All of Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s lead roles are characters who model excellence; their resultant high standing in their communities subjects them to increased outside celebration, scrutiny, and projections. In Monster (2018), Harrison’s 17-year-old honor student Steve is charged with murder. In just the blink of an eye, his reputation as a golden boy mangles into infamy. In Waves (2019), Harrison’s popular senior-year wrestler, Tyler, absorbs a permanent shoulder injury that cues his tragic downfall. His titular character in Luce (2019) excels even beyond the others, both athletically and academically. He embodies the kind of hyper-industrious perfection that feels deeply suspect from the outside, whether or not it’s actually pyrrhic. With the high school’s reputation, he’s often reminded by his peers, leans so expectantly onto what he, as an ex-child soldier from Eritrea, who was adopted, streamed through therapy, and then assimilated into the US with flying colors, has been made to represent—what his fellow student Deshaun calls “their little up by your own bootstraps bullshit.” You wish these guys could just make it through senior year to see all that world on the other side. Despite their situational similarities, Harrison makes each character feel of their own kind, moving with varying rhythms and sincerity. It’s not always clear whether they mean what they say or what they do. From the top of the game, they can telegraph all the right moves and play their peers to get what they want.
In Stephen Williams’ Chevalier (2023), Harrison plays another talented icon from his community: Joseph Bologne, the real-life, august but unsung composer, conductor, violinist, fencer, and leader of the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-Black regiment in Europe who fought against the Royalists during the French Revolution. Much of his story has been distorted or erased from Western canons, in large part by Napoleon Bonaparte, who, according to the film’s postscript, banned his music and many of his compositions.
Williams and Harrison take liberties with the character, then, giving him a modern edge within the ornate constraints of tightly wound 18th-century breeches and waistcoats, language, and etiquette. But the 28-year-old actor has an into Bologne. Harrison trained in jazz and gospel on the piano, trumpet, as well as the violin under Jason Marsalis, son of jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., who trained Harrison’s father. In fact, both his parents, Shirlita and Kelvin, are musicians. The father and son practiced violin months prior to further to further refining his skills with the production. And like many of his characters, he knows what it means to be immersed in predominantly white institutions, being one of a handful of Black students at the private high school he attended in New Orleans.
The most apparent way that Bologne fits into the white, French elite is his lavish and uncomfortable choice of dress. But when I talk with Harrison bright and early n the morning, he’s comfortably and barely inside a pea-green Giordana track jacket that’s fully unzipped to his chest, and a black and white cap that reads “myspace.com, a place for friends.” Unlike his ultra-measured characters, he sits easy in his chair, still slowly waking up
I had recently seen Kenneth Tam’s two-channel video installation “Silent Spikes” at the Queens Museum, in which the artist directs Asian American non-actors to dress up as cowboys and interact with each other in various scenarios, perhaps revealing something along the way about how they carry themselves inside of an American macho iconography reserved for white men. The non-actors in Tam’s video art imitate riding a horse, a cowboy swagger, and mannerisms to predictably awkward results. With that in mind, I wondered how Harrison felt donning the alienating attire of the French aristocracy. He tells me, “When I was first coming into it, I was honestly thinking, ‘Oh, this is gonna be so fun! I can’t wait to put on the weird George Washington wig as I know it, and tights.’ [But] when you put it on you start to realize how much it’s not for you, and how much it is about presenting to [certain people] that you are more esteemed and sophisticated than you used to be. In some ways, it was cool to step into his shoes, but it also reminded me how far we’ll go to assimilate into cultures and environments that don’t even see us. It leaves no room for expression or individuality, no room for your personal history.”
Harrison and costume designer Oliver Garcia went through several iterations of the costumes, only finalizing the look a few days before shooting. “The original costume was way different than what he looks like now,” he says, withholding why the thought of that original costume made him grin. As Bologne begins to resent the monarchy that he’s so successfully wiggled into and atop, he doffs his “George Washington wig” and dons his natural hair, as braided by his mother, Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo). Of this visual character progression, Harrison reflects on what he discussed with the director, “There should be a subtle transition, nothing too jarring like, ‘I have my afro out now!’ Like 70s, 80s Blaxploitation vibes.” The art department made most of the costume choices, but Harrison chose the shoes, “the highest heel possible,” and made sure they included purple into his wardrobe two evoke a “Prince vibe.”
