Kelvin Harrison Jr. is approaching his second Sundance all the wiser, having come away from last year with a few lessons under his belt. First, less stressing and more fun-having. And second: dress warmly.
“I’m from New Orleans, so I didn’t expect that; I was trying to be cute, and I ended up getting sick afterwards,” Harrison says, over the phone from Los Angeles, of the Park City climate. “That’s not what we’re doing this year. We’re going to be warm first.”
The 24-year-old actor made his Sundance debut last year to support two films, the (similarly titled) “Monster” and “Monsters and Men,” and returns this year again with two projects, both starring Naomi Watts. First up is “Luce,” a fictional film in which he plays a 17-year-old star athlete and debate team captain from Virginia, who was adopted from Eritrea by white parents and who begins a journey of identity exploration when working with a black teacher at school.
“I got the script early the year before last year. I’m kind of bad at reading. I read, but my reading comprehension is not that great, so it usually takes me a while to finish a script. But this one I actually sat down and read in one sitting,” Harrison says. “I remember begging my agent to get me an appointment. I love the idea that we are seeing a different version of a black teenager experience where he wasn’t even from America.”
Harrison is American-born — he was raised in New Orleans, though L.A. is mostly home these days — but he felt a parallel between his teenage years and Luce’s.
“Just opening my eyes to ‘I am so very privileged,’” he says. “My experience is still very unique because I was born here. It’s just basic stuff of growing up and being 17 and trying to find out who you are. Also, I went to a private school for high school and there weren’t many African-American teenagers in this school. I remember having the feeling like I had to adjust and take pieces of myself away to become who I thought they needed me to be. Watching Luce navigate that dynamic of growing up in a home where he was adopted by this white couple, I started to see this is why I did this and this is why I did that, and this is why he’s doing this. It’s because he’s trying to figure out ‘how do I fit in this society right now?’”
Watts is the unifying thread between Harrison’s two Sundance films; in “Luce” she plays his mother and in his second film, “The Wolf Hour,” she is an agoraphobic writer afraid of leaving her house, who is helped by a delivery boy, played by Harrison.
“She got me that second job to be honest,” he says of working with Watts in “The Wolf Hour. “We did ‘Luce’ first and then she asked me to do the next movie. It was something we needed to do to walk into ‘The Wolf Hour’ and literally shed everything from the last movie and kind of become someone new and reexplore our relationship.”
Harrison started his career in music; both his parents are musicians, and so playing piano and the trumpet were natural steps for him growing up.
“I played at the church growing up. I quit right before I did ‘Birth of a Nation,’” he says. “That was a big argument in my house.”
Following “Birth of a Nation,” his film credits include “Mudbound,” “It Comes at Night,” “Assassination Nation” and “Jinn.” Music has come back into his career lately, with a role on the upcoming TV series “The Godfather of Harlem,” a prequel to the 2007 Ridley Scott movie “American Gangster.”
“I play a musician, and I’ve been recording. It’s kind of funny how it’s resurfaced and entered my life again,” Harrison says. “I don’t play guitar, but I play guitar in the show. It’s really cool to incorporate new instruments and start singing again, and making music and collaborating and working with so many great producers on that show.
“My dad always used to tell me, ‘Don’t put your trumpet or piano down because that’s going to be your ticket. It will come back one day.’ He always reminds me of Jamie Foxx playing Ray [Charles]. He’s like, ‘You know, you should keep all your talents juiced up and ready to go, because you don’t know what’s happening.’”
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