Kelvin Harrison Jr. Talks Cyrano, Being Black in Hollywood
Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is Building a Career of a Lifetime
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is buzzing with excitement amid his very busy schedule. The 27-year-old actor was recently tapped to play famed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in a new biopic; he stars as the titular character in Searchlight's "Chevalier de Saint-Georges"; he's set to voice Scar in Disney's upcoming prequel to "The Lion King"; and he portrays B.B. King in Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis," which is set to hit theaters this summer. But for now, Harrison Jr. is focused on promoting "Cyrano" — the Golden Globe-nominated film that was originally set to debut in December 2021.
The Joe Wright-directed musical film adaptation — based on the classic 1897 play by Edmond Rostand — releases in theaters on Feb. 25, and Harrison Jr. is understandably ecstatic about fans finally seeing his captivating performance. He grins from ear to ear on our Zoom call as he recalls seeing himself on a billboard for the film for the first time in Los Angeles. In "Cyrano," the actor portrays Christian — a handsome soldier who can't find the words to communicate his hidden feelings to his love, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). With help from witty swordsman Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), Christian puts on a clever ruse to woo the woman he loves with ghostwritten letters.
". . . to be a person of color in this type of space, it was a nice idea."
Historically speaking, Harrison Jr.'s character has been known to be rather dim-witted in previous productions of "Cyrano." But starring in the film gave the actor an opportunity to put his musical background to good use and put his own spin on the role. "For me, it was mostly because it was a departure from everything that I had been in previously," the actor tells POPSUGAR about why he chose to star in "Cyrano." "I was really curious about the world and I was like, 'Man, how cool would it be to be shot in a film that Joe Wright is kind of known for?' — a beautiful period piece that was 'Pride & Prejudice' in a nutshell . . . to be a person of color in this type of space, it was a nice idea."
Harrison Jr.'s role offered him a chance to bring a new kind of understanding to Christian that people haven't seen in previous portrayals of the character. "When I read [the play], I saw him as someone who had a lot of emotional intelligence," he explains. "Also, considering his background, the line in the song that says, 'My father told me that letters and books weren't meant for the son of a soldier,' I was like, OK, so this is a man of structure. He really understands when he's looking at facts." Harrison Jr.'s portrayal of Christian in the film reflects exactly the perspective he speaks of — a man who understands his feelings but doesn't quite grasp the concept of conveying them in a thoughtful manner. Even with the pressure of mastering a layered period piece like this, Harrison Jr. recognizes the magnitude of his work and what it could mean for other young Black actors: unlocking doors that are rarely opened.
In some ways, Harrison Jr. says he relates to his character, joking that he and Christian "ain't got no game" when it comes to flirting. But taking on this role taught the actor an even bigger lesson about himself. "It taught me that I take myself too seriously," Harrison Jr. shares. "In my previous jobs, I've always been in really serious dramas about being Black in America and so on and so forth in that realm. There's a serious nature to it, so you kind of have to approach it that way. But with this, Pete was like, 'Dawg, I love that you know all your lines and you're ready to work, but like, no. We're dressed up in costumes and boots, walking around with horses, and singing songs; why are you taking it so seriously?' So I think I've been trying to make that a practice now when I go to work, to just have fun and not think that I'm saving the world."
"I think one of the beautiful things about all the people you've named is that they're so interested and passionate about fostering young actors into spaces where they feel empowered."
Dinklage isn't the only major actor Harrison Jr. has worked with. In previous films like "Luce," "Waves," and "Monster," the actor has had the chance to rub elbows with a lot of Hollywood veterans — including Octavia Spencer, Sterling K. Brown, Jeffrey Wright, and Jennifer Hudson. Naturally, one would assume that acting alongside these big names would be an intimidating experience, but it's only encouraged him to get better at his craft. "One of the beautiful things about all the people you've named is that they're so interested and passionate about fostering young actors into spaces where they feel empowered," he tells us. "I just felt more confident. I felt like I could try more because of their well of emotion and understanding of storytelling with years and years of experience. When I'm working with them, I'm learning from them."
