“I love first-time filmmakers, because I feel like they have more patience with me.
We’re going through it together,” says 23-year-old Kelvin Harrison Jr., fresh off of a veritable breakout at Sundance 2018, at which he appeared in not one, not two, but three lauded films. Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation (in which he played the supporting role of Mason) was the highest sale of the festival, going to NEON and AGBO for a reported $10 million. But it’s the two films he starred in—All Rise and Monsters and Men—that are poised to catapult him to the top of casting agents’ wish lists.
Both films are by first-time feature directors, and both involve the aftermath of a tragic shooting. In All Rise, Harrison Jr. plays a 17-year-old aspiring moviemaker who’s suddenly on trial for accessory to murder, hoping to convince the jury that he isn’t really what the film’s title suggests. In the triptych film Monsters and Men, he plays a high school star athlete inspired to take a stand against police brutality. Monsters and Men (which was also bought by NEON) didn’t choose its name until late in the game, but Harrison Jr. actually likes the similarities between the films; he views them as companion pieces. “Monsters and Men was my opportunity to explore hope and the aftermath of the events depicted in All Rise,” he says. “I always thought of it as this next step in finding my voice as an activist.”
To speak with Harrison Jr. is to quickly discover how thoughtful he is and how bright his future looks. When asked which movies inspired him to pursue acting, he names two films from 1959: Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (he was “attracted to the performative aspects of Maleficent”) and Imitation of Life, Douglas Sirk’s seminal melodrama about a young black girl pretending to be white. “The layers of the film and the message in it resonated with me. I had a really emotional reaction to it,” he says. Harrison Jr. swears a recording exists somewhere of his very young self performing the entirety of Sleeping Beauty for his parents.
Harrison Jr. grew up in New Orleans in a family of musicians, and he plays several instruments himself. The musician he’d most want to play in a film is ‘50s R&B star Little Willie John—though he thinks his parents would most want to see him play Sam Cooke. He never really got into sports, though he did try football for a short time because he made a bet with childhood friend (and now star receiver for the New York Giants) Odell Beckham Jr. that if Odell would act in a musical, then Kelvin would try football. “He didn’t do the musical, but I ended up doing football,” Harrison Jr. laughs. “And I quit.”
Now, Harrison Jr. is firmly entrenched in cinema. Following a handful of small parts in such critically-praised features as Louisiana-set Mudbound and 12 Years a Slave, he hit his stride in the acclaimed 2017 horror film It Comes at Night. His performance as Travis, he says, was partly inspired by listening to Hans Zimmer scores on set. One of his dreams is to work with Lynne Ramsay. “I love Ratcatcher,” he says. “Ramsay always has this crazy eye, and the editing in her films is so inventive.”
As a new era of inclusion is beginning to dawn in the film industry, with more and better parts for diverse talents, the moment isn’t lost on Harrison Jr. “This year there were more black films than there have ever been at Sundance at one time—films that are telling stories about people who look like me,” he notes. “And they weren’t one-dimensional. They were constantly showing that there are grey areas in who we are and where we come from. It’s nice to be a part of that moment, and in a weird way, to be one of the faces of it.” MM
All Rise (formerly titled Monster) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2018, and Monsters and Men opened September 28th, 2018, courtesy of NEON.
This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Moviemaker Magazine