The year 2020 already started on a pretty high note for Kelvin Harrison Jr., with an Independent Spirit Award nod and a BAFTA EE Rising Star award nomination for his breakthrough performances in “Luce” and “Waves.” And with turns in “The Photograph” and now “The High Note,” the young actor’s star is primed to rise even higher.
“I’d always say, after those movies ‘Luce’ and ‘Waves,’ that I really needed some therapy and a rom-com and that’s exactly what I got,” Harrison jokes, speaking to Variety over the phone.
But it’s taken a while for the 25-year-old star to get comfortable with this success — in fact, Harrison has used his time during quarantine to unpack his feelings about his newfound fame, re-reading journal entries from his early days in the business for some introspection.
“I was really beating myself up a lot, and I did not take a chance to appreciate all the beautiful things that happened,” he says. “I was never focused on the good, I was always focused on what I need to improve on — which is like it’s good to have, to be tough on yourself sometimes and have a strong standard for what you want to be — but also part of what’s beautiful about life is also taking the time to enjoy all the things that you’ve earned. And I think I still hadn’t learned that lesson.”
During that whirlwind time for the young actor — juggling press interviews, fashion week appearances and award shows — Harrison says his focus was direct: “Keep working.”
“And [then] I was like, ‘What are you trying to prove?’” he explains. “It was so much in my own ego. And I think sitting at home has made me just give myself some credit and just be — I don’t know — be proud of the work we’ve done, proud of the decisions I’ve made, and proud of the kind of people that I surround myself with — my publicist on down, my manager, my agents, my best friends, my sisters, my parents, everyone.”
The pandemic also brought to light another notable career revelation, when photos from the set of “Euphoria” tipped off eagle-eyed fans that Harrison had joined the cast of the hit HBO show for its upcoming second season.
“It was something that we had talked about for a while, because I wanted to be on Season 1 and things didn’t really go that way,” he explains. “Suddenly, all the stars aligned and I got to be there. We did our first couple table reads and they were amazing. And we did our camera test and costume fittings were underway, and sets were being built … we were ready to go. And then the pandemic hit; coronavirus said, ‘Sit down.’ But, it’s exciting and everyone is so wonderful on that show. The cast is so fun and sweet and smart and it’s going to be really special. I’m happy to be part of it.”
But for now, the young star’s focus is on “The High Note,” where he plays David Cliff, a talented — and mysterious — young musician. Tracee Ellis Ross leads the film as Grace Davis, a superstar singer who is at a crossroads in her career, grappling with aging in the music industry and deciding whether to play it safe or truly take a risk with her next steps musically. Dakota Johnson plays Maggie, Grace’s personal assistant (and a wannabe music producer) and Ice Cube rounds out the cast as Grace’s longtime manager, Jack.
And though Ross’ character immediately — and understandably — draws comparisons to her mother Diana Ross, Harrison points to another music icon— Beyoncé.
“This is just me being 25 — I always think about ‘What’s Beyoncé gonna be like when she’s like 50, 60, 70 — like what’s gonna happen to her career and how is she gonna navigate it? And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the story of like ‘How Beyoncé Got Her Groove Back.’”
Harrison says he also related to the story personally, especially with regard to the pressures of being in the spotlight.
“Even though I’m just kind of starting, there’s still a lot of ideas and opinions of what I should be doing, what I shouldn’t be doing, what I should say, what I shouldn’t say,” he explains. “And at the end of the day, I think what I admired about Grace is that she didn’t care — she’s like, ‘This is what I think I should do. I’m gonna be honest with myself because I’ve always known my gift, always known who I am. And I’ve always known what people want to see from me, so give me my things.’”
Like Ross, Harrison comes from a musical lineage — his father is a classically trained saxophonist and jazz musician, and his mother is a jazz vocalist — and he trained as a musician while growing up in New Orleans.
“It was really cool just trying to navigate growing up and seeing our parents be such a beacon of light,” he explains. “When you grow up in it, you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, how beautiful it is, how exciting being on that stage is’ — the costumes, the sounds, the musicality, the love and the passion that they throw out of their voices. And it’s so effortless. It’s just like ‘How do you bare your soul that way? I can never do it.’”
“We both kind of decided to turn to acting because we’re like acting suits us,” he continues. “But we did laugh about how we’re both the little kids that had this dream of being singers, and being on the stage [for the film] now, screaming ‘We did it!’ Sometimes I think the universe has bigger plans for you and wants you to do something for other reasons that you might not even know.”
But Harrison admits that he was initially hesitant to audition for the role. “I said no, the first time I got the script. I thought the script was great, but I was like, ‘They can get someone better.’”
In fact, the actor turned down the opportunity to audition for the role three times before deciding to meet with director Nisha Ganatra and, ultimately, bonding over their ideas for the character, including what Harrison thought it would mean to have a young, affluent African American male as the movie’s romantic lead.
“I don’t see many versions of that; it doesn’t happen often,” he notes. “It [also] wasn’t that he was like this starving musician or artist, like he’s fine, he’s well off. So what does that look like, when [the challenge is] purely about this self-doubt that we place on ourselves every day that isn’t real, about what we can do, and what we create in our minds about our limitations, that are just fears?”
During the meeting, Harrison also pitched Ganatra on his musical influences for the character — citing Anderson .Paak, Daniel Caesar, Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr. and “a little bit of Ne-Yo.” Ganatra appreciated the input, Harrison says, with the director’s affirmation helping to build his confidence.
“It made me kind of go ‘Okay, maybe I do have something to offer, I actually have a point of view.’ And despite my own insecurity about my voice, it has nothing to do with playing the part. The best man will get the part.”
Ultimately, the role went to another actor before eventually circling back to Harrison. “You know certain things you just can’t control and I just believe that it was meant to be.”
To prepare for the film, Harrison worked with a vocal coach for 45 minutes a day, to expand his range, and took guitar lessons. Then it was off to the studio to record with legendary producer Rodney Jerkins. And though he finds it’s difficult to watch himself onscreen, he’s proud of the hard work that he put into the performance.
As a bonus, Harrison can also now add Ross to his ever-growing (and high profile) list of co-stars-turned-mentors, which already includes Octavia Spencer, Jeffrey Wright, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Sterling K. Brown.
“They’ve given me a lot of wisdom and secrets and tidbits to maintaining and grounding yourself,” he shares. “If you’re doing the work for you, and you know what you want, and you’re always asking yourself, ‘What’s my intent with doing this project?,’ then you will always have a path of where you’re going. It’s when you start losing sight of that, that’s when things get kind of blurry.”
When asked what he wanted to know from Ross specifically, he says, “‘How do you drown out the noise and not get caught up in the cycle or the pattern of seeking validation or people pleasing?’” Her advice — “Don’t look at what you don’t need to look at.”
“The High Note” is now available for rental via video on demand.