Harrison shows me a photo of himself on his phone as a maybe five-year-old boy playing the violin in a bright purple shirt—the long Prince hold over bringing things full circle. Like the singer-songwriter, Bologne was reportedly a certified casanova. Harrison had to figure out how to seduce his cast and the audience within period etiquette: “The etiquette coach is there saying, ‘Your hands have to stay at your sides. You can’t touch your face. You can’t do this or that.’ It’s very limiting, so the challenge becomes—or the game—I would go crazy if I didn’t think of it as a game—is how do I communicate the most with the least? There’s only so much you can do with your eyes. [Laughs] It’s interesting that even when you’re dealing with romance—they said he was a man about town and a womanizer—you’re trying to figure out how to be the MacDaddy of French society, but you can’t do too much. You’re trying to flirt and touch and feel, but everything has to feel delicate.”
Leaning back in his chair, Harrison recalls how conforming to the period put a strain on his body, “Dude, it was horrible. My back hurt. The sword belt was the worst, but I learned that on Cyrano. It’s so heavy on one side and pulls you down, while you’re trying to stand up with your posture and correct at the same time. Cyrano was less bad because they gave me boots. But the Chevalier shoes, which were my choice, are elevated, so you’re on your feet really high and always at an angle. Then everything’s super tight. The vest is tight, the pants are tight and up to your belly button. And then the wig, oh gosh, man. It is honestly painful. When you’re at hour 12 of the day, you just start feeling hair pins coming out [laughs]. You have to get massages every couple of weeks.”
Yet another maze that he had to perform his way through and out of—Harrison worked with his long-time dialect coach Jerome Butler to find an 18th-century French accent, spoken in English—a creative liberty Hollywood productions take ubiquitously. They weren’t trying for an English or Mid-Atlantic accent, or just a French accent. They wanted a specific mix.
Brought to Paris at the age of seven by his white sugar and coffee plantation-owning father Georges Bologne, Bologne originated from Guadeloupe. His Senegalese mother, Nanon, was likely an enslaved housekeeper for Georges. They apparently fell in love and moved to Paris, where Georges gave his son his surname and totally financed his education—all deeply stigmatized public-facing decisions at the time. Because Bologne left the Caribbean so early and may have worked hard for any extant original accent to disappear, Harrison and Butler decided there should be no remnants. “At the same time, we were trying to suggest that there was a different culture present. He was not fully able to assimilate.” The two collaborators had a similar conundrum with Luce, “who was a child soldier but was adopted at seven—how much of his accent bleeds through? The answer is usually not much, but there is an artificiality to [his current] accent, and it slips in and out, feels a little sloppier than others, and doesn’t feel as smooth. Luce is a little more robotic [than Joseph].”
As with the costumes, there were early versions of Bologne’s dialect that they “would never use,” Harrison says. “I don’t even want to say. We sampled so many different voices. When Joseph is drinking or is upset we wanted [his accent] to slip and for you to feel he’s not really a part of society anymore. It’s performative, he’s putting on. I wanna tell you... but I’m scared of people saying, ‘Well, why did he try that?’ and of showing them too much of my homework. Dialect is fun.” Again, Harrison grins and doesn’t tell me why thinking back to those earlier iterations makes him do so.
Where Harrison finally got to let loose in his performance was playing the violin on and off-screen. The production was originally going to use many of Bologne’s original compositions but ended up incorporating them into an original score that they felt was better suited to the movie. Harrison reflects on what he learned about Bologne from his music, which he began listening to while filming Elvis in Australia, playing Blues musician B.B. King, “Certain sounds and concertos feel darker—like you can feel the ship when [Joseph Bologne] was leaving Guadeloupe to Paris, you can feel the water, hear the fear and nervousness of it all. You can hear when he walks into a new world and is not sure what to expect, you could hear the anxiety about the relationships that he had to work to make in order to fit in. You can hear the love, the longing for his mother. Am I interpreting them the way I want to be? Probably. But I don’t think he would write about anything he doesn’t really know.”
Harrison, as Bologne, plays the violin as much with his face and full body as his hand on the bow. This personal history seems to work its way out in his playing face, for which he drew inspiration from the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. “I stole his whole face,” he tells me as he shows me a clip of Kanneh-Mason in action. Imitating his inspiration, Harrison sets his mouth back deep into his face and pretends to play. “Something about it feels very ancestral too, and I wanted to bring that into [the performance]. ”He also credits his own violin teachers, studying how and when they would breathe through the instrument, and Violinist Tai Murray, who he also shows me a brief clip of—which excites him to air violin and onomatopoeia loud strum sounds— “JOOM! JOOM!JOOM!” He goes on to list the myriad conductors and opera singers he emulated.
