Rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr. is bringing the grit of human nature to the big screen.
Considering how quick he is (in speech, wit, movement—you name it), it’s a wonder that Kelvin Harrison Jr. is also capable of such profound self-reflection. While we talked, the 25-year-old actor and New Orleans native displayed an astonishing ability to merge effervescence with intellect. That combination allows him to portray characters with rare frankness and depth, as he proved with his breakout role as Travis in the horror mystery It Comes at Night—which saw him nominated for a 2017 Gotham Independent Film Award—and his role as socially conscious teen Zyrick in the Sundance favorite Monsters and Men, a politically and racially charged drama about the aftermath of a police shooting. His most recent turns include roles in the critically acclaimed films The Wolf Hour, a drama set during New York’s 1977 Summer of Sam; Luce, a psychological drama that finds him in the titular role, playing a former Eritrean child soldier reconciling his violent past in American suburbs; and festival favorite Waves, called “transformative” by Variety, which will hit theaters this November. It’s a lineup that has given the rising star opportunities to work alongside film veterans like Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth—and the list keeps expanding. We sat down to talk about overcoming feelings of inadequacy; the real-life playlists he makes for his characters; and the arduous process he undergoes to accurately depict race, masculinity, and violence on the big screen.
You’re about to present two films at Sundance, for the second year in a row. Is this a good work pace for you?
I think this pace is helping me grow to be a better actor at a faster pace. Coming from New Orleans, we don’t get the same kind of opportunities. I got to work with some of my favorite actors in It Comes at Night and Monsters and Men, so after those I was like, Oh my God, I’ve done it all! But of course, I kept auditioning, and the work kept coming, which is great. Obviously, I love what I do, and I’ve been so fortunate to work with the best in the game.
Your two major films last year, All Rise and Monsters and Men, were similar in terms of the issues they were addressing: race in the criminal justice system and the Black Lives Matter movement. This year’s films, Luce and The Wolf Hour, veer into psychological thriller territory. What’s the transition between projects been like?
I did Monsters and Men, Luce and The Wolf Hour back-to-back with no breaks in between. I was super-excited about Monsters and Men, and had time to get into Zyrick’s headspace: [He was] a baseball player from a single-parent home, struggling but optimistic. Then I started doing my prep work for Luce while I was still playing Zyrick. I was researching and reading a ton—like Black Skin, White Masks [the 1952 book on race and identity by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon]—learning about Eritrea, and watching documentaries about child soldiers and their post-war recovery process. I had to be really careful not to let the voice and mindset of Luce bleed into and overpower Zyrick’s character. To help me with that, I started making playlists for each character—one for Zyrick, to keep me in his headspace, and one for Luce, which was obviously very different.
Speaking of Zyrick, in the second scene of Monsters and Men, he’s getting frisked by police on his way home. Your character only speaks a few words in this scene, but the effect is very powerful—his fear is palpable. What do you do to prepare for a scene like that?
Knowing a scene like that is coming up, you try not to put so much pressure on it. At the same time, I had been looking at the articles, videos, and stories about Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and other young black men who were killed unjustifiably. That really helped ground me. It brought me back to my own experiences as a young, black person, the moments when I was in real fear. I remembered how powerful they were, how scary and confusing, and I just sat in that—I was present with it. I had to get out of my head and just get real.
You play a musician in your upcoming project, Covers. You come from a family of musicians and are a musician yourself. Has working on this new film sparked any memories from growing up around music?
Music is in my blood. When I was young, around 10 years old, I auditioned for American Idol and a few other things that never worked out. I didn’t talk much about those things, I guess because I was ashamed. I thought I wasn’t good enough, or maybe it was daunting, trying to live up to my father’s talent. But being around these amazing producers and musicians has reminded me that music isn’t about all that. It’s about what you have to share with others. In that way, it’s just like acting: It’s about figuring out what you need to do to break down facades and let the real you shine through. That’s been the most beautiful thing about this experience.
You mentioned playing Luce earlier. Because so much of the tension in the film is about keeping the audience in the dark about whether Luce is an upstanding kid or a sociopath, it seems like a real challenge of the role would be maintaining that ambiguity about your character. Is it hard for you to turn that off when you leave the set?
We do play with ambiguity in the film, and try to stay away from giving clear answers. We all had to wrestle with our own ideologies and worldviews to some extent. As Kelvin, I had to remember to take a step back and remember that Luce is a 17-year-old boy, with his own history, views and ideologies. I didn’t want to judge him, but I had to be able to disagree with him when I went home, and then become him as an actor the next morning. But yes, I felt challenged by Luce, and you can’t immediately shake that.
Of all the characters you’ve played, which do you have the strongest connection to?
I’ve just loved so many of them. Like, in some parallel universe, they would all be hanging out as friends. Sometimes I have these weird dreams where they all interact, outside of their specific worlds. It’s like they’ve become this group of boys who need love and homes, and I carry them with me. Luce is a tricky one—maybe because he’s so recent—but he’s one character who actually had some agency. At the end of the day, he’s still black in America, and he’s going to have to struggle with that. He does really stick with me, though, because of [the challenges he faced in] transitioning to suburbia after being a child soldier. Beneath his struggle is the pain of having these abilities and wondering whether they’ll ever be fully realized or acknowledged. I really think about that. And I wonder how other 17-year-old black boys and people of color deal with that, and what it means for me and my life—for my kids one day. Those are painful questions, you know. That hurts.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m working on Covers right now, which is a musical rom-com set in L.A. I have [the Epix TV series] Godfather of Harlem, with Forest Whitaker, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Giancarlo Esposito, coming out this fall. I also did a rom-com with Issa Rae called The Photograph that’s being released on Valentine’s Day next year. So yeah, lots to look forward to.