“My life is a series of what the fuck moments.”
These words come out beautifully, spoken in Laura Harrier’s velvety coo. The 28-year-old actor, dressed for the July heat in a flowing sundress decorated with cherries, is staring intently at a marble table top in a restaurant in New York City’s Mondrian Park Avenue Hotel. She is in deep concentration, trying to properly articulate the fundamental changes fame has wrought on her life. For those few seconds, her usually relaxed, almond-shaped eyes grow animated, ping-ponging back and forth as if she is trying to congeal all the memories of red carpets, movie sets, and celebrity encounters into one prevailing thought: What the fuck?
Given the last decade of her life, the profane expression is appropriate. Harrier was raised in the suburbs of Evanston, Illinois, and serendipitously became a model at 17 after she came home from school one day to find a photo shoot happening in her house, and the photographer took a liking to her. She moved to New York City to study art at New York University, but deferred her admission so she could continue to pursue modeling. She then realized that being simply a vessel for beauty was not offering the creative fulfillment she craved. She quit modeling, abandoned her NYU ambitions, and decided to study acting at William Esper Studios. She landed roles on the popular soap opera One Life To Live and in Steve McQueen’s aborted HBO series Codes of Conduct before her big break as the strong-willed Liz Allan in the 2017 blockbuster film Spider-Man: Homecoming, which has grossed more than $880 million at the box office.
In August, Harrier stars in the Spike Lee-directed, Jordan Peele-produced, Black power-infused film BlacKkKlansman, which is centered around a WTF moment of its own: a Black police officer going undercover as a member of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s. Harrier plays Patrice, president of the Colorado State Black Student Union; a woman who can elucidate the intricacies of blaxploitation films, and still bust out some Soul Train moves without ruffling her beautifully styled afro. The film has already been inundated with rapturous reviews, including receiving the prestigious Grand Prix award and a rare six minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
I’ve always likened acting to a sort of superpower.
The ability to convincingly transform into a different person has to be useful, even when the cameras aren’t rolling. “Yeah, but don’t blow up my spot,” Harrier says with a smile when I ask her if she feels similarly. While she’s keeping a tight lip on how she’s used her potentially deceitful powers in her day-to-day life, Harrier does reveal a time when she had to don a different persona to face the world. “When I was at Cannes, I was really nervous. I knew I had to be this confident character,” Harrier says. Acting, along with advice for a veteran, helped her blend right in. “Cate Blanchett was one of the judges at Cannes. She told me, ‘We’re all just playing a role here.’”
Filming for BlacKkKlansman was a crash course in the vibrant history of African American film. At Lee’s behest, Harrier immersed herself in classic films such as Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, and The Black Power Mixtape documentary. “I watched a lot of Soul Train,” Harrier tells me. Why? Patrice’s entire dance sequence in the film can be missed in an eye blink. “I wanted to be prepared. I didn’t know what Spike would want me to do,” she says, laughing.
But nothing could have prepared her for the film’s punctuating scene, when a surprise guest retells a true story to a congregation of Black activists: how a Black, mentally disabled friend of his was castrated and set on fire by racist white men. “I didn’t know Harry Belafonte was going to be there until the day of. Maybe Spike told me the day before. He wasn’t on the call sheet or anything.” Overcome with shock at meeting the civil rights hero, she simply clasped her hands together as if praying to a deity and thanked him for all that he’s done for Black people.
BlacKkKlansman inspires those sorts of emotional reactions. For over two hours, the film envelops you in the palpable racial tension that permeated America in the 1970s. It can be almost too visceral at times. In another scene, Patrice and a few other Black people are searched by white police officers for no reason, other than for one of the officers to berate and grope Patrice. “That scene was very emotional for me, because I kept thinking about all of the other Black women who went through this.”
Harrier herself is biracial. Her father is African-American, and her mother is of Polish and English descent. “I always knew I was Black, obviously. But, I didn’t feel like people only saw me as a Black woman until I got to New York City.” Harrier was recently reminded that fame and prestige do little to avert some people’s gaze away from race. “I was at this fancy dinner event. I’m an honored guest, dressed up, people are taking photos of me, and this lady asks me, ‘Could you tell me where I’m sitting?’” Harrier recounts, with a face that combines mortification and incredulous laughter.
She is well aware America has been having its own prolonged WTF moment since November 2016; one that almost pushed Harrier out of the country. “Yeah, after the election I thought about leaving,” Harrier reveals, with a staunch temerity coating her voice. “But, no—fuck you. This is my home. You can’t drive me away.” Trump isn’t mentioned by name in BlacKkKlansman, but the film insinuates that the ideals that propelled Trump to presidency began with white supremacy. In one scene, former KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by That ‘70s Show’s Topher Grace, motivates a group of KKK members by invoking the same “America First” rhetoric Trump has spouted as president. In one glaringly prescient moment, John David Washington’s character Ron Stallworth says America would never elect a racist like Duke to be President of the United States. “I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to make a connection between David Duke and Trump. Trump sort of makes it himself. He actually said there were fine people on both sides,” she says, in reference to the president’s controversial remarks about the violence that occured in Charlottesville, North Carolina following white supremacist torchlight protests against the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue. She hopes Trump watches the film.
Even with her burgeoning star power and a standout role in one of Lee’s best films in decades, Harrier claims she doesn’t know why the award-winning director picked her for the role. But, sitting across from her, it’s readily apparent why the enigmatic filmmaker would cast her to play a character who is as badass as she is beautiful. Harrier comfortable traverses a nuanced spectrum of emotions with the impressive command that is characteristic of Lee’s most iconic female leads, such as Nola Darling in his directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It.
I have my own WTF moment in the middle of my chat with Harrier, when I realize how down-to-earth she is, despite the fact that she’s on the precipice of becoming a Hollywood powerhouse. She binges on shows about cults (Netflix’s Wild Wild Country), ritualistic enslavement (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale), and dystopian futures (HBO’s Westworld) just like the rest of us. For her recent 28th birthday, instead of celebrating on a tropical island, she went to the family establishment Medieval Times with a few close friends. She rolls out of bed at 8am with no makeup on to hit the gym like anyone would. She says she often doesn’t remember she’s famous, and that movie-quality looks are sort of mandated at all times, until a barrage of paparazzi camera flashes shock her back to reality, like a scene out of Get Out.
Harrier still has ambitions to fulfill. She’s hoping for a lead role in the near future, and she would love to work with director Sofia Coppola some day. But, when asked what she wants people to remember her for when it’s all said and done, she politely asks to change the question. For now, she’s living in the moment. Whatever the fuck it is at the time.
Written by Keith Nelson Jr.
Photographed by Chris Schoonover
Styled by Danielle Nachmani
Flaunt Film directed by David Vollucci
Hair: Harry Josh
Makeup: Hung Vanngo