Last year, Kelvin Harrison Jr. broke through in a major way thanks to his starring roles in Trey Edward Shults’ diptych family drama Waves and Julius Onah’s suspenseful thriller Luce. Strikingly handsome with a proven knack for portraying complex Black men, Harrison was quickly deemed a tour-de-force — a title that was validated by the BAFTA and Film Independent Spirit nominations he later received for his performances. It was clear that Harrison was destined for greatness, but after diving into these intensely dark roles, the rising actor, who got his start in 2013 with bit roles in 12 Years a Slave and Ender’s Game, was desperate for something different — roles that were lighter, that wouldn’t have potential dates thinking he was crazy.
Luckily, the 25-year-old’s dreams were fulfilled with The High Note, a music industry comedy starring Tracee Ellis Ross as a Diana Ross-type pop star and Dakota Johnson as her loyal but unfulfilled assistant of three years. Harrison plays David Cliff, the romantic lead for Johnson’s Maggie. An aspiring singer himself, he teams up with Maggie under false pretenses, bamboozled into thinking that she’s a real producer that can actually help his music career. As their relationship develops, secrets are revealed and feelings are hurt. But like any romcom, it’s easy to see where the pair will eventually end up. It doesn’t help that, on screen, the pair radiate boundless chemistry. So much so, in fact, that you’d be forgiven for not realizing this is Harrison’s first high-profile big studio project. Despite his inexperience, he seems like a natural.
A few days before The High Note’s premiere, NYLON hopped on the phone with Kelvin Harrison Jr. to talk about stepping into the role of romcom lead as a Black man, working with A-List stars like Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross, how fear impacted his decision to not audition for Jon M. Chu’s upcoming In the Heights musical, and why he’s excited but also “genuinely terrified” about joining the cast of Euphoria season two.
How did you get involved with The High Note?
I got the script about a year before we shot and I loved the story. I loved Grace’s character and I also thought it was exciting to have a fun movie for once. But I also didn’t really see how I would play David. I think he’s really charming and likable, and I never looked in the mirror and was like, “Oh, look, I’m the guy!” So I said, “Find someone else. I’m going to pass.” I passed, and then I passed again when they came back to me. But the third time it came, I was like, “Fine, I’ll meet with the director if she really wants me to. It’s on her at this point!” So we talked and really found a common goal for how we wanted David to be. She told me, “I do think you have something to offer. Your perspective on it is interesting.” So I took the audition, they liked it, I did the chemistry read with Dakota, and then I didn’t get the job. I was like, welp, I was right! But a week later, they changed their minds, and I had the job and was flying to L.A. the next day. Suddenly, it felt like I was in the movie...literally. I was in L.A. in a nice apartment that they paid for, I was in the studio recording music, and I had Dakota Johnson’s phone number. I was like, wow, my life has changed.
I know this is your first role as a romcom lead. How did it feel to make that pivot?
It was honestly refreshing and terrifying at the same time. I felt like I had enough after putting myself through the ringer with Waves and Luce. I felt crazy and everyone I was around thought I was crazy. If I’m on a dating app, they’re probably like, “I’ve seen that movie. You’re crazy. I don’t like the way you treat women.” So I felt like I really needed to do a proper movie to find myself again and get some therapy. Jumping into this was scary because I didn’t know if I had that piece of myself, but also because I didn’t know how to play a day over 18. But it was a good challenge and it was fun.
As a Black actor, does it mean anything special for you to play a romcom lead?
Oh, totally. Stella Meghie recently did [a Black romcom, The Photograph]. But in the years when I was watching romcoms, I had...Will Smith? And Hitch was still about him helping that Albert guy from Mall Cop get the girl. Suddenly, he gets Eva Longoria and that’s great — spoiler alert — but he still wasn’t technically the guy. If you go even further, most of the leads are Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher, and all those guys. I was like, well, none of them look like me. So I think part of my reasoning for wanting to play David was to do my version of that, to take pieces of all my favorite artists and see what that would look like, and represent.
You got to do some singing in this film, which I know you studied at one point. Were you excited about getting the opportunity to merge these two worlds?
100%. I think that since I grew up playing music, I mirrored David in a lot of ways. My mom and dad aren’t Grace Davis or Diana Ross. I wasn’t rich like that. But I think part of my excitement for the part was to access those pieces of myself I denied for so long, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t live up to the expectations of my parents — that I wasn’t good enough and wouldn’t be taken seriously as a musician. But I felt I was a good actor, that I understood the craft a bit better. But to go into the studio and record an album, I think that was new for all of us. Especially when you have Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins producing it, you’re like, okay, maybe this song might come out kinda fire. Maybe I have a shot! The little kid in me was jumping.
Would you ever be interested in doing an actual musical?
