forces Rhodes' character ample opportunity to step up and mediate between Bullock's Malorie and Malkovich's Douglas, who's in full-blown every-man-for-himself mode from the jump. Of the several notable alterations Heisserer and Bier made to Malerman's novel, one was rewriting Tom to be an ex-soldier rather than an ex-school teacher. Which, real talk, was probably more of a logistical consideration than anything. Coming off The Predator, his Calvin Klein ads, and 12 Strong — for which even Thor himself was openly envious of Rhodes' abs — Rhodes doesn't exactly have a stereotypical teacher's body.

Plus, his experience filming two straight movies where he played Iraq War vets helped him ground the character. "Doing those other two films at least aesthetically built who he was," Rhodes says, aka someone who knows what he's doing around a gun, which certainly comes in handy.

Bird Box — Trevante Rhodes and Sandra Bullock

Credit: Netflix

But while Tom's former occupation may have been altered for the movie version, his core values remained unchanged. Whereas Malorie is a natural pessimist, so unsentimental she refuses to name the children (calling them simply "Boy" and "Girl"), Rhodes' Tom is unabashedly sensitive, remaining relentlessly optimistic and supportive even in the face of the apocalypse. He's the glue that holds the house, and Malorie, together.

When it's mentioned how refreshing it is to see that kind of male hero portrayed on-screen, without a hint of toxic masculinity, Rhodes just shrugs. "To me, that's just a good person. A person that does what they need to do in order to keep everybody in good spirits," he says. "Life is hard, for everybody. So you just want to try your best.

"To me, that's just how a person should be. Me and my friends, honestly, that's just how we are. That's how we were raised." It's a mindset he attributes to his Southern upbringing, and his own mom. And for all the thrills and that sci-fi premise, Bird Box is, at its heart, a film about motherhood, and what it means to attempt to raise a family in a terrifying world.

If that sounds a bit like A Quiet Place, you wouldn't be the first to point it out. And there are certainly similarities beyond the post-apocalyptic setting and sense-based, high-concept premise. That said, Bier has gone on record about how this film is more of a thriller than straight-up horror movie. And Rhodes agreed, saying that emphasis was what drew him to Bird Box in the first place. "The fact that it was, to me, something that subverted genre," he says. "In the sense that it was this amazing thrill ride, but it still had heart."

"It is, to me, in many senses, a 'full' film. Because it gives you action, it gives you everything." And as he attempts to chart his career post-Moonlight, that's what Rhodes is looking for in all his future projects, regardless of genre. Whether they're drama, sci-fi, thriller, or, like Bird Box, somewhere in-between.