As distributors continue to roll out their awards hopefuls throughout the fall and winter months, you won’t want to miss “Waves,” the sensational new film from director Trey Edward Shults. Featuring a stellar ensemble cast, one of its highlights is an indelible performance from one of Hollywood’s most promising young actors, Kelvin Harrison Jr. Following up his acclaimed work in “Luce,” Harrison delivers yet another provocative portrayal of a young black man’s struggle to meet the expectations of society and his family. During the film’s auspicious run through the festival circuit, he was honored as one of the Rising Stars of the Toronto International Film Festival, where Awards Circuit caught up with the 25-year-old New Orleans native to reflect on his life and career thus far.
“Waves” marks a reunion for its director and star, as Schultz and Harrison previously collaborated on 2017’s “It Comes at Night.” The moody horror film netted Harrison a Gotham Award nomination for Breakthrough Actor, serving notice of Harrison’s leading man potential. After years of honing his craft primarily in supporting roles, Harrison stepped into the spotlight in a major way in 2019. His roles in “Luce” and “Waves” are strikingly similar, both exploring how the pressures of being a star athlete and student can be a heavy burden for a young black male in an American society expecting him to fail. Though he is wholly convincing as these characters, Harrison admits that he wasn’t the most obvious fit. He was never the high school jock, following the lead of his musician parents as a pianist, trumpeter and singer. And in college, he studied studio engineering and marketing before becoming an actor full time.
Despite being “terrible at sports,” Harrison leapt at the chance to play Tyler in “Waves” and fulfill Schultz’s vision for the character. He explains, “I read the script and it was incredible. He embedded music into the pages and it was just big fonts and colors, it just felt so real.” And when the time finally came to shoot, Harrison describes a very nurturing vibe from his director and fellow actors such as Sterling K. Brown, who inspired him as a fatherly influence both on and off screen.
“Luce” and “Waves” mark a noticeable shift in Harrison’s career, as his earlier credits included many historical roles related to slavery and civil rights, with appearances in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” and Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” as well as “Roots” and “Underground” on TV. He asserts, however, that the recent contemporary focus of his work wasn’t an intentional personal decision, but a reflection of cultural change. “I think it’s just where we are in the world right now. And it’s interesting to me, because I think you can see the progression from around the time when everyone was looking to tell more stories about black people and just tell our history.” He adds, “Now we’ve gotten to the next step. African-Americans are getting roles and we’re being sought out and seen as peers. I think now the opportunities are around the social justice issues and what’s going on in the country right now.”
But as many others have expressed, he hopes that roles for black actors would no longer be defined in the context of race. “Hopefully the next wave of that is just letting us play Joe who works at the counter of the Sheraton and waters the flowers, you know what I mean?”
For his own future projects, Harrison has no dream roles in mind. “I’m constantly evolving in my life at this point and things change everyday. I never have an idea of what’s going to happen or what I want to happen. I’m just trying to work on being present and not having too many expectations.” Instead, he name-checks several creatives he’d like to work with. Namely Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix. Grateful for the “awesome” accolades he has received thus far, he cites the experiences of meeting and learning from fellow actors as the most special part of his job.
Harrison will surely get many of those collaborative opportunities as he looks ahead to a bright career. For 2020, he already has roles lined up in films such as Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and Nisha Ganatra’s “Covers.” And unlike the tormented characters whose downward spirals delivered this breakout year for him, there’s every indication that his humility, passion and talent will put him on an upward trajectory to realize his full potential.