Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. emphasizes his attraction to characters with a similar core as himself - acting off of what he can harvest in the moment, or locate in past behaviour or experience to eventually comprehend the complicated mechanisms of another person. Photographer Amber McKee allows Kelvin to seize the moment, whilst he flourishes across her lens in the midst of a rustic, original Californian bowling alley. Experiences shape our living breathing self to unfathomable proportions. It’s the never-ending discussion of nature versus nurture. Some traits are pre-requisite to us - a set of tools that are inherited down strains of DNA, but there are certain aspects of the genes present that can only become fully realized after we’ve acquired an experience. Does experience determine the type of personality traits we tend to adopt or develop? How are you then expected to prematurely portray a character you haven't got a complete understanding of yet?
Kelvin describes himself as; ‘I’m naturally a very heavy person, so it’s hard for me to keep it upbeat.’ Speaking to Kelvin feels nothing of that sort - he has a sense of self-irony that makes him easily accessible to others. For such a 'heavy person', he is surprisingly easy to talk to. Perhaps that is a trait that translates onto to the silver screen; his willingness to share? It's just presented differently. He is often seen playing highly emotional or driven characters with one of his most recent portrayals being ‘Travis’ in the thriller ‘It Comes at Night’. Travis lives with his parents, played by Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo, in the woods, with a plot set in a post-apocalyptic world. Nightmares frequently terrorize this 17-year old boy due to repressed feelings of moral ambiguity in relation to his parents. The film embraces the unknown, which is an uncomfortable topic for Kelvin, as he deals with anxiety in his own life on an every day basis.
Kelvin is also set to appear as Steve Harmon, another 17-year old, who is caught up in a tumultuous moment in time. Steve unfortunately gets wrapped up in a robbery where a murder takes place, which results in him being imprisoned at a New York juvenile detention center. What follows is the fight to prove his innocence against the unjust justice system of the United States. The filming of ‘Monster’ took place in an actual prison and Kelvin was therefore faced with an abrupt understanding of what it’s like to be a young incarcerated man in America. He is able to adapt to a situation and make out the rules that apply to a specific story and its facets. Stylist Leo Plass serves up retro aesthetic attire to compliment Kelvin at the bowling alley, providing him with a suitable attitude to play and interact however he pleases. He owns this space with his emotional spectrum.
How was your shoot with Amber?
She was so cool - she was so much fun. The bowling alley was great. I love bowling personally. I’m really bad at it, but I love bowling. I was hitting consecutive gutter balls, which is a success - it’s consistent. The clothes were super cool - there was a really cool tiger shirt that I got to wear. It was totally my vibe.
The most important question of them all, considering you’re an actor and you’re always seen playing other people, who would you say is the real Kelvin?
Honestly, it’s interesting; I don’t really know how people perceive me. With all the films I’ve chosen to do - everyone thinks I’m really dark, which I guess I kind of am. I don’t know why I’m attracted to those, but at the end of the day I’m not really a surface person; I don’t really like that type of conversation. I seek to understand everyone’s core. I love people and I love really getting to know people - their depths and ideas. I think I’m also quite similar to my characters, vulnerable and kind of quirky. Otherwise, I’m super chill, I like to relax and play board games. I like hanging out with my friends. I love board games. Chocolate cake. That’s called a good time.
Board games and chocolate cake sounds like the ultimate. What is your favourite board game?
‘Balderdash’ - basically it’s a bluffing game, so it’s like, of course an actor likes a bluffing game. You get these categories and one of them is ‘laughable laws’. You’ll get for instance; ‘In 1942, George Hamilton got arrested for… what?’. You will have to fill in the blank with the true answer, so it might be; ‘For eating a banana in the middle of the street.’ We all have to write our own answers, so you’ll have to choose the right answer, but what people do is that they bluff; ‘My answer is the best answer.’ You get these ridiculous responses from people and it’s really funny. I also get very competitive, because I’m a writer at heart. I can write some really interesting made-up things.
What have you been writing lately?
I started writing this pilot about escorts. I’m not really sure where I’m going with it yet. The idea started a while ago, maybe three years ago. I have a lot of interesting friends and one of them did the escort thing for a while. I was so fascinated by it and I started developing all these characters and doing research on the topic. It’s kind of just sitting there right now.
You studied film in university, right?
Yeah, I studied film at the University of New Orleans. I eventually want to get back into making films - writing and directing. But stuff like that takes time. I’m not sure if I’m ready for it yet, but I’m definitely interested in directing something soon. Maybe another short though.
Will it be a drama, comedy or thriller?
Drama mostly. Comedy is fun, but basically, I’m not funny.
Do you find comedy to be difficult?
