A Conversation with The High Note’s Kelvin Harrison Jr.

This past week I got to speak to Kelvin Harrison Jr. on the phone about finding his voice, both as an actor and as an excellent singer in The High Note. As I say during the interview, I first found Kelvin watching It Comes at Night, and ever since then I knew he would capture his audience’s attention every chance he got. I just didn’t know he would do so by singing.

Andres: So my first question is, where have you been hiding that voice?

Kelvin: (laughs) That’s kinda sweet. Um, I’ve honestly always wanted to sing. My mom – I used to play keyboard in the church growing up. And my dad would play Sax, and my mom was the choir director. She would sing and I would do some “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” as they would say in Dreamgirls. And then I was like good at the “ooh’s” and “ahh’s.” And so I got this part and they’re like, “we’re going to need a bit more than that.”. And I was like “we’ll see, I’ll do my best. I’ll do my best of falala.” And that’s what I gave you, some falala. 

A: Would you ever consider doing a full musical?

K: Oh I would love to, I mean, yeah, I would love to. That’s something I’m thinking about now. And seeing if that’s a possibility considering all things. But, I’m definitely interested in it. It would be something to check off my list. And I think that’s why I want to do it. I love musicals, so yeah.

A: Did Nisha Ganatra find you for the film, or did you find her? Because after Late Night, I can see why people want to track her down.

K: It’s so funny, we were on the same junket at Sundance that year. Every outlet we went to, my movie and Nisha’s movie was always back-to-back. So I never met her, and I never saw her. I would always see Mindy, but I guess it was like fate because they kept sending me this script. And I was originally too fearful to actually do music in the movie so I would say no. I didn’t see how I would add value to it, but I guess they saw otherwise. Mostly my agents, they really pushed for me to do it. And I think they wanted me to meet Nisha, and once we finally met, we really vibed and you know, saw eye-to-eye in terms of how we wanted to collaborate and develop David and his participation in the greater story line. So it took us a minute for us to get together, but once we did it felt right.

A: I wanted to ask what your reaction was like to hearing Track 8 for the first time? Because it’s been my current obsession for the past two weeks or so.

K: Ayy! That makes me so happy, that’s so cool to me, I’m not gonna lie. That’s so cool. Yesterday I was like, I can’t believe I have a song, I guess. Yeah, I don’t know. I think. The first time – I remember when I recorded it, and I hoped for the best. And I was so scared. And my vocal coach (Valerie Morehouse) was in the booth, and Rodney Jenkins, our producer was in the booth. And they’re like “no, you’re fine, you’re fine. It’s gonna turn out great.” And then I remember listening to a bare track of Track 8, and I kinda was like “oh no. This isn’t gonna work, this doesn’t feel good.” But once they added all the other instrumentation and stuff like that. To make the song feel alive. When the studio executives from Universal sent me the album and he was like “Track 8 is a bop.” And I was like “yeah I’ll believe it when I hear it.” And then I played it in my home, and I literally almost – I kinda almost cried (laughs) like a dork. They made me sound pretty cool. I’m happy with it, I’m happy with it.

A: You should be. While you’re explaining this to me, it even reminded me in the film when David heard Maggie’s production of the song earlier when you’re in the car, and you question is that me? You added the drums and you changed it up. It felt very real to that. 

K: Yes, that’s exactly how it felt. Oh my god, yes. That’s so funny. That movie is almost too close to home at this point, it’s kinda weird. Am I David or nah? I wish I had his house.

A: I think everyone wishes they had that house.

K: Right?

A: How have you been staying sane during quarantine? 

K: It started off – it goes in waves. It’s tracking day-by-day. Like how you’re feeling and just being honest with yourself. At first I was mediating a lot, and I still work out every day, or most days. You know, I’ll order food and eat what I want to eat. Like this week I had way too much tacos, ice cream and cake and that kind of situation this week. But no judgments sent to me. But I paint, and read a lot. That’s been really wonderful. My best friend is flying in tonight and that’s really exciting. So that’s – day-by-day, step at a time, doing things that make me feel good. Whatever brings me joy, it just keeps me through. I just gotta focus on that. What about you man, are you doing good?

A: Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying. There’s a lot of days where one week I’ll be like “I’m at home, I’m not really working, this is cool.” But the next week, “Okay when am I going back, what can I do? What’s next?” So this weird balance of trying to be productive while also being there’s nothing I can do, so I might as well relax, and put my feet up and enjoy myself while I can. 

K: Right, right, right. Things are gonna come back when they’re ready. And like you said, trying to be present in the now. 

A: And for me, someone who deals with anxiety in some ways, there’s issues with –

K: Same.

A: – what you have control over. And I don’t have control over this, so I might as well do what I can.

K: Right, right. That’s so real, that’s real. I feel you! I feel you man. 

A: I wanted to ask what your relationship is like – I’m sure you hear this all the time with Trey Edward Shults, because I remember seeing It Comes at Night twice in the theatre. And the second time I just remember thinking “I have to watch this guy, because I need to see where he goes next.”

K: Thanks man.

A: And you’ve mentioned your agents earlier, and I have to say, props to them because they keep bringing – a lot of your movie choices, everytime I see you in theatres I think “perfect choice, this is great.”

