Meet the burgeoning star who, after playing a young B.B. King in Elvis, takes on the role of a lesser-known musician in his latest film
How did Kelvin Harrison Jr. get his start?
Raised by two musician parents in New Orleans, Kelvin Harrison Jr. had music in his DNA. “There was so much creativity going around,” he recalls. “I think that’s what made me an actor, to be honest, is watching them.” Before acting, unsurprisingly, he tried his hand at a few instruments, including violin, piano, and trumpet. “I did that until I was 21, and once I started acting, I was like, I’ll never play music again.” It was no less than EGOT winner Viola Davis who encouraged Harrison to pursue the craft, while he was working as a day player on Ender’s Game. “She was like, If you wanna do this seriously, then you should take a class.”
Which projects has he worked on?
The burgeoning performer took Davis’s advice, and by the time he relocated to Los Angeles he was landing prime roles in films such as the psychological horror flick It Comes at Night and the family drama Waves. He also found himself being cast in a number of musically oriented movies—“Yeah, my dad said that would happen,” he says with a laugh—including The High Note, Cyrano, and Elvis, in which he portrayed a young B.B. King. Harrison jokes that the trend might be his subconscious at work: “Maybe I haven’t therapized myself yet. I did wanna be a pop star, so maybe that’s why I want to do all of these things.”
What is his role in Chevalier?
Now, Harrison is returning to his first instrument—the violin—to tell the little-known story of 18th-century composer and violinist Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in Chevalier, coming to theaters April 21. “I was like, I’m gonna get back at it again. It shouldn’t be that hard,” he says of the rehearsal process. “Wrong! It was very hard. I needed my dad—he’s a classical music teacher. We’d work on it for six hours a day, just practicing nonstop.” On the flip side, Harrison felt a bit more freedom in how he embodied the overlooked virtuoso. “My job was, how do I make it interesting? How do I tell the truth—or my version of the truth?”
Next up, Harrison is tackling another historical figure, albeit one with whom we’re all familiar: Martin Luther King Jr., in the upcoming season of the Disney+ and National Geographic anthology series Genius. “We’ve never seen such an intimate look into his life,” the actor says. “That’s been my favorite part of it—playing the man, not the legend. I think people are gonna be pretty enthralled.” He’s also voicing Scar in Barry Jenkins’s forthcoming Lion King prequel. “Scar’s always been my favorite villain of all time,” he says. “It’s cool to give him more life than we’ve seen before.” Then he shakes his head and laughs. “Another musical!”