Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s Big Break Is Just Beginning

Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s Big Break Is Just Beginning

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is the breakout drama talent of 2018.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is the breakout drama talent of 2018.

Photography: Luke Gilford

Styling: Sean Knight

Text: Paul Schrodt

Kelvin Harrison Jr. calls his acting career a “complete accident.” Raised in New Orleans by musician parents, the 23-year-old studied piano and trumpet in high school, but he satisfied his thespian urge via musicals. Through a friend, he discovered what he thought was an opportunity to be an extra in 2013’s Ender’s Game, which then led to auditions; eventually he was cast in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.

If it was an accident, it was an exceedingly happy one. Harrison has since steadily honed his craft, taking on bigger roles in acclaimed, hard-hitting dramas, including The Birth of a Nation, the remake of TV miniseries Roots; the survivalist horror movie It Comes at Night; and Netflix’s Mudbound, about tensions between white and black families living on a Mississippi farm after World War II. Despite award nominations for the latter, Harrison’s own family keeps him humble, as seen on a recent trip to visit them from his new Los Angeles home base. “My dad was like, Take your trumpet. You need to practice. This is where your talent lies,” Harrison laughs.

Harrison’s movies so far share a startlingly forthright approach to racism. In Monster, just one of three projects he had at Sundance this year, he stars as a young filmmaker and honor student who’s charged with murder and gets caught up in a complex legal battle to prove himself innocent. The resonance with today’s political climate was also not necessarily part of the actor’s plan. “It just happened to work out the way it did. The stories are there,” he admits. “It never crossed my mind. I lived in a very sheltered home.” He remembers his dad making him read the memoir on which 12 Years a Slave is based, and watch the original Roots, as he was growing up and attending a predominantly white school. “He would say, You don’t know that you’re black, do you?” Harrison says. But Harrison has gained insight through his racially charged projects: “I’ve been learning a lot about myself and what it means to be a young black male in America through these films.”

That’s not all that hits close to home. The script alone for It Comes at Night, in which a family protects itself against a post-apocalyptic backdrop, made him cry. “The house [in the movie] always reminded me of my experience during Hurricane Katrina and being displaced. It struck a chord with me,” he says. “That was really scary, being 11 years old during that time. You kind of think it’s a vacation until it’s not a vacation.”

The most terrifying thing for Harrison right now is just figuring out how to compose himself around costars. He recently got the chance to work with Laura Dern on the upcoming JT Leroy, about the stranger-than-fiction literary hoax. “You see why she’s a legend. Ahhh, she’s the ultimate actor,” he says of Dern. While doing Monster, he befriended his singing idol, Jennifer Hudson, who plays his mom in the movie. “She was like, Hey baby, and I was like, Hey Ms. Hudson,” he breathlessly recalls of their first encounter. Hudson, who was about the same age as Harrison when she went on American Idol, offered up words of encouragement: “That was the beginning of her career, and she was like, This is the beginning of yours, and I’m so excited to share this moment with you,” he says. “She’s just so sweet.”



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