I think comedy is definitely more challenging for me. It’s a really specific thing and I don’t find the beats or the energy. I’m naturally a very heavy person, so it’s hard for me to keep it upbeat.
Do you think it’s perhaps something to do with you being more comfortable making people cry than making them laugh?
Yeah, and I love laughing. It’s strange, because I love laughing and making people laugh, but I don’t really know how to do it within the structure of a script. That’s the challenge.
You mentioned earlier; ‘Oh, an actor liking a bluffing game…’, but wouldn’t you say that acting is about telling someone else’s truth?
It is like telling the truth, because for me there is always a truth and then it is the truth that you want people to believe. I always say that I know my truth, it’s always in sync with me achieving my goals, but you may not know what my truth is, because I have an objective and my objective might seem slightly different. I feel like people bluff, we bluff. We put on a cover. I always say that people become what they want to become because of what they need. That’s acting. We’re becoming who we need to be in a moment and a given scene to get what we need, and that’s when the truth comes out. That’s what gives humanity to a character when you combine the two. Then you have this depth of a human being - then you know that their drive is to do this. I know why they need this. The way of doing it is very fascinating to me and I think that’s what makes the dynamics of an actor really interesting.
Viola Davis gave you an acting tip that you spoke about in a previous interview; ‘It’s a craft, you need to understand that and get into some classes.’ You ended up attending classes, I’m curious, what kind of classes were they and did you study any specific techniques?
Not exactly, the classes I went to were more scene study and audition classes. I’m from Louisiana, and there is work down there, but there aren’t many resources. I was a marketing major in university, or at first I was a marketing major and then I switched to film. I was a film major my last two semesters and then I didn’t finish. I went to these classes, and we talked about how to break down a script. My acting coach had sort of his own personal process that he had learnt from Larry Moss, as he studied with him. I believe Larry’s technique comes from Meisner. It was interesting, but we learnt how to find our own process and I got these tools from here and there and figured out what worked for me. Some people study for years and really dive into these techniques and then they develop a process. I had more of a crash course, because it was just outside of the university curriculum. The process has been mostly reading and talking and observing other actors. And watching films. I love the roundtables and reading interviews. You really start to learn a lot about the craft and that coupled with what I learnt in class has been very helpful. I’ve watched the veterans and read the reference material and then applied it in a class. Everything combines together sort of to feel like a well-balanced and makeshift acting technique. I definitely just do my own thing - people are like; ‘What’s your process?’. ‘Oh, you don’t want to know…’
The Kelvin Technique. You said in a previous interview that you often accept roles, because they appeal to you in the moment. With us talking acting techniques and such, do you often utilize a lot of the things that you’re going through at the moment when playing a character?
Sometimes I feel that’s all I have to offer. I audition for a lot of things and certain things I find very fascinating, but I just don’t get them, because I don’t have a personal connection to them. That’s often because I don’t understand that aspect of life yet, because I haven’t lived it. I personally think, to a certain extent, that I can only really offer something to something I’m familiar with. For instance, Travis in ‘It Comes at Night’ is going through this interesting coming-of-age with him trying to understand who is as a young man. For me, it was the same thing of moving to LA and making a decision with my parents at the back being kind of like; ‘We don’t think that’s what’s best for you right now.’ I come from a musical family, so Jazz is important. I play the trumpet and the piano, and both my parents were like; ‘This is where your career should go. You have a lot of resources here. You have us. You have family and connections.’ They kind of put that on the forefront and I went; ‘yeah, you’re right. What do I know? I’m only 17 or 18. I don’t know what’s best for me at the end of the day’. I eventually had to learn and branch out; ‘well, you’re old enough - you know what you want. You can make decisions for yourself and you need to be okay with that.’
Travis is going through the same thing in the film. His parents are making some really interesting choices and it’s not morally connected to what Travis’ feeling. Initially he goes; ‘you’re right - you’ve been protecting me and you know what’s best for me,’ which is similar to what I was like with my parents. Eventually he goes; ‘but you know what? I don’t agree with this. I won’t stand for it anymore. I will make a decision for myself’. That’s part of the process of maturing and becoming a young adult - I connected with that. It’s just one example of how I connect with a character - all of them have unique stories of which made me connect to them. I draw from other things to - the past. All of this is drawn from my life to an extent - to understand the character on a deeper level than just surface level. There is also a lot of research involved, because for instance I did a movie where I had to play a kid from Harlem, New York, and that was hard because I don’t listen to rap and I don’t know New York. It’s a bit of push and pull situation, but the core of this guy - I understood that.
You brought up Travis and ‘It Comes at Night’ - Travis suffers from nightmares, how did you connect with this reality?
