Interview: Kelvin Harrison Jr. on his electric performance in ‘Chevalier,’ his musical and acting influences, and what he craves as an artist
There is nothing better than seeing someone who was once a bright newcomer to the industry blossom into one of the most talented artists of their generation. This is the case with Kelvin Harrison Jr., whose on screen career started in 2013, playing minor roles for a couple of years, then landed opportunities that put him on the map. In 2017 it was Mudbound and It Comes at Night, then in 2018, it was Monster, Assassination Nation, and Monsters and Men, all leading to the work that made him a household name with his performances in Luce, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actor and Waves, for which he received a BAFTA nomination for their Rising Star Award.
Since that acclaimed breakthrough year, Harrison Jr. has been steadily working in film and television, playing some of the biggest roles an actor can play. By playing real life figures like Fred Hampton in The Trial of the Chicago 7, B.B King in Elvis, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the upcoming fourth season of the Emmy-winning anthology show Genius, Harrison Jr. has displayed his superb attention to detail, bringing his own flair to his iteration of these social, political and cultural icons. At the same time, he has also worked as a part of a couple of titles that center around music or the music industry, not just with Elvis, but also his parts in The High Notes and Cyrano. As the son of two musicians, music has always been in his life, as he grew up learning how to be a jazz and gospel singer, as well as becoming a skilled piano and trumpet player. This versatility has served him well in these previous projects but even more so in his latest role in Stephen Williams’ Chevalier.
In Chevalier, from Searchlight Pictures, Harrison Jr. plays Joseph Bologne, the renowned but rarely celebrated French-Caribbean violinist and composer who rose to fame during the late 1700s in Paris, France. The son of an African slave and her white plantation owner, Bologne was able to go to the best and brightest schools because of his father’s connections and extraordinary talent to then become as popular at the time as Mozart. In doing so, Chevalier examines how Bologne fought to become the leader of the Paris Opera, his persecution, and how he stood his own against none other than the queen of France herself, Marie Antoinette, and the rest of the French hierarchy. In our review from the Toronto International Film Festival, we praised the film as “not only an important film because of the way that it sheds light on a Black artist whose legacy was robbed from them, but it’s also a top-notch period romance with a fantastic ensemble cast” as well as Harrison Jr.’s “dashing” performance. In one of the best performances of his young career, Harrison Jr. is able to command the screen effortlessly and effectively bring Bologne’s life to the big screen.
When I sat down with the star of Chevalier, his infectious smile and energy came through immediately, as he started to sing my name as the interview began. Music is always in his heart and it showed throughout this conversation as we talked about musical influences from his personal life as well as for his work in Chevalier, his preparation for the extensive sequences of playing music in the film, and his collaboration with director Stephen Williams on the project. We also spoke about the pressure of playing these legendary figures, as well as what is essential for him in selecting future roles as an actor. Relaxed and passionate throughout our time together, Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s excitement came through in the conversation, something that might one day find him in the director’s chair. But until then, he looks to continue to bring his authentic self to the roles he inhabits while continuing to grow and create complex characters with each new performance.
Ryan McQuade: So first off, I just got to ask you; you know how to play the piano, the trumpet, violin, and probably other things in between. Is there an instrument you haven’t learned yet to play that you want to?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: I really want to learn how to play the bass, the upright bass specifically. I love seeing how people maneuver a bass. I love the sound of it. It’s my mom’s favorite instrument as well. So yeah, I would love to learn how to play the upright bass.
RM: Music has been a big part of the last couple of roles that you’ve been in, but it’s also a big part of your life. Do you look for projects that blend both of your artistic fashions?
KHJ: I’m not intentionally looking for them. I think I like the role first. I like the team. The music’s actually the trickiest part of it because you sign onto the movie before you hear the music. And if I was acting as a musician first, I would definitely be like, no, show me the music, then I’ll let you know if I’m going to do the project. So the music just, you just trust the process and it’s more so of a character study. And I enjoy being a musician. I wish I was an actual musician. It’s fun to play other people and what their expression through music is though.
RM: Were there musicians or films about musicians or musicals growing up that influenced you as an artist?
KHJ: Miles Davis was a big one. Ella Fitzgerald was a big one. Nat King Cole was huge for me. Movies, not particularly. Listen, I love A Star is Born. I know I wasn’t growing up watching A Star is Born, but I love that movie. I think that’s fun. Dreamgirls was a big one I loved seeing because I love their voices, all those women’s voices individually, and Jamie (Foxx) and also everyone else in that, Eddie’s (Murphy) voice. I just love the specificity of a voice and I love a musical. So yeah, those made me want to do stuff like that.
