Kelvin Harrison Jr. is Here to Hustle
Fresh off a red eye from Los Angeles and in the midst of a Teen Vogue IG takeover, Kelvin Harrison Jr. met Milk in Brooklyn to talk about his creative process and his most recent film The Photograph. The 25-year-old actor is known for his roles in A24 films like Waves and It Comes at Night as well as Luce. Starting out in the world of jazz music, Harrison garnered a strong work ethic that has propelled him to succeed in several creative fields. He dives deep into the characters he portrays; whether he breaks out a journal or creates a fake IG account, is up to the project. We spoke to the Brooklyn-based actor about his favorite romance movie The Notebook and why he wants to be Tilda Swinton.
You grew up doing music and acting is a relatively new pursuit for you. How have you been able to tap into your instincts to take a hold of it and take so much ownership of it?
I think it was because the arts were always there. I started off in jazz; it is so much about expression and conversation. That’s my dad would also say, “If you have nothing to say, then what are you saying? What is your instrument?”
And so I think I always understood storytelling, I always understood language, always understood emoting and having that little ball of fire inside you and infusing that and breathing that through a horn or lyrically, or with a lick on a keyboard or something. But I also felt like I wasn’t completely accessing my full range of emotions and the full range of the story I wanted to tell.
When I got to acting, it was pretty much on accident. I just went into an audition with my buddy and that led to a line, which led to me like meeting Sir Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, and Viola Davis, which led to me getting advice to go take an acting class. Then that led to me studying it fully. And that led to me being on a set, and being with people that wanted to share information with me, and show me how much of a craft and art form it is, and it started being like, “Oh, wow, the parallels are the same.” It’s still about storytelling, it’s still about conversation. It’s still about revealing a piece of yourself, but also playing and discovering new things within that conversation. I realized this is my medium.
So once I kind of clicked into that, it became the same work constantly. It’s always trying to learn. We’re all each other’s teachers. We all grow from each other. That’s how I feel about scenes. In a scene with Sterling K Brown, I get the opportunity to learn from him in that moment as Kelvin and vice versa.
For previous roles, how have you gotten into character?
For Tyler in Waves, I made an Instagram. I did a journal for Luce.
I would post everyday and kind of go like, “What would Tyler be doing today?” I started posting before I even got the blonde hair… trying to figure out,” What would the church thing look like?” and “How does perception affect that?” “ Was he the inspirational type of guy? If he’s doing the workouts, what do the workouts look like, and would he post that?”
Trying to figure out, what would the dialogue be with the girlfriend and what his interaction with young people would be like. So then I’m gonna have young people follow me. It was kind of like a diary journal, except interactive. It was more so like a side project. With every job, I always—kind of like with Luce—I had kept a journal just to try to figure out what their thoughts would be like. So, when I get on set and I’m acting the scenes I have an internal monologue and I know how they talk, I know the cadence, I know the inside workings of how things are affecting them. I know the past life, and so it helped me.
Is it emotionally taxing to take on so much of a person that is not yourself?
100%. We don’t have to address our past very often in life. And most of the time we kind of go with, “This happened. How do I move forward?”
And I think with this—especially when you’re exploring your teenage years —it’s like, I’m going back to 17 and I’m thinking, “Alright well why did I make why did I take the actions that I did? How did I get here and what was kind of influencing that?”
My parents were influencing that. Grades were influencing that. My perception of self influenced that; how I saw my body at that time, what I thought was important to me at that time.
I think it becomes really challenging because you start to take on that baggage that you never knew you were accessing. I remember sometimes I would have dreams because I was talking about it so much, and I would see young Kelvin and like all his insecurities and all his fears and then I started to kind of like take those things and think, “Oh, this is what this kid is going through. I forgot about that part.”
I forgot about the pressure you feel to be a young person; you’re not necessarily a man yet, but you’re not a boy anymore. The responsibility of trying to get into college and filling out the common app. Wondering, “Am I getting the rejection letters?”
It even gets into the real depth of what relationships with parents are like and not necessarily feeling like you’re being your most authentic self. You’re so desperate to make them feel like they did a good job because they did do a good job in a lot of ways, but does that necessarily mean that everything they did was perfect? You don’t really want to question that.
So when you take on these roles, you unlock a piece of yourself and then you start to unlock a piece of other people. I take in a lot of information from my cousins or friends and their baggage, their stories, their anxieties, and then you’re trying to infuse them inside of you. And I feel like it’s just a bunch of stuff going on. And I need to dump after a while, but I don’t get to dump it yet.
Of all the projects you’ve worked on, is there one character that you related to the most?
I remember when I did It Comes at Night, I had just left New Orleans and I moved to LA without my parents’ complete permission, which I didn’t need anymore, but I still felt like I did. It was about establishing virtues and morals of my own, outside of my parents, and how difficult that is when we finally get to do it for the first time. So then I was like, “I am Travis.” I get stepping out on a leap of faith to stand up for what you believe in, but also kind of questioning what you do believe in.
I don’t think I’m Luce at all, actually. I mean I have moments where I understand what Luce was doing, but I definitely don’t think I’ve ever been like him.
I also don’t think I’m like Tyler in Waves because of the whole sports thing. I’m not into the whole, the aggressive anger thing. It scares me. I don’t really like to yell. The bravado, in general, is just a lot, but I think I can empathize with his relationship with his father. And I think that’s the thing that kind of drove me was that image and fear of ruining your life.