That was the hardest part actually, because the nightmares all have a lot of symbolism in them. When I first received the script I was so moved by his story and that family dynamic, because that’s such an important thing to me - family. With the nightmares it was like; ‘What does this mean? What are the nightmares saying and how can it insight my day to day?’. They were so specific in the script. I always say that when we’re dreaming it’s something in the subconscious that is bothering us and we’re trying to address that. Travis is trying to address it in his nightmares; he is trying to come to terms with this moral ambiguity that he is getting from his parents. It became more of a psychological investigation with what’s going on in his psyche. The fear for me was always how I ended up going about his being whereas understanding the fear of his parents. For him, the nightmares were more of an emotional thing - that is what’s scary about them.
The family is an important component of this film, how did you guys establish the family bond?
It was so cool, because we had some time before the shoot started. I was filming a show for FOX and I was in North Carolina. I wrapped at 3am and got on a flight immediately afterwards. My suitcase was with me on set that day. I landed in Woodstock and I went to the fitting and met everyone. We started doing makeup tests. It was exhausting, but we only had like a week of prep. When you have less time, you can’t procrastinate, so everyone really dives in. I went to Joel’s house and we cooked together and did meals together like we would do in the movie. Carmen and I went grocery shopping, we went to the waterhole, we walked and we hiked. We drove around the city and that’s how we got to know each other. I asked her a lot of questions about her family, her kids and what it’s like being a mother. I told her about my experiences and my life - we connected over our similarities and it created a relationship that grew from there. It was easy. Joel for instance really made me feel like I was Travis in terms of our relationship. He was very tough with me and I think you can see that in the film. I desperately wanted Joel to be my best friend, and because we created this dynamic - the real life relationship with Joel with me longing for his validation, it showed up as Travis’ longing for his stepfather’s validation. It’s small little things like a shift or a touch - you can feel the tension and subtlety of the two, the desperate desire and love, but a disconnect to an extent.
A big topic of the movie is the unknown. What is your relationship with the unknown? Do you fear the unknown?
Yeah, I don’t like the unknown. I have anxiety, and especially when starting a new job or anything in my life honestly - I don’t know if I’m going to get through the day. Am I going to make my 11 o’clock on time? Am I going to do this on time? Small things like that give me anxiety. Every time I start a new job I’m always looking forward to the last day, because that way I know I’m finished. Haha I fear not surviving the movie or any movie for that matter. There is a feeling that I’m not going to be able to finish and it scares me that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I fear getting to meet people for the first time; ‘Will they like me?’. Anything, I don’t know - it scares me, but that’s not good. I don’t encourage anyone to think like that.
Where does this anxiety come from?
I don’t know, control? I’m a control freak for sure. I like control. I like to know things. I like to be able to plan. I like having control over my life and the unknowns make me uncomfortable.
How do you react to a loss of control?
I start becoming anxious in an unhealthy kind of way - I start to freak out. I can have panic attacks sometimes, but you know, that’s just part of a learning curve of adjusting and growing up. I lived with my parents for years and now I finally live by myself. I have to be an adult and I have bills to pay. I have responsibilities and I have a lot of people in my team now. I have appointments and I have these interviews - it’s a lot of things I need to keep track of. I think it’s not having a firm grasp on things that gives me anxiety; not knowing I’ll be able to rise up to expectation - fear of failure. In the work I do, we fail all the time and failures are encouraged, but I don’t like to lose.
Let's talk about your upcoming film ‘Monster’, where you’re playing Steve Harmon. Steve is a 17-year old who gets caught up in a robbery where a murder takes place and he ends up in a New York juvenile detention centre. He is caught up in a battle to prove his innocence. How did you go about creating this character and how was it work with such flagrant conditions?
First of all I had never seen a story about a young African American man that was so introspective and visual - he really sees the world differently. The way Colen Wiley wrote the script really opened it up - this playing with imagination. It was so exciting. You might see this with younger kids, but you know, 17-year olds, especially artists, we’re in our heads and we really see things differently. That’s the thing that attracted me about the film, and then also the aspect of the justice system - how flawed it is. I didn’t actually get the job at first. It wasn’t until ‘It Comes at Night’ that they suddenly reached out again, which wasn’t until September. I met with Anthony, and he changed my mind about it. He just started talking about the greys, and for me, I don’t think everything’s black and white, because we live in the grey; everything is kind of fluid and grey. It’s not this or that. The story sort of hits on that - how you can be wrong and right at the same time, but there are so many other elements involved when you make those decisions - how the events in your life lead up to the results. It’s hard to judge a person, because there are so many components to a person and how they ended up where they are. The prison part was scary, I was in a prison and when we filmed it, there were real prisoners around us. It was scary, but it was cool, because I stayed there - I never left the cell when we were filming those scenes. I stayed there, ate food there, slept there and had breaks there. I wanted to take it all in, because without that I would never be able to truly give you the truths of what someone who has been there feels. I wanted to do as much work and spend as much time with that as possible just to get as much of the energy around me inside of me to properly and respectfully present that. It’s hard though. It messed me up afterwards.