RM: Getting into Chevalier, when you read the script, what was one of the first things about Joseph Bologne that drew you in and made you want to take on the part?
KHJ: What I loved about Joseph was I just loved his attitude. That was really what it came down to because I was like, this could be really flat. You know what I mean? You hear about a movie, because I remember hearing the pitch and I was interested in it, but then at the same time I was like, okay. And I had a conversation with my agents and stuff like that and we were just like, “It’s going to be a stuffy period drama. Those don’t really play well anymore. Is that going to be fun for you?” And I was like, he is an icon and I want to bring light to his story, but at the same time, I don’t want to draw into a hole where Joseph finally gets his light and then everyone was like, but more biopics of a classical period? So when I read it and I was like, oh this dude was telling everybody the business and just running Paris with zero rights, I was into it. (laughs)
RM: I think a lot of audiences are going to learn about Chevalier through this film, but was there something about Joseph that you learned in preparation that surprised you and you incorporated a lot of those findings into your performance?
KHJ: Yes. I think one of the things that surprised me the most was learning that he went to a school where it was a finishing school of some sort. It was where young boys would go to learn how to be gentlemen with older women and they would teach them how to be in bed and how to flirt and all that stuff. And I thought that was fascinating because he went when he was 16, apparently, according to some of the writings. And I was like, “Huh, that’s weird.” But then when people say he was a man about town, I was like, yes, he was definitely in the mix, but also he was a ladies’ man. Everybody wanted a piece of Joseph.
Joseph definitely was in these streets and I think it became a fun element of having a weird relationship with your sexuality and recognizing it. I think that played a role in how I interact with Marie Josephine and Marie Antoinette and La Guimard, the flamboyance of it all, the dressing. I think Prince is a good example, a comp for that, that we all recognize and someone that really has a good sense of his sexuality. And I think that how I justified that was with that piece of information for Joseph.
RM: What was the collaboration process like with you and Stephen Williams, the director of Chevalier?
KHJ: We talked a lot. Steven told me out the gate that he was not interested in making any type of conventional movie, which made me excited. He was like, “I’m doing my own thing. I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but I’m going to go through a process.” What I appreciate about any filmmaker is the process. I think a lot of times we lose the process. I think the process makes the film/cinema interesting. It makes it unique. And so I think just every day, we took it day by day. There was no right answer. There was no thing that was set in stone. Stefani would be the first to tell you she did a million drafts of this movie and it came through all of us having conversations being like, “Well what about this with Marie Josephine’s relationship?” “Well I read this piece of a little story and I think this thought made me think of this.”
Or “What if this is the actual secret and the dynamic between him and his mother?” “What if we shift these things around?” “What if we cut that moment?” And I think it was very much like when you have this limited amount of information on Joseph, how do we tell the most compelling but most active story while trying to also educate? So yeah, it was, listen, I don’t know if that specifically answers your question, but we did a little bit of everything.
RM: No, no, it does. You obviously spent a lot of work practicing to play the violin. Do you mind just going into the preparation for that and what we see in the film and how long the process was to get to what we see those performances in the film?
KHJ: Yeah, so it starts with, I originally asked Steven, I was like, “Can you use a photo double and just CGI my face?” Because I knew people could do that. And Steven said, “No.” And my dad’s a music teacher. He used to teach classical music in college. And so he would tell me, one of the first things I told him when I got the job, I was like, “Well they want me to play this for real.” He was like, “Well, good luck because it takes six months for me to teach one of my students one concerto.” He’s like, “How many pieces do you have in the movie?” I said, “I have about six to seven cues.” Now the good news is that a proper concerto can go around from five minutes to thirteen minutes. I’m not actually playing 13-minute tracks.
So when you break up the time, I’m pretty much learning what one concerto would consist of. So how you go about doing that is you break it up. If he said it took six months, I took five and I only needed to play the music on the sheet. So seven days a week, six hours a day, five months of consistent practicing. You can’t really take too many breaks. Maybe you would take a day off sometimes because sometimes the information needs a chance to rest. You know what I mean? And settle on you. But I worked with my dad for a little bit.
I worked with a violin player that I met on Cyrano who was in the movie, Sam Amidon. He’s also an incredible musician and he helped me get my beginner’s footsteps again. And then I worked with Wynton Grant in Los Angeles and I worked with Ronald Long when I got to Prague. And then when we were shooting, I would shoot, do fencing for our violin for two hours, and then I would go learn my lines, wake up, and shoot the next day. And just keeping it consistent. The only time I stopped was when I fractured my collarbone and I couldn’t play anymore.
