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Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne brought a shared DePaul history to ‘Native Son’

Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne met at DePaul University before starring together in "Native Son."

Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne met at DePaul University before starring together in "Native Son." | HBO

When Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne met, it wasn’t as the actors were preparing to play a young couple on HBO’s “Native Son,” set on Chicago’s South Side.

It was in Lincoln Park, at DePaul University, when Sanders was a freshman and Layne a junior.

“She was like this goddess that everyone would talk about at The Theater School,” Sanders said.

The two had mutual friends but never were classmates due to the age gap. Still, Layne said there was a star quality about Sanders even at 17.

“I just remember thinking, ‘He’s just so cool, he just has this special kind of aura about him,’ ” Layne said.

So when the two linked up for “Native Son” — a film centered around Sanders’ Bigger Thomas, an Afro-punk 20-year-old who gets a gig chauffeuring a wealthy white family — they were immediately at ease.

“It worked a lot in our favor because we already had the basis of a friendship to work from,” said Layne, who plays Bessie, Bigger’s ride-or-die.

“It’s been very cool to have somebody come up with you that you kind of knew before this,” said Sanders, now 23. “Especially with ‘Native Son.’ It’s heavy material … But you know it was fun to collaborate and be able to do a project like this with her.”

Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in “Native Son.” | HBO

In this adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Bigger “represents a black man’s fear and anxieties,” and he radiates with dread as impulsive decisions make his trajectory seem more and more doomed.

Despite being published nearly 80 years ago, the crux of the story still rings all too familiar.

“So many things that we witness Big going through are things that young black men and even young black women are going through as well,” Layne said.

“We’re still faced with the same issues that Richard Wright had written about in his book with being black in America,” Sanders said.

REVIEW: Two strong stars enhance a ‘Native Son’ updated for now

Even before “Native Son,” Layne and Sanders were looking out for one another and cheering each other on.

After Sanders’ career was catapulted in 2016 by his heart-wrenching portrayal of Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” Layne scored an audition with the star director for a role in “If Beale Street Could Talk” and texted her friend for his advice.

“I just told her to be prepared, to know the work always and to just be herself, that’s all you can do … the rest follows. But it all felt like it was supposed to happen, all of this,” said Sanders, now filming a series about the inception of the Wu-Tang Clan for Hulu.

Since being in “Beale Street,” Layne’s career also has taken off. She’s about to start work on Netflix’s “The Old Guard,” an action movie based on the comic book. She stars opposite Charlize Theron.

Now 27, Layne credits her eight years in Chicago for a lot of her success.

“There’s a certain type of realness that’s in the city and even in the arts community,” she said. “I am really thankful that I … got my start professionally in the Chicago theater scene. I just feel like we’re committed to realness and preparation in a way that’s really special in that arts community. That’s something that I carry with me in all of my roles and my whole career.”

Ashton Sanders plays Bigger Thomas in “Native Son,” set in Chicago. | HBO

Sanders spent two years in Chicago before leaving DePaul to play Chiron. He said the time was transformative and informed the way he played Bigger.

“Chicago was definitely where I would say I kind of grew into a man,” he said. “Chicago is supposed to be one of the most segregated cities. You can definitely feel that when you’re there. So a lot of growth through that, I would say.”

In the movie, Bigger — with his green hair and painted leather jacket — also is confronted with growing up, and he struggles about what he should be doing in life. As he makes the wrong choices, Bessie is forced to decide between what’s best for her and for her relationship.

“This is a very controversial film,” Sanders said. “And as long as I’m stirring up this type of conversation, I did my job.”