The High Note — Interview with Kelvin Harrison, Jr.

At the Movies Blog
This is like a movie and music video all in one.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Dakota Johnson in the studio.

It was great to see Kelvin Harrison Jr. in The High Note. Back in 2013, I don’t remember seeing him in 12 Years a Slave, but he soon showed up in movies like Assassination Nation, Monsters and Men, The Birth of a Nation, Mudbound, and JT LeRoy. Although critics praised It Comes At Night, the only thing I liked about it were the performances of Joel Edgerton and Kelvin Harrison. Harrison had a handful of scenes and was still a teenager, but had a powerful presence.  

He garnered attention playing the title character in the movie Luce, getting a nomination in the Independent Spirit Awards. The fact that Luce only made a few million at the box office is baffling. In my opinion, it was the best movie of 2019.

Well, The High Note was probably going to soar high at the box office, until the Coronavirus hit. Lucky for everyone else, they can catch it on May 29th.

And lucky for me, I got a chance to talk to Kelvin about his latest project.

JOSH BOARD: I’ve reviewed movies a long time and interviewed many actors over the years, and I don’t usually make comments like this, but…you’re my favorite young actor working today.

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Aw, thanks. That’s so nice.

JOSH BOARD: On my Top 10 list last year, your movie Waves was #10 and Luce was #1. I met Marsha Stephanie Baker (from Luce) at a party in L.A. and spent half an hour talking with her about how much I loved Luce. Your performance in that was so good. I first saw you in It Comes at Night, which I didn’t care for, but you were great. It was like you were being nice, but maybe faking it, and things could go south and get ugly. And it was a similar character in Luce. You had to be nice at times, and manipulative in such subtle ways. Is that how you interpreted the character, is that the direction you got, or a combination of both? 

KELVIN HARRISON JR: It’s really a testament to our director. He had a vision of what he wanted the movie to look like. There was preparation for me, reading the book, wanting to change my voice, gain a bit of weight. Everything was calculated. Every beat of the scenes. With my version of the character and his, we had to find medium ground. Luce was 17 and just a kid, and always understood what he was doing. Also, Jules [director Julius Onah] never told me certain things, and I kind of had to figure it out myself. He didn’t tell me what Luce actually did.

JOSH BOARD: That’s so funny, because I got to talk to [screenwriter] J.C. Lee at a screening, and I asked him certain questions about what characters did and he wouldn’t tell me. He wanted people to interpret it the way they saw it.

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Jules would have me do things differently, sometimes so audiences feel for you more. Sometimes I’d play the victim. Other times he’d say, ‘Here, show a bit more love.’ He might say ‘Have more of an Obama energy with this’ and I’d play it that way, and he’d cut it the way it worked best.

JOSH BOARD: Now, the first question I have about The High Note, and I know you’re going to get this a lot, but…we know Tracee Ellis Ross sang. I just wasn’t sure about you.

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Yes. It was my first time doing it like that, with a proper producer, and a full album and full songs, playing the guitar. 

[had I done any bit of research, I would have seen that Harrison plays jazz and gospel, is a pianist and trumpet player, sings, and has studied and recorded extensively with the famous Marsalis family].

JOSH BOARD: I think you should have said to Tracee, that since you were singing and wanted a real authentic look, that you’d need to take a two or three hour lesson with her mom [Diana Ross].

KELVIN HARRISON JR: (laughing) Ya know, it was funny. I told her this strange coincidence in doing this movie, because my parents are both musicians. My dad was a musician on this show and my mom was a vocalist. It was in New Orleans. The show was ‘Where The Girls Are’ and one time they had Tina Turner and another time Diana Ross. I was watching them do that, with my dad playing the music. She was incredible, and just beautiful. She brought so much to the table. I was telling Tracee that and she said ‘I don’t know if you know this, but Diana Ross is my mom.’ It was like…Yeah, I know (laughs). It just all seemed like this full circle moment and us following in our parents’ footsteps. 

[At this point in the interview, I wondered if I should tie in the fact that Dakota Johnson also had famous parents — Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson; I opted not to, as I figured I might slip and bring up the fact that Don Johnson once released an album of music that was awful]

JOSH BOARD: I’m a huge Sam Cooke fan. I even bought one of his signed contracts at an auction 20 years ago. There’s a scene where you say you don’t know who Cooke is, and then you surprised a character by performing “You Send Me.” Did you know who he was before you started doing this movie?