RM: How did you fracture it?
KHJ: I don’t know, dude. (Both laugh) Honestly, the doctors were really confused because they were like, “Dude, you’ve had this.” It was painful. If water hit it, I screamed like a little baby and the doctor was like, “You’ve had this for three weeks. How did you just notice?” And I was like, “Well, it just got really bad.” They were like, “What did you do?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” But the thing is, I was really pushing my body physically trying to make sure I was in shape to be able to keep up with everything, plus the fencing and the violin sits on this side (points to his left shoulder) and I was pressing it really hard and because of the period, you don’t use the protective chin rests. Anyways, a lot of boring stuff, but yeah.
RM: No, no, no. That’s fascinating. We wouldn’t know that otherwise. I’m curious too, because when you’re playing the violin in this film, it feels like a rock concert the way you’re playing it. Did you have some influences that you took just talking about your physical performance within those scenes?
KHJ: Yeah, well Stefani wrote in the script originally, she was like, “That opening duel between Joseph Chevalier and Mozart is Jimi Hendrix and [Eric] Clapton. Just imagine that.” So then we ran with it. That was like Stefani’s vision, Jimi Hendrix. We loved that reference. So we looked at Jimi and then Stephen and I had a discussion and we both were like, “Prince is the other comp.” So then we took Prince and we were trying to figure out how to make it feel like I said, we don’t want it to be a stuffy period piece. So then how do we make it feel a little bit like who was the representative of that time that felt so familiar to us? Because this is for us. This is not for 18th century Prince.
People get that confused sometimes. But I think it was finding Joseph’s walk. I worked with Holly Bennett who is a movement coach that worked with Austin [Butler] on Elvis and Rami [Malek] on Bohemian Rhapsody and we came up with a lot of physical language as well. And we would just play around with just concerts, watching a lot of concerts, watching a lot of live performances, pulling things that we thought were interesting. Also, we watched a lot of violinists. Me, Ronald, and my violin coach Anne Polly, we all got on a Zoom and we were just like, oh look at such and so. I love the way they moved their face or their mouth. Or maybe this is a little bit more rockstar who’s like the rockstar of that violinist of the time and trying to find the mess. Sometimes, I was literally doing too much leaning backwards and then on my knees, and then they were like “Kelvin, you do know you have to play the song?” And I was like, “Right, so that’s not possible.” (laughs)
RM: I love that. The other great thing about the performance is obviously, the look of the character. Can you talk about working with the costume designer Oliver Garcia on the look of Joseph in this film? Because I just think that the costumes are absolutely fantastic.
KHJ: It’s stunning. I don’t know how he did it. To be honest, I don’t know if Oliver said this or if anyone knows this, but Oliver came in at the last minute. There was a change in things and Oliver came in maybe two weeks before and made all of these stunning costumes. I could not. And I think the conversation, it was just like we wanted to make sure he had flavor and Oliver had already decided and discussed that he wanted to use blues because it meant where you stood in society and a lot of frills and a lot of bows and just a proper balance of things. Thank you. So that was pretty much the gist of the conversation. And the biggest one was like, “I want heels.” I was like, “No matter what you give me, I want heels. Prince has heels.” And the shoes, I literally chose a pair of shoes that were a size too small and my toes would be like this at the end of the day, but you can’t play Joseph Balogne without a walk.
RM: For sure. And it shows in the final product too, because there’s a certain swagger that you have with the character in the film.
KHJ: All right, good, good.
RM: You’ve worked in films with great ensembles and this is no different. Was there anything that you’ve learned from them that you’ve carried with you?
KHJ: I think the biggest thing is just looking at the type of questions that they ask when they’re on set. Because a lot of actors love to watch performances and you can’t recreate performances. You can’t. You know what I mean? I’ll never… I don’t care how many movies I watch, I honestly think if you watch your favorite actors too much, you start to just do mimicry work. What you need to pay attention to is how are they getting there? And I think what I’ve loved to watch is how Octavia [Spencer] asks questions. How Naomi [Watts] asks questions. How Jeffrey [Wright] creates an environment on set for him to give the performances that he gives. You’ll never get to see that really intimate work with some of your icons because that’s so private when we are journaling and breaking down scripts.