Your newest movie The Photograph just came out on Valentine’s Day. What were your favorite romance movies growing up?
Well, I love The Notebook. I love Titanic, Pride and Prejudice, Love and Basketball, Ten Things I Hate About You.
I love any of the McConaughey ones. Also any of those J Lo movies. Like Maid in Manhattan. Monster In Law! I love all of those E! Movies on a Sunday. My day—spent.
In The Photograph, you play LaKeith’s intern? Have you ever been an intern?
I went to school for marketing, and I was an intern/assistant for this guy who was the head of marketing over the Super Bowl. I remember he was going through the run-through of the event and Beyonce was performing that year. I got distracted and just wanted to follow her and after that, I was fired because that’s not what I was supposed to be doing.
I was also an intern for an assistant director on a show called Star-Crossed. I eventually became a PA, but those were my only two internships.
What was it like being on set with your co-stars Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield? What did you learn?
I had just binge-watched Insecure and I was obsessed with the whole thing. I think Issa Rae is just so funny, and then she turned out to be the nicest most professional person I could have ever met. It was cool to see someone who created this platform for herself and did it so well. Also, how she handles her scheduling, how she handles other actors, and how giving she is.
The first day we hung out, it was me, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Stella [Meghie], LaKeith [Stanfield] and Issa [Rae]. We went to Miss Lily’s and we had Jamaican. We kind of just poked fun at each other and talked about stuff. We joked around and we laughed a bunch. I felt part of a community. I could sense the camaraderie and coming together and I could tell it was going to be a good movie to be a part of.
LaKeith is so dope too. We are both Leos and our favorite movie is The Lion King. He was like a big brother; I think it kind of helps with the dynamic of the movie too since I was his intern.
What was it like to be part of that story?
It was really dope because I remember reading the script and thinking, “We don’t really get these types of Black romance films.” So, this is our version of The Notebook. Meeting Stella, who has such a bubbly personality, she really was tackling a lot of the things that I was discovering in my new way of adulthood and in my new relationships.
I’m also trying to figure out how my parents influence my behavior and my relationships. What are the patterns that I see? What am I looking for? Am I looking for versions of my mom and dad when I am looking for a partner? It was cool to talk about that in such a healthy way and also show it in such a light with such intelligence and soulfulness. It was refreshing and I knew I was part of something special. I remember thinking, “I want to be LaKeith’s intern.” I’ll do a few scenes in this movie just because it’s sick. It’s gonna be something we all watch years from now and be so grateful for. It was dope.
In a digital era. Are there any physical print photographs that currently mean a lot to you?
I have a photo of me and my mom from when I was four at Disney World. She is holding me and the love she emits from the photo immediately catapults me into a place of gratitude. How blessed am I to have such a special woman in my life.
What actors do you look up to?
I love Tilda Swinton. She’s insane. Going back to photography, everything that Tim Walker does blows me away. He always shoots her for whatever reason. He has an exhibition in London and it’s pretty much all his different work, but there is a whole section of just Tilda Swinton being iconic. This woman transforms on camera. She’s a chameleon, and she just has such breadth. So I was like, “I want to be the short black male Tilda Swinton.”
I also love Chiwetel Ejiofor. I love Cate Blanchett. I love so many, but those are the few that I usually reference and watch the most.
What do you like about the industry today?
I think the fact that you know, as cliché as it starts to become, it’s great that we are always challenging each other to question the systems that have been set. We keep going, “Why is this the way? Why does he get paid more? Why are movies all white?” We’re just questioning everything. Why can’t this person be a lead? Why couldn’t this story be told? Why couldn’t we mesh the two? Why can’t genre split?
I think we’re kind of getting somewhere where we’re actually allowing the creative juices to flow. When we were kids, there were no rules. It was like anything goes unless your parents told you this was the rule. I think that’s when we had the most fun. I think that’s what everyone’s channeling as artists as we get older—that younger self that’s seeing the world in color and just having fun.
We are still curious! I think what’s nice about the industry is that we are kind of pushing the boundaries to re-access that curiosity instead of becoming jaded and just saying, “Well, this is what it is.” That’s dumb.
What do you think it means to hustle?
I think because my parents were such strict musicians, I’ve always learned work ethic. I was practicing after school for three to four hours, then going to practice on the weekends and going to three jazz camps every summer. I was balancing school and karate and being all these different things. So hustle to me is taking the time to say, “I am going to do something for my craft today.” When it comes to the script, acting is not just showing up and saying, “I’m gonna say the lines and see a lot of actors and that’s cool.” You can do that, but when people go in the makeup trailer and say, “I’m gonna learn my lines today.” I know that’s not the place to do it.
That’s your time to settle meditate and get to know everyone so we can create a healthy camaraderie. I think filmmaking is such a team sport. Think of it like a football team; if everyone’s not doing their part, if the quarterback’s not helping the wide receivers, then how are we going to get a touchdown? I think the hustle is about being disciplined and coming in presenting your best self so that you can open up and actually be able to play with other professionals. That’s what keeps the grind.
What are you most excited for in 2020?
A job. I’m ready to go back to work on something creative again. Yeah, it’s a hustle.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Juliet Wolf
PHOTO ASST: Lauryn Jean-Pierre
GROOMER: Janice Kinjo
SOCIAL MEDIA INTERN: Julia Rutzen
EDITORIAL INTERN: Corey Bates
Special thanks to Secret Lair Studio.
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