He continues, "What I've realized from all of them is they've always encouraged me to be myself in terms of how I like to work in my process and honoring my instincts. I think the worst thing an actor can do is actually start to neglect those instincts and start to think that it's all about transformation. You're not a human being unless you start using the human parts of you. So if you start shutting that off, thinking that you just need to be some excellent actor, then you already lost. Half of what makes the role interesting is the piece of you that you offer to the character. So I think they really encourage me to just allow me to come through this person's voice."
Following in these seasoned actors' footsteps is just part of what makes Harrison Jr. such a standout act at his age. Instead of chasing his next paycheck, the "Cyrano" star is much more selective about the work he pursues — partially because he knows there's a price that comes with being young and Black in Hollywood. "I'm very intentional at this point," Harrison Jr. declares. "When I first started acting, I was like, 'Listen, I'll do whatever.' I almost did this teen show about being in love and rich and famous just because I was like, 'A brother gotta pay the bills.' But now, as my career has kind of shaped itself, I do have a little bit more privilege in how I select projects and stories that I'm interested in. Sometimes it has to do more with how I want to be positioned and seen in the industry . . . I want Black people to be seen, and young Black brothers that are coming up to be able to be in a Joe Wright movie or a sci-fi movie or just be in different types of genres . . . it's all about expansion of our cinematic universe as Black people, as minorities in general, so that's what I'm really interested in."
"I do have a little bit more privilege in how I select projects and stories that I'm interested in."
Harrison Jr.'s moral compass has been a guiding light for the film roles he auditions for and accepts. The Basquiat biopic came about just as he was wrapping up "Elvis." He tells us that he received a call from director Julius Onah — whom he previously worked with on "Luce" — flat out telling him he'd like the actor to star in and produce the biographical film. "This is exactly where I want to go in my career," Harrison Jr. shares. "I want to get into more producing. I want to continue to tell the stories about an incredible young Black artist that grew up in another time as a cautionary tale in some ways to inspire, and just keep us aware of how we protect ourselves as we give so much to this industry."
The direction of the biopic has yet to be finalized at this point. But in the meantime, an anxious Harrison Jr. has been keeping his nose in a stack of books, diligently studying Basquiat. "I am terrified," he reveals of his upcoming role. "I'm pretty scared in some ways. It's a lot. I got books over there. I got books right here. All I've been doing is just reading everything, but I have to pace myself. I have time, and I know everything will show up when it needs to, so I hope for the best; that's all I got. I'm putting in all the work I can, so that's all you can really do."
As someone who's not of Afro-Latino descent, Harrison Jr. acknowledges some people may have critiques about him portraying the Haitian/Puerto Rican-American artist. "I've played biracial people [in the past], but I'm not biracial," he explains. "I've played a lot of things that I'm just not. I hear about the objections, and I think they're fair. I think the only thing I can say to those people is that I just really love [Basquiat] and I really respect him. So what I can offer is I'm going to honor his story."
"When I'm taking on these roles, I hope that people can have a little bit of sympathy with me and understand that I really want to do the due diligence and respect these human beings as much as possible, and sometimes that goes beyond the full representation."
The actor also notes the outrage he's received from other folks for taking on the role of B.B. King, someone he doesn't share a close resemblance with. "I think my reasoning for taking on something like that was, I really knew I would take care of it in terms of honoring who B.B. really was as an artist and businessman, in relation to Elvis," Harrison Jr. adds. "I would protect that narrative. Maybe they can go and get some other guy that looks more like him, but would he handle [his story] with as much care as me? Would he be not afraid to stand up for B.B. if somebody was trying to write something that wasn't in alignment with his truth? So when I'm taking on these roles, I hope that people can have a little bit of sympathy with me and understand that I really want to do the due diligence and respect these human beings as much as possible, and sometimes that goes beyond the full representation."
The future looks bright for Harrison Jr. Having just shy of a decade's worth of acting experience in the industry, his storied career has set the bar high for someone who hasn't even hit his 30s yet. His schedule may be booked and busy for the next year or so, but the main thing Harrison Jr. looks forward to is taking a well-deserved break. "I think after this year I am going to take a proper break, disappear for a while, and come back when I — well, that's not true. It's coming. The break is going to come when it's supposed to."