But rehearsal is fascinating. With Peter [Dinklage], it’s really watching him play and try things in rehearsals and also when you’re in the scene with them, just being present. It’s singing in the sense that, any type of music, when you’re doing improvisation or if you’re in the recording studio, you can’t be self-conscious. The moment you start thinking about what you want to do is the moment it all goes out the window. The moment you’re like “I’m about to make a mess” is the moment when really special things happen. And then with movies, the privilege we have with movies is, you have an editor. In doing Lion King, I tell Barry [Jenkins] all the time, I was like, “I’m not worried about giving you the worst takes possible because you and Joi [McMilion] are going to go edit that and make me look good and I trust you and I’m going to leave it there.” You know what I mean?
RM: Absolutely! You’ve played some significant historical figures like B.B. King, MLK, Fred Hampton, and now Chevalier. How do you feel when you tackle these roles as opposed to fictional roles? Is it a little bit of a different dance?
KHJ: Yes. I think, well… Listen, yes and no. I think the only dance that is different are the boundaries. Personally, when I’m playing a real person, I’m not sitting there looking at them as the icon or the legend. That doesn’t serve me in any way. It becomes, I just have to look at them as the dude. And once I get to the dude, the only thing I’m thinking about is if there are certain things that people want to see or people need to see in order to believe that they know this character to be true. It becomes the wig or a mustache from Martin Luther King, or the facial hair, or body weight. Physical transformation plays a role in it. Dialogue plays a role in it. Externalities play a role in it. Joseph was like, we had an etiquette coach, so it’s like I can’t start doing too crazy of physical emotions but then you have a conversation with Stephen and you’re just like, “Well how much liberty do I have because I still got to tell this story.”
And truth be told, nobody wants to see somebody stiff as a board, which I do think I fall victim to at times in the movie. It’s just like, it gets really tricky trying to find humanity, but also still trying to find a physicality that works and the specificity of a black man doing that. Because this is the thing I don’t know if people recognize is that, when did you see a black man with a wig on in 18th century France? What was my reference? (laughs) We have English people and white people who are playing these parts 24/7. We see it all the time. We are accustomed to and trained to watch it this way. Well, who is my reference? So it’s a tricky thing. It’s a tricky thing and that makes it hard. Those things make it hard. The person in himself, he’s going to eat, he’s going to be mad, he’s going to be sad, he’s going to be in love. All those things, they just remain the same.
Ryan: I totally understand. Is there a musical legend that you’ve always wanted to play, that you want to play maybe down the road?
KHJ: Not really.
RM: No? Not really?
KHJ: No. People keep trying to be like, “You should play…” I don’t know. Everyone’s always just volunteering new famous people for me to play.
RM: I don’t want to volunteer for you. I want to know what you want. Who cares about the volunteers? (both laugh) This is about what you would want to do if you had a choice. It can be obscure. It doesn’t have to be somebody even famous. It could be whoever.
KHJ: I don’t know. (pauses) That’s a really good question. You know who was actually really interesting? This gentleman who actually was one of my music teachers growing up and I did a little short for one of their products and I used his song and he just passed away last week. It’s really sad. I just saw the family recently. But his name’s Edward Kidd Jordan. Incredible. You know Whiplash? He was giving whiplash, but he was so brilliant and such a fascinating study and I think maybe if I were to play somebody like him, I think if I wanted to play somebody, another musician or something like that, I think I would like to play Kidd. That’d be fun. That’d be fun.
RM: Lastly, as your career continues to go and grow, what is something that is essential to you when picking out roles for the future of your career?
KHJ: Ultimately, it’s just this, do I have something to contribute? You know what I mean? I think if it doesn’t affect me personally or it’s not expanding my mind, then I’m like, then it probably is not going to do anything for anyone else. Or I personally don’t think that I can add to the movie. Maybe someone that has a new vision for it should do it. I think it comes back to the same reason why directors sign on to do projects. It’s like, do I see something? Do I have something for the character that I can add to the conversation? If not, I’m going to stand my ass somewhere else
RM: Maybe get you behind the lens?
KHJ: Maybe one day. I’ve been actually craving it. I’m not going to lie. It’s one of those things that you don’t want to touch because there are too many directors out there to me in some ways and I’m just like, there are a lot of actors. I’m like, I don’t necessarily think everyone should be trying to do everything. There are some brilliant people and I think the brilliant people should just be brilliant. But I’m itching to try for some reason. I don’t know.
RM: You’re a brilliant talent and so I think it would lend behind the camera too, Kelvin. Thank you so much for your time.
KHJ: Thanks, Ryan. See you next time.
Searchlight Pictures will release Chevalier only in theaters on April 21, 2023.