Quietly, yet at a rapid pace, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is fastly building his repertoire.
The New Orleans native had roles in 12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation and Mudbound before his breakout role alongside Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejojo in the horror film It Comes at Night.
Already in 2018, he has four films that have premiered at festivals — the politically and socially-tinged features Monster (based on the Walter Dean Myers novel) and Monsters and Men, as well as Assassination Nation and S&A contributor Nijla Mu'min's Muslim coming-of-age tale, Jinn.
I spoke with Harrison shortly after the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in January.
His Sundance 2018 lineup (three films) was rivaled only by Lakeith Stanfield, who had two films. When I said he edged out Stanfield for the crown of “Sundance King,” he said “Lakeith can definitely take the crown. He is incredible. I want to work with that guy so much.”
This was followed by a shameless plug from me on Stanfield’s vibrant, must-follow presence on social media. “I love the internet. It’s such an interesting place," Harrison joked.
If that’s not enough, for the rest of 2018, he starts with Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts in Julius Onah’s thriller, Luce, which is selling at Cannes, is in post-production on JT Leroy and The Wolf Hour and he's currently filming the dystopia-set Gully.
With Monsters and Men already set for theatrical release from Neon and the buzzy Luce possibly set to be a big buy, if you haven’t familiarized yourself with Harrison, you need to do so...stat!
“I always like find a little bit about myself in the roles and what I’m going to learn as a person. What I’ve learned in the industry is that if you aren’t doing anything that matters to you, that connects to you or something that you will grow from as a human being, the industry can get kind of lonely and boring. And you just become unmotivated and wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’ For me, if I'm reading something, it can be a really good script, but if I'm not taking anything from it, I'm not interested.”
Two of his recent works, those in Monster and Monsters in Men, are timely roles in timely films that are prime talkers for today’s society and how it treats black men.
Harrison describes this as a “huge honor” for him as an actor to take on roles like this. “It’s like who would have thought that I’d get to be a part of so many projects that mean so much to people and get to talk about heavy, important topics,” he explained. “It feels really cool, but it’s also a bigger conversation that makes you go, ‘This is really upsetting.’ But it’s empowering that we are being given the opportunities and given the voice to talk about these things. For example, in Monster we are portraying the media as monsters. Making black kids my age, young people being able to see there is an opportunity for a voice and a place for finding your solution or rather, a resolution.”
On which of his recent portrayals is the most complex, Harrison says it was his role in the Monster adaptation, which also co-stars Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson and John David Washington. “Steve in Monster is probably the hardest to play, because I was learning so much about myself growing up. It’s hard to look back on your life at 17 and how you may have been. Steve comes from this privileged home and has a lot opportunity. Then things happened, and he thought he was an anomaly in a world where black boys are incarcerated or killed because of the way they look. The hardest part is just really digging deep in yourself and coming into your own realities and then separating from the character so you can tell their stories truthfully."
Harrison in 'Monster'
For Harrison, there is a grey area when it comes to getting into character for these types of roles. “Sometimes you have to find a separation. It is easy to remind yourself that you go back to your really nice apartment or hotel room that they put you in. Like in the case of Monster, I’m not in prison. Sometimes it does happen naturally, but you have to trick your mind. You’re convincing yourself in the moment that this is the truth, but your brain and body don’t necessarily understand that. So you start to react and see things differently. It does impact you, but at the same time we have this privilege of it being a job. And it is a blessing that I can tell the story. It’s hard to sometimes, but I don’t live the story and at the end of the day, I want to tell the truth.”
Harrison in 'Jinn'
Right now, the young actor has primarily done drama films, but is eager to explore more genres. “I definitely want to do something in comedy. I don’t really get it yet, I’ve tried it,” he laughed. “I like watching them, but eventually I’d like to do something like that. I also love anything with magic...something fun like that. Maybe some sci-fi stuff or something in the action world maybe. I’ve already done the horror thing.” On a particular archetype he’d like to take on next, he said, “Wall Street, someone that is super dapper. Someone that has it under control or at least thinks that they do.”
With so many actors moving into roles behind-the-scenes as well, Harrison says that is of interest to him, too.
"I’m trying to get into producing now. I’ve been looking at some scripts to option. Directing and writing too. Everything is so new with the acting thing. Five years, which sounds like a long time, but the things that have happened in those years are a lot. Acting day by day and we’ll see with the other things, but it is definitely something I'm looking at in the future.”
Cover photo credit Benjo Arwas.
Trey Mangum is the lead editor of Shadow & Act. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org & follow him on Twitter @TreyMangum.