Kelvin Harrison Jr. is the kind of actor that not many people know, but many people have seen. He’s appeared in lots of films: some big ones (Elvis), some awards-y ones (The Trial Of The Chicago 7), and some small but brilliant ones (Waves). Ask a stranger on the street if they’ve heard of him though and you’ll probably get a blank look. Well, that’s about to change.
It’s about to change because Harrison is going to have a huge year. When we meet, in a posh suite at an even posher central London hotel, he’s jet-lagged because he’s just flown in from Croatia. He’s been out there filming O’Dessa – a megabucks rock opera that also stars Sadie Sink from Stranger Things. Later this year he’s going to play art icon Jean-Michel Basquiat in a biopic, and after that Harrison will be lending his smooth vocals to The Lion King prequel – in which he’ll voice a young version of the villainous Scar. Add to that his already completed projects, including a TV role playing literal Martin Luther King Jr., and Harrison might just be the most booked actor in Hollywood.
“I had a Red Bull earlier,” he quips when we ask how he’s coping. With his hair dyed turquoise, black painted fingernails and steel-toed black boots, he looks every inch an A-lister. “I’m busy, yeah, or tortured,” he grins, a cheeky, movie star grin. “Employment can be torture, but sometimes torture’s good. It depends on how much you’re into it.”
Judging by his sizzling performance in new film Chevalier, Harrison is very into it. He plays Joseph Bologne aka the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, an 18th century composer and violin prodigy whose parents were a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese woman. Bologne’s pioneering achievements – as a revolutionary player, ensemble director and, eventually, military commander – were ultimately erased from the history books by a racist society that never fully accepted him. He is sometimes crudely referred to as ‘the Black Mozart’ but that nickname does Bologne a disservice, as we see in the movie’s opening scene. In it, he challenges Wolfgang Amadeus to an on-stage solo-off and sensationally upstages him in front of the Paris elite. Inspired by Prince and Jimi Hendrix, Harrison’s stockinged showman swaggers across the boards in a puffy white wig, oozing confidence and cool. Fashion choices aside, he’s more raunchy rock and roller than classical virtuoso.
“We were supposed to start filming… but my shoulder was in agony”
“Joseph was, for all intents and purposes, a rock star,” Chevalier director Stephen Williams tells us later. “When we were filming that first sequence, Kelvin leaped off the stage and into the audience, mid-flourish with his violin. He came up with that on the day… It’s just one example of him really understanding what it would be like to be a rock star in that era – and then translating it into physical behaviour.”
This physicality is very important to the character, Harrison says. As well as his musical prowess, Joseph was a skilled dancer, acclaimed equestrian and champion fencer. After American president John Adams visited France in 1779, he called him “the most accomplished man in Europe”. Harrison isn’t quite as alpha as his character – he’s friendlier and much more open to talking about his feelings – but he trained incredibly hard to match Joseph’s strength and bodily presence. So hard, in fact, that he nearly wrecked the movie.
“Listen up ‘cos you’re gonna get the exclusive,” Harrison says, leaning forward and slapping his hands together like a teacher getting ready for storytime. “We were in the middle of pre-production [in the Czech Republic]. We were supposed to start filming next week, but we had to push it because my shoulder was in agony. Even if water hit it in the shower, I screamed like I’d been stabbed in the neck.” Diagnosing him with a fractured collarbone, the on-set doctor explained that the break was actually three weeks old. With his help, Harrison pieced together what had happened. “I remembered going to the gym [during pre-production] and I was lifting but I didn’t understand kilograms [the US uses pounds and ounces]. So I was sitting there being like, ‘Why can’t I bench the same that I’ve been benching all this time?’ I lifted up the barbell and it slammed down on me. I just lay there for, like, five minutes in shock.”
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in ‘Chevalier’. CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures
Despite several heavy lumps of metal falling on his chest, Harrison shrugged off the (then-manageable) pain and continued his rigorous Chevalier prep. He studied the history of the era, he learned to swordfight from the pros, and he practiced violin for six hours every day. Weirdly it was the fiddle – and not the fencing – that did him in. “Most violinists nowadays have a little cushion between the violin [and the shoulder it rests on],” he explains, “but because of the period the film is set in, I didn’t.” Without that safeguard, the continuous pressure on Harrison’s already fractured collarbone damaged it further. He’d been practicing so passionately that he’d played himself into a sling.