I would love to do a musical! One of my favorite movies is Dreamgirls. I wanted to do In the Heights but I got too scared. I started doing my audition tape for that but then I was like, “No, I’m not good enough. I don’t want the casting directors to know I’m not ready yet,” so I stopped taping. I would do a lot of stop-and-go.
It’s interesting to hear how many reservations you have about your talent, particularly after coming off such a huge year with Waves, Luce, and also Gully, which I adored.
Wow, I’m surprised you saw [Gully]! I always think no one’s ever seen it!
I saw it at Tribeca last year! It was like a 9:00am screening.
Oh my god!
But I feel like you’ve had such overwhelmingly positive responses to all those performances. Has that changed your outlook on your capabilities?
It definitely validated my ability to make good choices. I still get scared every time I step into a new project. Everyone knows I’m doing Euphoria now and I’m terrified. I am so excited but I am genuinely terrified. I haven’t been part of a big TV show. I’ve done smaller shows. I haven’t had to work with this many young people. All of the people who worked on that show got so much exposure, and this character is... It’s very scary and I feel like I’m very vulnerable in that space. But with the movies coming out and the responses I’ve gotten, I feel like whatever I’m choosing, there’s a reason behind it. I know my intent. That’s the question I always ask myself: What’s the intent behind this project? Who is it for? Sometimes, it’s for me, and sometimes, it’s not. I think that’s the most important — that it’s not in vain. I don’t want to do anything just for the sake of.
You worked on Assassination Nation with Sam Levinson, who’s such a distinct, visionary director. Are you excited to be reteaming with him for Euphoria?
I’m overjoyed. We had one camera test and I was like, “The colors…” You can see the sets and the stages. I love that show. They’re in a different world and I just wanted to go there.
You mentioned earlier that, prior to The High Note, you had mostly played teenagers. What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome to play an actual adult like David?
He’s grown-grown, for real, for real! To be honest, the hardest part was trying to figure out how to walk like a 25-year-old. It sounds ridiculous but I really didn’t know how I was supposed to carry myself. Most of my characters have a secret; they’re all scared of something right in front of them. David is kind of the same but I do think that when you live a bit longer, you have tougher skin and walk with a little more self-assurance. You have a little more charisma than you might have had at 18, when you were awkward and a bit more reactionary. I think also the flirting [was different]. I was like, I wouldn’t go to a bar or a grocery store. I would do it on an app! That part of it, I was like, good luck to Dakota Johnson having to see me try to execute this.
How did you like working opposite Dakota Johnson?
It was so much fun. She’s so smart. I love seeing these powerhouses speak in these very tiny voices. She’s very pleasant, just very quiet and sometimes a little shy. At the same time, when she speaks, you listen. She fills up a room. I think it was very fun to collaborate with her and come up with different ideas and listen to how she talks about the movie. Her passion for the role was really cool. Also, just to be doing that with her on this level. Most of the movies I’ve done are indies, where it’s very intimate. There were a lot of cooks in this kitchen, but she made it feel like we were on an empty set because she owns that studio format like the queen she is.
Tracee Ellis Ross not only matches that but elevates it even further. She takes it up five more notches because she understands that world. What she was able to offer and the joy she brought every day was something that most of us wish we could do. To me, my ideal version of a Hollywood set working with stars would be with Tracee Ellis Ross on a movie like this. That’s the epitome.
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make going from indie sets to one of this size?
To be honest, when I’m on any set, I feel like I have some room to stretch. If I’m number one on the callsheet, then I can have a voice. I can say some stuff. But I think when you’re on a bigger set, you have to stand your ground even more. It’s easy to do it with indies because it’s so small. Everyone is right there and it’s usually your friends. I’ve also worked with a lot of directors that are younger, who are closer in age to me, and they feel like older brothers rather than anything else. It’s just like kicking around trying to make an interesting movie. Whereas with a studio film, there’s money involved — lots of money involved — and it’s like, show up, do your job, get it done. But also there’s a level of respect that you have to have. How you exercise that without offending, without getting in the way, and without walking away at the end of the day like, I’ve given up my integrity in the process — that is a skillset that I’m still trying to discover.
I know when you worked with Trey Edward Shults on Waves, the two of you built the story together from the ground-up, especially because it was focused on a Black family. Did you miss that collaborative process in this studio setting?
The thing about this particular movie is that I wasn’t as sure what my place was. I grew up in the South, where you speak when spoken to. So that was my mentality going into this studio project, just, if you speak to me, that’s when I’ll answer. If you don’t ask me nothing, I won’t say nothing because I’m not trying to get in trouble with nobody. I was just lucky to be there. But Nisha [Ganatra, The High Note’s director] was very collaborative. That was the reason I got involved initially, because of the collaboration and the ideas we talked about. She asked for a lot of my opinions: What guitar should he have? What notebook should he write in? What songs do you like for him? I can’t go from scratch like I did with Trey, but for that level, it was still very collaborative. But to answer your question, I like them equally.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.