It’s no secret that Kelvin Harrison Jr. is one of today’s most prominent rising stars. After kicking off his acting pursuits in his late teens, just over a decade ago, Harrison quickly gained recognition for his big screen debut in Steve McQueen’s 2014 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave and in his first leading role in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival gem Monster, which audiences can now easily find and enjoy on Netflix. Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s next leading role is in the period biopic Chevalier from Searchlight Pictures, which just debuted in theaters on April 21.
In the past few years alone, Kelvin Harrison Jr. has taken on roles in a string of critically acclaimed movies including Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Joe Wright’s Cyrano, and most recently Baz Luhrman’s Elvis wherein he portrayed B.B. King, the legendary Blues musician who was an influence and contemporary of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Additionally, he was nominated for the EE Rising Star Award at the 2020 BAFTAs, a category that has seen its young nominees become some of the biggest names in the industry.
Now, Kelvin Harrison Jr. can be seen in the titular role of Chevalier, a biopic about the 18th-century Afro-French composer, violinist, and conductor Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Often referred to as the “Black Mozart,” not many people still know of composer Joseph Bologne’s story despite his notoriety in the classical art world and French history. The film premiered last September at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and is writer Stefani Robinson’s (Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows) first feature screenplay.
Director Stephen Williams, mainly known for his work in television shows like HBO’s Watchmen and Netflix’s True Story, captures Chevalier’s falling out with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) in 18th century France. Joseph Bologne rises to glory by captivating audiences with his own symphonies and operas, but as the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, he faces the harsh racism of the ancien régime under the rule of King Louis XVI. This puts him down a path that ends with him being a prominent name in the soon-to-be French Revolution.
Chevalier sees Kelvin Harrison Jr. joined by the talents of Samara Weaving (Ready or Not) as Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, Marton Csokas (The Last Duel) as Marc René the Marquis de Montalembert, Sian Clifford (Fleabag) as Madame De Genlis, Ronke Adekoluejo (Alex Rider) as Joseph Bologne’s mother Nanon, and finally but not least, the multi-talented Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) as La Guimard. We sat down with Kelvin Harrison Jr. for an exclusive interview to discuss the preparation and extensive training required to become Joseph Bologne, collaborating with the ensemble cast of Chevalier, and the future of his growing career, which includes Barry Jenkins’ upcoming Disney blockbuster prequel, Mufasa: The Lion King.
Exclusive Interview with Kelvin Harrison Jr. for Chevalier
Chevalier is such a fascinating biopic with a main subject that many people might not have even heard of. When did you first hear of the story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and what were your first impressions?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: I first heard of Joseph when I got the script in my email, and I honestly didn’t even think he was real. I was like, “This is a really cute little movie and people are so creative, I love it!” Then I talked to my team and they told me that it’s actually a true story. So I went to Google and then I saw him, there he was wearing that wig.
In terms of preparation for your leading role, what did you have to do to become Joseph Bolgne before you first stepped on set?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: It was a lot of work. It started with really knowing who he was, finding as much information as possible and realizing that so much of his legacy had been erased. Then once you get those pieces, it’s about finding the tools that allow you to create the landscape around Joseph. Like, where was he? What did the time look like? Who was in power? What was the currency? What were some of the issues politically going on? Because then all of that adds perspective, especially when you’re dealing with a man who was such a political disturbance at the time.
And then there’s the technical aspect of playing one of the best violinists of all time, and fencers, arguably. I did violin training for five months, seven days a week, six hours a day. With fencing, I did a few months of training, mostly when production on the movie started. It was a lot of homework, I felt like I was doing a Marvel movie (laughs).
Well, those Violin showdown scenes are epic because they play out like fierce battle sequences in their own right. What was it like filming those?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: Very scary, but so much fun. Because there was so much going on, there was no way I could just focus completely on the violin. I had to still know my lines, I had to still go to the costume fittings and do the makeup tests, and etcetera. So most of it would come together on the day. You would show up and be like, “Okay, the practice and hard work paid off because I can now play this particular sequence.” Then you finish that cue, and then immediately start the next one.
The period-accurate costumes and wigs are such a visual treat as well. What is it like stepping into the costume for the first time and how did it inform your performance?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: It’s very fun in some ways because you get to look in the mirror and almost don’t recognize yourself. I think from Joseph’s perspective, there’s psychological damage that the outfit puts on him because Joseph is actually wearing it to survive. There’s a whole relationship to that wig because it’s like, “If I wear this wig then you think I’m sophisticated, but if I don’t wear this wig then you think I’m a negro that doesn’t deserve anything.” It’s a tricky thing, but I think it incites a lot for me as an actor on how I want to move and how I want to portray myself while also affecting my internal emotions.