To understand why Harrsion was willing to push himself so far, we need to go back to his roots. Born in culture-steeped New Orleans to successful musician parents, he grew up surrounded by excellence. He learned multiple instruments from a young age (violin, trumpet, piano) and was encouraged to get involved in the creative community. People like world-famous pianist Harry Connick Jr. were family friends, so he didn’t lack for inspiring role models either. He was talented and had a good work ethic. When he was older, it was assumed Harrison would go into the family business. The only problem was that he didn’t want to.
“Acting is like a grocery list – you’ve gotta get the right ingredients”
“My dad always said, ‘We have these connections. We have the resources. Our entire family is in the business. Why would you wanna go do something else?’, but I didn’t feel like I was good at it,” Harrison says, with a sigh. “Technically I was able to do it… I got the scholarships, I got the grants, but I wasn’t telling a story. I didn’t know how to say anything through an instrument.” So one day he stopped. Just like that. And decided to be an actor. He says he “always knew” deep down that he’d be one eventually, he just didn’t know how. His previous attempts had consisted of printing a pixelated photo of himself on flimsy copy paper and mailing it to casting agents in a manila envelope. Hardly a polished CV. Unsurprisingly, “nothing happened”. It wasn’t until his senior year at high school that the opportunity to prove he’d made the right choice arrived.
“My friend came in one day and said he’d heard this sci-fi movie was looking for extras,” remembers Harrison. “So I went and auditioned.” The film turned out to be Gavin Hood’s 2013 alien epic Ender’s Game, about an academy of child space recruits headed up by Harrison Ford. It was a box office bomb, but it gave Harrison his first “featured extra” credit and one whole line of dialogue. More importantly, it meant he got to meet Ford and some of the other big name cast including Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis. “This was an opportunity,” he says, “All the best kids and adults were in one room – and I got to ask them questions… Acting is like a grocery list – you’ve gotta get the right ingredients.”
‘Waves’, Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s breakout role. CREDIT: A24
After that he worked his way up the ranks steadily. He continued with bitty jobs on films such as 12 Years A Slave and Birth Of A Nation, then recurring gigs on American TV – and before he knew it Harrison was getting his name on the poster for pulpy mystery thriller Luce, Netflix crime drama Monster and, the important one, 2019’s Waves. Directed by industry darling Trey Edward Shults, Waves was an indie hit that saw Harrison play a promising teen wrestler whose father’s strict rules contribute to him careening off the rails in spectacular style. Harrison’s is a moody and moving performance, highlighting his talent for portraying conflicted young men – and it bagged him a BAFTA nomination. He was still only 25, but in just six years he’d gone from on-screen newbie to being nominated in the same category as established names like Awkwafina and Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever. Not bad for someone who wasn’t even supposed to be an actor.
Since then, Harrison’s progressed even further, playing blues legend BB King in Oscars smash Elvis and outshining the much more experienced cast (Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong) of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7. He doesn’t see it like that though. His ambition, drummed into him since childhood, won’t let him.
“I’ve been called a breakout actor a million times,” he says, sounding actually quite fed up. “So I obviously haven’t broken out. I might even get nominated again for breakout actor. At some point you have to actually, you know,” he emphasises the words with both hands, “break out.” NME points out that his last five movies have been major studio titles, and that Chevalier is a lead role in one. Surely, that’s progress? “Yeah, you’re right,” he says more happily. “Sometimes you get a little anxious and you want more out of the job… They’re gonna call me what they’re gonna call me. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”
‘Chevalier’ is in cinemas from June 9. CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures
What he’s doing next is very exciting. This evening, after our interview, Harrison has to walk the red carpet at a glitzy promotional event for Chevalier. Then he’s jetting back to Croatia to finish O’Dessa. Following that, he’ll be gearing up for Samo Lives – the top-secret Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic that will reportedly look deeper than ever before into the psyche of one of America’s most celebrated artists. Harrison doesn’t tell us anything about Samo Lives, the plot of which remains under wraps, but he does tell us about playing another of America’s greatest sons: the civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.
“Everyone has their own idea of him, what makes Martin Martin,” says Harrison about his part in the upcoming fourth season of anthology series Genius. “But my job is to ignore all of that. I’m interested in what made this man tick. What made him excited? What kept him going? What hurt him the most? When someone else is watching the show, those are the things that I hope they find relatable. If you wanna see him be an icon, go watch an interview, you know? It was hard, but I learned a lot.” And that’s Harrison’s life mantra in a nutshell, really: put in the effort, reap the rewards.
‘Chevalier’ is in UK cinemas from June 9