Kelvin Harrison Jr. is the ultimate breakout story. The 25-year-old New Orleans native is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his wrenching performance in “Luce,” where plays an adopted teen contending with his heritage, while acclaim for his other performance as a troubled teen in Trey Shults’ fall festival sensation “Waves” further cemented 2019 as his big year.
All of that comes on the heels of a dense five-year period in which the actor was plucked from obscurity, scoring bit parts in everything from “Ender’s Game” to “12 Years a Slave” before finding his footing as a young lead in the past year. Nevertheless, he said in a recent interview that he still feels like an outsider.
The charismatic star, whose recent credits also include EPIX’s “Godfather of Harlem,” has received nothing but reverence from his veteran co-stars — but the actor said his entire life has been a fish-out-water experience that continues to impact how he navigates Hollywood. “I’ve never identified myself as a part of the majority, because I’ve always felt like an odd little fella,” Harrison said in an interview. “It’s funny, because my parents are incredibly smart, but weird people too. We’re this strange little artist family.”
That artist family includes Harrison’s parents, who are musicians: a classically trained saxophonist and jazz musician father; and a jazz vocalist mother. He grew up learning to play a variety of instruments, including the piano, trumpet and guitar. And as a kid without many friends, who lived a rather sheltered life, this helped keep him engaged.
“My parents really wanted to be careful about what they exposed us to, and so they wouldn’t allow me and my younger twin sisters to socialize with certain kids, or listen to certain kinds of music, like rap, or watch much television,” he said.
Harrison’s viewing habits were limited to the Disney Channel, but as he aged, he was introduced to more adult dramas, ranging from the TV miniseries “Roots” to Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life.”
“I became very introverted, spending much of my time alone, watching people, observing behavior, and just making up stuff in my head, imagining myself as characters,” Harrison said. “I eventually started figuring out what movies looked like, but I still didn’t really understand what they were, or their impact, until I got older and started reflecting on that.”
Years later, all that observation and introspection began to influence his work as an actor. “I still to this day feel like I’ve just been in my own bubble and I’ve created the world that I want to exist in,” Harrison said. “So now I find roles and projects that mirror that experience, but also that help me expand that world, and that teach me to deepen who am I.”
Harrison’s mesmeric performances are routinely singled out as the highlights of his movies. That uncanny talent is especially notable for a young artist who never considered acting as a career choice until just six years ago, thanks to a chance encounter when he was 19-years-old.
On a whim, he accompanied a friend to an audition for extras in “Ender’s Game,” which led to a callback for a featured extra role. He soon found himself in a room with director Gavin Hood and executives from Summit Entertainment, where he landed the part. Filming the big-budget studio movie meant mingling with veterans like Viola Davis, Sir Ben Kingsley, and Harrison Ford.
“I felt like that was when I truly found myself, being in Savannah, Georgia for those two months of shooting, connecting, reading and writing,” he said. “My parents weren’t too thrilled by the idea, especially since it meant that I had to leave school for a few months, but I don’t regret it at all.”
He eventually got comfortable enough to ask Viola Davis for professional advice — specifically, what he should do if he decided to pursue acting full-time. “She told me that I should take a class, to start,” Harrison said. “I listened to her, and that was my first introduction to understanding what acting was.”
He discovered that he had a natural ability when the acting coach in his first class watched him deliver a monologue and told him that he had good instincts, despite lacking the proper training. Harrison ran with that observation, relying on his instincts, while learning the craft.
“I think that’s where my years spent in solitude, and just observing and listening to people, comes in,” he said. “And I still rely on my instincts. Although, no matter how good they are, you still have to do the work in preparing for a role.”
That work has evolved into a rigorous process. “My first pass on the script, I always write down every thought, because, like I said, my instincts are always my best choices,” he said. “And then I have these very long conversations that go on for weeks, with the director, where I ask a ton of questions. Then I break them down into sections, like where the character’s arc is going, and how I want the character to travel on his journey, and then identifying the different moods of the character. It really helps simplify the process for me.”
For his performance in “Waves,” he relied on experiences close to home. “There’s a naturalism and realism in that movie, and I wanted to pull from my own life, so that it didn’t feel like a performance,” he said.
For “Luce,” which involved dialect and movement coaches, it was different. “It wasn’t about trying to showcase my skill set, but it had to be performative because it’s really a film about that — asking what happens when you are constantly performing, and if you ever have a true sense of self,” he said.
And it’s primarily due to his performances in both films that many called 2019 Harrison’s “breakout year.” In addition to his Spirit Award nomination, his name has cropped up on the winner lists from several film critics groups. He may not be part of this year’s Oscar frontrunners, but the level of acclaim would suggest he’s on track to get there soon enough.
And for an introverted New Orleans kid, the rush of awards season has been a lot to process. “I didn’t even know what the Oscars were until I was like 20, when I did ’12 Years a Slave,’ and realized that this is a very serious business, where people get celebrated for their work,” he said. “It’s been fun, and I’m grateful for it, but a breakout year, I don’t really know what that means. To me, every year seems like the same hustle. And, honestly, all I’m thinking about is the next project.”
In this case, that means a supporting role in Stella Meghie’s upcoming romantic drama “The Photograph,” as well as Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and Nisha Ganatra’s romantic comedy “Covers,” his first romantic lead. All are scheduled for release this year.
Harrison may have a busy 2020 ahead of him, but he was adamant about keeping his priorities straight. “I’ve come to realize that I need to feel safe, and that whoever I’m working with gets me, and can support me,” he said. “It’s just about finding people that understand my experience, and love me genuinely, and want to see a young black man thrive in this business.“