Alton Mason, hailed as the most exciting male model since Tyson Beckford, can’t help but stand out. And though his family is from Nebraska, he was raised all over Europe. Speaking of his time abroad, he explains, "it definitely developed my muscle to be present and to cherish the people that are in front of me for as long as I can. And maybe that just made me a people person. It also influenced my style, and the way I talk, the way I walk, the way I dress, because I get to pay attention to all these different cultures that I learned from and really apply it to myself."
Mason studied dance and acting in L.A., but his life really changed when he was scouted to model and landed Kanye West’s Yeezy as his very first show in 2016. Pre-pandemic, Mason, the son of a model and a professional basketball player, caught all the eyes. In 2019, he became the first Black male model to walk in a Chanel show. He then went on to Gucci, Versace, Puma, Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Telfar. Now the 24-year-old who also sings is generating raves for his brief, but highly memorable performance as Little Richard in Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious film Elvis.
EBONY caught up with Mason to chat about the ins and outs of playing the trailblazing, flamboyant singer who was imitated by many iconic musicians before getting his respectful due.
EBONY: How did you end up playing Little Richard?
Alton Mason: I had flown to Australia to receive Model of the Year at the Man of the Year Awards, and Baz was receiving the Icon of the Year. I remember Baz giving his acceptance speech after mine. In my speech, I had talked about fear and how overcoming it was so important to me. I remember going to thee after-party afterwards, dancing and celebrating. I was in my bag. At the party, Baz was speaking to my mother, and I was like "what is my mom doing over there? What's going on?" He then comes over to me, and he was like, "I loved your speech. I love the way you move. Do you sing?" And I replied, "yeah, I sing. I come from a generation of singers. Like Mahalia Jackson is my great, great, great aunt.’ And he's like, "oh, Mahalia Jackson! Where’s your family from?" And I said that my mom’s from Nebraska and my dad's from Shreveport, Louisiana. He then said he wanted me to come by his theatre the next day—that he might have something for me. The next thing you know I walk into his theatre and, he's playing "Tutti Frutti" and asked me if I would be up for it, and I said yes. It’s kind of like the role found me in a way. Like Baz found me. Little Richard chose me. I’m just so thankful for his trust, for his vision.
What strikes you most about Little Richard?
How similar we were in many ways, and then how different in a lot of ways. What struck me the most is the process of developing empathy for the time he was in, the battle of the push and pull with sexuality, performing, people stealing his music and him not being credited; but also, the passion of bringing a unique sound, of being original and being recognized for that. Those are also qualities that I got to align with, and I tapped into myself to play Little Richard in this movie. And those qualities, those attributes, [you see many of those] in musicians today. So to learn where it started from and to learn where it stemmed from was a beautiful ritual for me and a beautiful learning experience. Because when I think of Prince, when I think of Childish Gambino, Andre 3000, you look back and that’s Little Richard—that door for people to be expressive and fearless. I kind of just studied his interviews, his background and applied it. And I think, what he was battling during that time is the reason why he was such a great performer. The reason why he sang the way he did was not only [because he played]the piano, but [because] he also played the saxophone. So, when you hear his voice, his cadence, his breathwork, that comes from that.
What was your reaction seeing the film?
I got to see the first premiere, in Cannes. Thinking about it is making me jump over my words because this is all so surreal to me. But I remember when I came on the screen, the audience started clapping after my performance. And that just brought me to tears because this is my first time, this is my first film, and I really wanted to not only make the audience proud but also do justice to Little Richard and his family.