Chevalier opens boldly on a violin battle between Bologne and Mozart. To prepare for the scene, Harrison “gathered Joseph Prowen, the guy who was playing Mozart, the music supervisor, and the violin teacher into a hotel room,” and told them, “We’re just gonna sit here, take every line of music, and write it into dialogue as if we were having a debate or an argument. Then we asked ourselves how we would physicalize and play it if we were saying these things to each other. Is it sly remarks or secretive? When is the bow in sync? Michael Abels intended that some of those melodies and lines have similarities to show Mozart and Joseph doing the exact same thing at the exact same time—to illustrate that they are playing at the same level. This is especially true during the adagio. By the allegro, it also happens. When they get to the cadenzas it becomes, ‘Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you! No, you can’t! Yes, I can!’ I could geek out about the violin stuff because that was the best part. It was hard. But it was fun when it was fun.”
When principal photography wrapped, Harrison gladly stowed away the bow and violin, the arch etiquette, and the arch dress. For Bologne, there also came a time—the revolution underfoot—to put away his instrument: “Maybe it’s me projecting onto Joseph,” Harrison says, “But I think Joseph loves being an artist and a revolutionary more than anything else. I think there was some negative trauma resonating with Joseph in the end, in particular with that violin.” He reassumes the role of Joseph, speaking in his voice to explain of the violin, “This was my inclusion into your world, and you only wanted me because of this. Not because of me, you weren’t interested in me, you were interested in the service that I provided you through this instrument—I am no longer interested in continuing to entertain it in that way until I can use it for the right reasons.” He says so as much for himself as he does Bologne.
The actor recalls reading the negative reviews of Bologne’s opera Ernestine. In short, they write that the music is good but evoked no personal connection. “I think Joseph knew when he was just trying to play the game, strategize, and wasn’t actually being an artist about it,” he says. “[Sometimes] he was being a business person, who was just really talented. So I love listening to the music, you get to feel his heart. The best way to get to know an artist is through their work, in my opinion—what they choose to do, and what they choose to omit is telling.”
This is Harrison’s in into the character, similar perhaps to his in into his other lead roles—knowing how to play the game when it’s playing you. “I play a lot of characters who...no I’m not gonna say that actually.[laughs]” As a strategist akin to his choice characters, he keeps his cards as close as he did when discussing the period costume and dialect with me. He recollects himself, and starts again, “When you’re going through it, you have to believe that you know what’s best for you. You have to be able to read the room. At the end of the day, [Bologne’s] story is telling me that these people are trying to play me. I want to be the director of the Paris Opera. How do I get all these people to get me what I want when I’m the odd man out? I need to figure out how to make everybody my ally, everybody my friend. It’s chess. I feel like that in my own life. When I entered this business, I don’t think there were a lot of examples of young Black actors doing bigger roles. Even now, I wonder—what do I do next? You gotta figure out how to make the thing that you’ve chosen to do, work for you. I play it like chess.”
Perhaps latently triggered by the old Myspace slogan on his cap, “a place for friends,” I wonder, “How can you find community in that?” Without hesitating, he says, “That’s the takeaway. You can play all the chess in the world, but if you ain’t got community what does it really mean? That’s what I’m learning to do, but I’m learning through these cats [all his characters].” Always so intensely preparing to embody characters who shield their imperfections from the public, to appear perfect. I wonder what he thinks of failure.
“I fail all the time,” Harrison concludes. “I fail every single day. Honestly, I beat myself up about it, I feel weird about it, I constantly have a feeling of imposter syndrome—‘I’m not gonna last in this business,’ or, ‘I’m going to lose friendships. As I get older, I truly feel like I’ve accepted the fact that moments like those will always feel icky, and I’ll always feel bad and beat myself up about them, but I try to turn it into—well, then, I’m growing now. And as long as I’m not actually hurting anyone, not intentionally seeking out to be selfish, or trying to slight someone else for my own personal gain, then I’m good. If I’m falling on my face on my own account, then that’s my business. That’s for me to figure out. It’s called risk. What’s a world without risk?”
Photographed by Alvin Kean Wong
Styled by Michael Fisher
Groomed by Jeremy Dell
Photography Assistant: Myron Hernandez
Stylist Assistant: Annika Morrison