‘After Waves I needed to get therapy and I needed to do a rom-com’

Kelvin Harrison Jr on the excitement of working on a movie about strong women

He’s modest about it, but Kelvin Harrison Jr is one of Hollywood’s hottest properties. In recent months the 25-year-old has contributed two astounding central performances: as an adopted high schooler struggling with his Eritrean heritage in Luce, and as a teen struggling with parental and societal expectations in Trey Edward Shults’s Waves. It’s been intense.

“Being a young African-American actor and getting those types of roles where we are really exploring race and privilege and power and how it works in America and individuality: I took it really seriously,” he says. “Too seriously at moments. I would go home and just kind of sit for a while. After Waves I needed to get therapy and I needed to do a rom-com. So I did.”

That rom-com is The High Note, a musical set against the LA scene, chronicling the complicated relationship between an older superstar (played by Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross) and her assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), a dogsbody who dreams of being a record producer. Keeping it light was a new frontier for Independent Spirit nominee Harrison Jr.

“The High Note was such a gift for me because it reminded me that love can be beautiful,” he says. “And that music is beautiful and that people are really exciting and dreams can come true. I know how cliched and cheesy that sounds.”

A career girl movie in the mold of Working Girl or The Devil Wears Prada, The High Note also stars Ice Cube as a no-nonsense manager, and Harrison Jr as an aspiring musician and Maggie’s love interest. Diplo, Eddie Izzard, and Bill Pullman round off the male cast. But it’s left to the female characters – including Zoë Chao as Maggie’s roommate – to test boundaries, test each other and to ponder the music business from the margins.

Being the love interest – particularly the interracial love interest – was part of the appeal for Harrison Jr.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this was that growing up I just didn’t see that,” says the actor. “One of my favourite movies is Hitch but it’s not really about Will Smith falling in love, it’s about him helping other people to fall in love. This type of role in rom-coms is for guys like Ryan Gosling or Justin Timberlake. So for me to be in that space was really exciting. But also to be in a film that is really about these strong intelligent women. And to get to support them. My sisters and my mom are my greatest inspirations in real life. That rang true.”

In all respects, The High Note, which was written by newcomer Flora Greeson and directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night), is part of Hollywood’s charge on lopsided representation. It made for a different kind of set, says Harrison Jr.

“Some of the questions that normally get asked or some of the conflicts that we might deal with – on stuff like intimacy – everything was dealt with that bit smarter,” says the actor. “The romantic relationship happens because they both respect each other so much. That’s what brought them together. I feel like in any other version of this, the relationship would have been because they were hot for each other. So the choices were always better than what I would think the norm would be for this type of movie.”

Over the past year, Harrison Jr has earned rave notices from critics and from his filmmaking collaborators. “I think his performance in this film is charming, grounded and truthful,” says Ganatra. “He makes it look easy but he comes off great because he works so hard on his craft.”

Speaking to The Irish Times earlier this year, Trey Edward Shults, who directed  Harrison Jr in Waves and It Comes at Night, described the actor as “one of my best friends. I love him. He’s a great human being and he’s crazy talented. Hopefully we just get to keep making movies together.”

Harrison Jr grew up in New Orleans; his father is a jazz saxophonist and his mother is a jazz vocalist. They were protective parents who sent Kelvin and his twin sisters to private school and encouraged a great deal of musical practice. Harrison Jr is a vocalist, a pianist and a trumpeter.

He had no idea what he was getting into when, tagging along with a friend, he turned up at a casting call for Ender’s Game. He not only got the job, he consulted Viola Davis, who advised him to take an acting class.

“I didn’t know what a serious actor was, you know?” he recalls. “I wanted to be on the Disney channel. I just wanted to entertain. I want to make music and wear bright colours. And then suddenly I was on the set of 12 Years a Slave. And I’m listening to Alfre Woodard and Steve McQueen and Lupita Nyong’o and the way they spoke about the spiritual aspect of acting and the history that comes with that.”

That's the beauty of the job. It makes you smarter

Leaving behind his life as a jazz prodigy for Hollywood came as a surprise to Kelvin and his parents. His fear of disappointing his father was part of the inspiration for Waves, in which Sterling K Brown chastises his son with the words: “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

“My father was, like: ‘interesting’,” laughs Harrison Jr. “My parents didn’t really understand. They knew they had to give me my space and that eventually it would work out or the money would run out and I’d have to come home. But I needed to do it. I needed to separate myself from what my idea of self was with my family. I made a big leap of faith going to LA. Music is a beautiful way of expressing yourself but it wasn’t the one for me. I needed to find my voice. I found it in acting. And now that I have I can still come back to music again.”

He has often joked about his time as a slave, having followed 12 Years a Slave with Roots and The Birth of a Nation. Other racially charged projects include Monsters and Men and The Photograph.

“When I got to do Birth of a Nation and Roots, I read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass,” he says. “I started reading a lot and educating myself in ways that I never would have been inclined to otherwise. I think that’s the beauty of doing the parts I’ve been doing. I have a perspective I never had before.

“Right now I’m reading James Baldwin and I’m thinking about the ’50s and the intersection between queerness and blackness and privilege and all those things and how they kind of still apply to now. That’s the beauty of the job. It makes you smarter.”

Next up is another history lesson in the form of Aaron Sorkin’s starry dramatisation of The Trial of the Chicago 7, in which Harrison Jr will play the revolutionary socialist Fred Hampton.

“It’s funny because when I first moved to LA, the first script I got from my agent was a script Antoine Fuqua had written about Fred Hampton. And I was really excited about that. I wrote in this journal my grandpa had given me – he just passed away – I will play Fred Hampton. And then four years later it happened. It was such a gift.

“I appreciate now how young he was and his presence and his power. And to do that with Aaron Sorkin, who has such a great understanding of the human experience. And Eddie Redmayne and Sasha Baron Cohen and Frank Langella and Mark Rylance. It was a very exciting process.”

It required 12 Years a Slave to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for Harrison Jr, who was discouraged from watching TV as a child, to realise the significance of the Oscars. Happily, his ongoing film education has kept pace with his career.

“Early on I told a casting director:  I’m really embarrassed because I’m doing all these movies and working with these great actors and I don’t know enough,” he says. “And she said: you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. And that gave me permission to take my time. Because I didn’t like school. I don’t like when stuff is forced on me. I want to be able to willingly participate in my own education.

“So I’m taking one movie at a time. I have a Criterion app on my TV. I love Lynne Ramsay. I just watched some Yorgos Lantimos movies. The other night I watched A Woman Under the Influence. So now I want to watch every Gena Rowlands film.”

The High Note is released on demand from May 29th

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