K: Aw, yeah. I appreciate that. Trey’s my boy and he’s so – he took me at a time when it was my first breakthrough type job, and it was going to be the first time I was going to be on set for that long. And so, I was grateful I got to do it with him and he was like 26 or 25 at the time. And that’s my age now. To see someone who’s as young as he is, and has such a point-of-view. And having a perspective that I was able to share was one of the greatest gifts I could have gotten, you know. He taught me so much about cinema, and he taught me so much about relationships, so much about how to communicate with people you respect. And also, to get what you want at the end of the day. You know, to be able to be a director – and his second feature, for A24, with a genre film – that didn’t actually include any monsters. It’s kind of insane on paper. You know? But the way he pulled through that was kind of incredible, and I think that’s why I have so much respect for him to this day. It’s yes, because of his gift. But also how he carries himself as a human. That’s why working with him on Waves was so easy. I think we understand each other, we understand how we work. Our love for it, our commitment to it. It feels safe – and that’s a huge thing too, there’s trust and safety in our relationship. And that’s what I think actors and directors need to kind of really break boundaries and getting to a place where you’re making work that’s challenging and thoughtful, and provocative. That also asks questions and that’s what we always aim to do. Plus he’s just funny. He wears flip flops all day, and he just goes to the beach. I was face timing him the other day and he was like “we should play Mario Kart.” And I was like “that’s how you’re feeling?” and he was like “yeah.” That’s just his normal vibe.

A: I was there at the TIFF premiere for Waves and it was me, one of my close friends, and my partner, and we were just broken down at the end of the film. And I remember seeing Trey trying to hold himself together and it was such an incredible experience that I’ll always remember.

K: He’s such a big baby, I love it.

A: No, but it’s good. Cause I think, there’s a conversation about men not having or being allowed to cry and emote. You know, I’m 27, and people our age are coming around and realizing that men are allowed to cry.

K: Mhm, mhm. I’m behind you 100%. 

A: I know you can’t say much about it, but what can you say about Euphoria season 2?

K: I’m excited. (laughs) I can say that. It’s a good group, this season is everything you want and more. And um, and I’m really excited to go back. 

A: Does Sam Levinson also just call you up and say I’ve got a role for you, and you’re like “let’s go”?

K: We did talk a lot about the character at the beginning of quarantine trying to figure out – now that we have more time. In a lot of ways we kinda re-wrote the whole thing. And I don’t really know the conclusion he came to, so I’m curious to see that aspect of that. But he’s a true collaborator and he’s interested – you know what I appreciate about my relationship with Trey is what I’m getting with Sam now is the fact that he’s genuinely interested in who I am, what my experiences are, and what have I been exposed to that I can share and bring to the table.  And that’s part of the inclusion and diversity cause diversity means way more than what we’ve kind of boxed it into seeing. It’s truly trying to show humanity on a full spectrum and culture and all the influences that come into that. And that’s what’s been really wonderful about working with Sam now is that I think he’s very aware, and very in tune and very careful, and patient. And a great listener.  I think everyone is going to be very comforted and satisfied in what is to come from this season. 

A: I know everyone is excited for it, cause season 1 took everyone by storm. I’m only imagining what season 2 has up its sleeve. 

K: Mhmmm.

A: Also, you’re going to be in the next Aaron Sorkin film. What’s that like?

K: It’s cool, it’s cool! It’s a really surreal moment. When I was younger, I watched The Social Network and I remember being like “oh my god, this writing is insane.” And then I remember buying the movie and watching the behind-the-scenes and seeing all this footage of just, like seeing how David and Aaron worked together on the script with Jesse, or Andrew, or Rooney and they’re all collaborating and thinking “man, I would love that experience.” Like I would love to have that version of it, of that dialogue. And then fast forward a couple years later, and I’m getting this audition for the Sorkin movie to play this role that I’ve always wanted to play. I remember, when my grandfather passed away, he left me this journal that I loved so much that he had, and he hadn’t written in it yet. And he left it for me, and I remember I wrote in it “this one is for Fred Hampton.” And I didn’t get this other script that I was about for Fred Hampton and Sorkin came around and asked me to play this part. I auditioned, I got the part. I was thrilled. I was like I can’t believe I’m doing this, and then a year went by before the movie fully got its funding. So after I finished The High Note, that was the first film I did. And to be on set with him every day – it was so exciting. It was so cool to read a script like that and see it how it’s executed with such brilliant performers and players like Mark Rylance, Sasha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, and Frank Langella –

A: Yeah, the cast is insane.

K: It’s insane, it’s insane.

A: But it’s a Sorkin film, you expect that.

K: Yeah, exactly, exactly. It felt like theatre, and he’s been wonderful and just communicating and it’s been wonderful to see the human. The humanity in this icon. Someone being diligent and unlearning, and learning on things that they did and did not know. It’s a very tricky subject matter of a film to talk about and approach what we’re getting in a film with everything going on, currently in our climate. It’s been an interesting conversation.

A: Definitely.

K: It’s good, it’s all good. 

A: Well I’m excited to see that and basically anything else you pop in, you’ve earned everything. I remember when you got the TIFF Rising Star – was that last year?

K: Yeah, or was it this year? Who knows anymore. 

A: I can’t keep track of time anymore. Sometimes you see who gets it, and you’re not sure or don’t see it but seeing you get it made me think it was spot on. 

K: Thank you, that actually means a lot. I appreciate that, I’m actually trying!

You can own The High Note now on Digital, or can own a physical copy on August 11th!