How did you ‘detox’ following that role?
That was the last movie of the year and it was a really hard shoot. I felt I was fine, but then I found out that I wasn’t. I was overwhelmed with everything; I was in a weird space for a minute. It was holiday season, as we finished around November. I went home for Christmas and got to hang out with my family, relax and have a good time. Then I went back to work the next year. Family always helps; it grounds you again and makes you realize who you are. Your job is just your job. What I found so interesting about acting is that what we do is that we try to change the mind and convince the mind that we’re feeling this way. Once we do that, the body starts to adjust and sometimes the body doesn’t realize that it’s pretend. Because of that, you start to actually become depressed. Your body is like; ‘Oh, I’m feeling all these things.’ ‘No, no, it was just a movie. It’s over now.’ But you’re body is like; ‘Nah. You mess with me already. I’m feeling some type of way now.’ You have to tell your body that it’s okay and that we’re done. Yeah, my body and I - we’re always talking.
You’ve been cast in the JT Leroy biopic together with a wide array of cast members. Are you able to tell us anything about the character you’ll be playing in the film?
That’s why I’ve got the hair. I don’t know if I can actually… I can say that he is an art student, a design student. That’s all I can say.
That’s better than nothing. I stalked your Instagram and I figured out that you had seen your first play very recently – ‘Oslo’ with Jennifer Ehle. She is of course great. Has the theatre bug bitten you perhaps?
She is so good. Absolutely, I’ve met with an agent in the theatre department of my agency. We talked and I was supposed to read for ‘Hamlet’ this month, but I’ve got way too much stuff to do. I’ve never done a play, and I didn’t think ‘Hamlet’ should be my first play. I would definitely want to do some theatre, but I’m not quite sure what I would want to do. I remember reading ‘The Laramie Project’ when I was younger and I thought it was so exciting. I’ve read and done a monologue from ‘Angels in America’. I’ve read a lot of interesting things and I’ve just got to keep on reading to figure out what I would like to do - start digging deeper into that aspect of things. I find it interesting - to be able to move through the whole story. With film there is a lot of stop and go. There is something about consistently staying in it, breathing and living - bouncing off of each other consistently. That sounds exciting. And also being able to do it every night - I can learn something new tomorrow, I can try this again. I feel like there is so much self-discovery, and for me, that’s what it’s about at the end of the day. That’s the most fascinating thing we have in this life.
I was very impressed to see in a previous interview that you mentioned actresses as main inspiration sources.
There is something about actresses. This is probably not fair to say, but I think they might work harder. I feel like they understand things on a much deeper level - on a much more primal level. Men tend to cover a lot, but they’re also expected to cover a lot. I don’t think I’ve been interested in watching that - I get it and it’s fascinating to me, but there is something about bearing your soul consistently with the combination of strength and overcoming things in their work that I love about for instance Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett. They are just so dynamic, and I also think they transform easier. They get to dress in these different things, colour their hair, and wear different makeup… That’s really cool. I’ve always been drawn to that. I mean, male actors are great too, but I don’t know. I think that’s what it is. I think sometimes they’re just better. These women in Hollywood are sort of the underdogs - they’re really striving and we always underestimate them - they have to work twice as hard. I think being a minority I can relate to that as well. And I don’t think I fit into that Denzel or Leonardo DiCaprio category in terms of the strong leading male kind of guy. I’m weird and quirky, but I’m okay with that. Tilda is okay with being Tilda Swinton and looking androgynous. She embraces it. That’s something that is fascinating to me.
What mark would you like to leave on the world?
I guess I would like to open up this door for what is expected of young African American actors, because I definitely think I’ve been choosing things intentionally that are slightly different. Not many young African American boys gets a lead in a movie next to Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo in a horror film. I want people to start seeing what guys like me can do and therefore provide more opportunities for those who might come after me. Then they will be able to do even more bizarre projects that we don’t get to see them do very often. We can start to see that we’re all very universal; it’s just that we need to represent that. Our ideas of each other are based on what we’ve seen and learn to an extent - it’s not based on reality, because if you don’t get the opportunity to meet people like me, then you won’t know me.
I think that’s a great goal. Thank you so much for speaking to us, hope the filming of JT Leroy goes well and enjoy your hair!