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Oh yeah. My grandmother loved Sam Cooke. She would always play his music and tell me about him. I did a show once and used one of his albums for reference for the character. I love him.

JOSH BOARD: You performed Sam Cooke, but looked like Marvin Gaye rockin’ that knit cap. Was wearing that your idea or the director, the wardrobe department…?

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Uh…that was something where we had a bunch of options. They had fedoras and other hats. The knit cap came into play, because it had this New York style that was being presented in the fitting room. Anderson Paak wore them, Gary Clark, Jr. The knit cap had a soulfulness. It was around in the older R&B days and these other cats reinvented it around 2010.

JOSH BOARD: Since The High Note is music oriented, it got me thinking back to Waves, since that film did so many interesting things with the music. When you’re filming a scene in High Note, do they dub in the songs later, or are you hearing it while they’re filming it? I was also curious as to if you realized how well blended in the music would be in Waves?

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Yeah, well…those things are a tribute to the director. In Waves, all the music that was in the script, the aspect ratios, which color was supposed to be used. You read the script and you could see it, and scroll through and know where he was headed with everything. The script was beautiful and you could imagine a lot of it.

JOSH BOARD: When you got the script for The High Note, did you already know who else was cast in it? Or do you sign up and find out later — hey, cool. Ice Cube is in this!

KELVIN HARRISON JR: I knew Dakota was involved, and Tracee. That was all at the time. After the table read, a few came in and figured out deals and stuff like that. Once I got the part, I met Tracee at the table read, and I was excited to work with all of them. I like Tracee and who she represents as a person and especially her work on Black-ish.

JOSH BOARD: Speaking of the work the cast has done previously, actors always talk about getting nervous with love scenes. You have a kissing scene with Dakota, and there must be another level of nervousness you feel because of all that stuff she did in 50 Shades. That’s on a whole other level than the normal love scenes.

KELVIN HARRISON JR: (laughs). Ya know, it does cross your mind. I was more…well, I wanted to make sure DJ felt safe and that it wasn’t…you know, in a movie like this, I don’t want women feeling objectified in any way or anything. I was nervous, because I wanted her to know I was a nice guy. One time I wore a lot of cologne and she said ‘That’s too much’ (laughs). 

JOSH BOARD: Well, you didn’t want to smell bad. I’ve heard actors talk about doing love scenes and the person they were kissing had bad breath. It’s just so crazy to think that would happen.

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Oh yeah, you’re always conscious of bad breath. Ya gotta brush your teeth, use mouthwash. It’s a whole routine.

JOSH BOARD: I asked about your co-stars in The High Note, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Harrison Ford [they were in Ender’s Game together]. I know your part was small in that movie, but did you get to talk to him or anything on the set?

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Yeah, it was so crazy. I didn’t even know I wanted to be an actor then [2012]. Filming that was when I learned a lot about the industry, and being surrounded by young actors on top of their game…Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin…and Viola Davis, and being next to Sir Ben Kingsley at the honeywagon at the urinal. That was my first time seeing him and I said ‘Nice to meet you.’ I had just seen Gandhi the week before and it was so crazy being in a movie with him. One of the main actors I also doubled for, and so I ended up running lines with Harrison off camera when that guy had to go to school. It was surreal. The craziest experience of my life. I was worried about if I was doing a good job since it was my first time acting, and here I am doing it with Han Solo. 

JOSH BOARD: So, what movies have you been catching up on and watching during this quarantine?

KELVIN HARRISON JR: Gandhi I watched again. I watched Under the Influence and Shoplifters. I rewatched Closer. I watched some Woody Allen movies, and some Yorgos Lanthimos movies. What’s that one where he keeps his family locked up in the house?

JOSH BOARD: Dogtooth. Yeah, that was…well…I’m still scarred from watching that.

KELVIN HARRISON JR: I know, right? It was so crazy. It was great, but just…so disturbing. I loved it, but it’s so sick. What a brain Yorgos has.

JOSH BOARD: Thanks so much for your time. I’ll be looking forward to all your future films.

I’ll be reviewing this movie tomorrow on the radio, as well as on this website.
Everyone can see The High Note on May 29th, on Prime Video and other streaming services.

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