You touched on it there, but there is quite a profound metaphor weaved into the costume, and more specifically the wig, connoting the idea of not fitting into either of those worlds. Did you draw inspiration from any situations in your own personal life for this aspect of the story?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: I’m not biracial myself, but a lot of people used to think I was growing up. Sometimes I went to schools where it was predominantly white students who were very, very wealthy and my family just wasn’t. Going to those places, I felt like I was “one of one.” I was an individual but I didn’t feel individuality in the way that I do now, where I celebrate it. I was ashamed. I was scared. I felt like I was unworthy and I had a sense of “nobodiness” a lot of the time.
The only way that I felt like I was loved or really seen was because I was a musician – if I played the trumpet or if I played the piano, so it became very transactional. That was my way into Joseph Bologne in a lot of ways, understanding that “my gift is the only way you like me.” If I don’t have my gift then what am I?
Chevalier has such a dynamic ensemble cast because you have so many young actors like yourself, Samara Weaving, and Lucy Boynton. I mean the three of you are some of the best young talents the industry has to offer right now, but then you also have seasoned actors like Minnie Driver and Sian Clifford. What was it like working with everyone on set?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: Sian, so good, she’s so good! We don’t talk about Sian enough. It was so cool. It’s always nice to meet young actors because I love to see their work ethic and I also just love to see what they bring to the material. Lucy and Samara are incredible. They’re just so charismatic and likable. The choices that they make as actors are so smart and it’s just fun to be in scenes with them because they really keep you on your toes. We also share a similar hunger for growth.
And then when you work with the older actors, they make it look so easy but what I love to watch is just how they make it look easy. When they do the performance it’s the performance, but it’s listening to the questions that they ask the directors. It’s looking at how they’re spending their time in between takes that really gives a young actor a lot of food for thought. So it’s fun to be around all of it at one time.
Chevalier very much feels like a change in direction from your previous roles. As an actor, does it feel quite liberating being able to explore all these different genres and not have to be boxed in to say, drama or horror for example?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: Yes, one hundred percent. When you first start off, everyone’s like “Oh you’re going to be typecast as blah blah blah.” So my whole goal a lot of the time is to be like, “You can’t tell me what to do. I’m going to do a period piece where you’ve never seen a black man in a George Washington wig, running around ripping the violin like a rock star.” lt just keeps it fun for me and it keeps the imagination going for everyone because you just know that you’re going to get something new, it’s going to be exciting, and it will challenge you in some way.
In terms of upcoming projects and the next steps in your career, what kind of roles and stories are you looking to tackle?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: I think I’m interested in genre movies now, or love stories. I’m also really fascinated by action stuff, just fusion. It’s like going to a restaurant and saying, “Oh, they did Japanese and Jamaican food.” Those are the kind of movies I’m into, a fusion restaurant.
I did want to ask about your next project, which is Barry Jenkins’ Disney prequel Mufasa: The Lion King. How is that film going?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: We’re deep in it. It comes out next year so we’re pretty much almost done. Everything looks really great so far. I was skeptical and I kept making a joke with Barry. Every time I go in there I’m like, “Barry this might be a good movie” and he’s like, “Oh, it might be?” (laughs). It’s going to be lots of fun. I think you’re going to like it.
Chevalier premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September. How does it feel to finally see the film being released and do you think it’s been worth the wait to make sure that audiences get to see it in a cinema?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: It’s always exciting but you get a little anxious too because you want people to go see it and you want the movie to do well and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, I’m excited to share it with people. I have an understanding that audiences tend to fall in love with a movie over years and years, and they can discover it at any point. I’m glad [Chevalier] is out there. I’m glad everyone will be able to have a taste of Joseph. My own experience was in Prague, and I loved it. My reward was being able to do it, so I kind of left it there.
To wrap things up, what are you hoping audiences will take away from the tale of Chevalier?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: To just be colorful and be playful. I know everyone keeps saying to be unapologetically yourself, but I really do think that centuries later, the reason we’re talking about Joseph Bologne is because he really was himself. He was so singular in his field at the time, and we celebrate that individuality. Don’t be a conformist (laughs).