No horror movie this year offered a hit of unease as quick and pure as what Kelvin Harrison Jr. provokes with a simple facial expression in Luce. The moment, brief enough to miss with a blink, arrives toward the end of Julius Onah’s prickly, Sundance-approved psychodrama. Harrison, the film’s 25-year-old star, plays the title character, a former child soldier from the Congo who’s become a model American high school student in the years since being whisked off to suburban Virginia by his adopted parents. In the scene in question, Luce is speaking with uncommon candor to his mother (Naomi Watts) when he suddenly offers her a quick peek behind the veil of his ingratiating politeness, demonstrating—with a flash of feigned excitement—the extent to which he can toggle his emotions on and off. It’s chilling, yes, but also deeply sad: an acknowledgment of the extent to which this young man has shaped his own personality to meet and challenge the expectations put upon him.
Over the course of the movie, which pivots around the tense conflict that develops between the star pupil and a concerned teacher played by Octavia Spencer, we’ll come to understand Luce as a de facto thespian—someone who’s learned to perform for the people in his life, to play whatever part he needs to play. Onah, of course, needed an actor just as elastic, one with the same uncanny control over his tone and mannerisms. He found him in Harrison, who established his sensitivity and specificity a few years ago, with a lead role in Trey Edward Shults’ post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes At Night. In Luce, Harrison does more than show off the increased breadth and precision of his talent. He pulls us right into the riveting mystery of his character’s motives, turning Luce’s slippery psychology into a puzzle we want to turn over and over in our heads. It’s the performance of the year; in a sane world, Harrison would be the clear Best Actor frontrunner, the one to beat on Oscar night.
Of course, there’s more than just Luce’s relatively quiet release and muted reception this past summer standing in the way of that happening. Harrison is also competing with himself. This fall, he slipped into the role of another troubled teen, reuniting with Shults to deliver the powerhouse central performance of the Florida family drama Waves. Separately, the two films offer very different portraits of adolescence under the pressure of impossible expectations. Together, they stand as a monument to an expanding range. Last month, Harrison sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about crafting these characters, extending the teenage experience on screen and off, and what it means to take a performance home with you. If Luce is evasive and calculated, the man who plays him is candid and even vulnerable in conversation. That’s what he projects anyway. When talking to a first-rate actor, you can never be entirely sure if what you see is really what’s there.
The A.V. Club: Your performance in Luce is remarkably layered. There’s a scene, for example, where Luce is doing debate prep, and he’s playing multiple roles simultaneously, sending coded messages to Octavia Spencer’s character while putting on a show for the rest of the people in the room. All the while, you’re offering glimpses of what Luce might be feeling in the moment. Is it challenging to build a performance in layers like that?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: It’s so hard. Because you read the script and go, “Oh, my god, the dialogue is so good.” And the things he’s saying are so on-point. But how do I play someone like that, and how do I code-shift when I need to? And how do I make it subtle enough that [Spencer’s character] knows what I’m trying to say, because she knows the truth, while also, as you said, not showing my cards? That was the thing Julius [Onah] encouraged. Just being really careful and presentable, and showing how Luce establishes himself as this socially acceptable young man. He’s nonthreatening. That was the biggest buzzword we used on set. And don’t show your cards, but show us something with the flick of an eye or how you play a certain beat. A lot of it is in the DNA of the script, to be honest. It was tough, though. There were a lot of rehearsals!
AVC: It’s a really physically and vocally precise performance. How did you figure out how Luce would walk, talk, etc.?
KHJ: We got a dialect coach. The same coach Naomi [Watts] and Tim [Roth] had. When figuring out his voice, we found a sample of the author Uzodinma Iweala, who wrote Beasts Of No Nation. He has this British but African tone to his accent. So that’s where we started. I did those sessions for a couple weeks, just trying to learn that sound. And then I was like, “Hm, I don’t know where the British would come from in this case.” So I said, “Let’s weed that out.” And then it started to become this very neutral American tone, but we never wanted to use bass in his voice. With the emotional stuff, my instinct was always [raises voice] to get personal and loud. But Luce is [softens voice] always quiet, always leveled. And always [goes higher] up here.
Physicality-wise, we looked at his energy. We wanted to replicate Will Smith, in a lot of ways, because he’s always on, and he’s a great storyteller and so immersive in how he speaks to an audience. Luce distracts you with this beautiful storytelling. And he’s smiling, and his energy is up. We looked at Obama, too, and how he holds a room and captivates an audience. It was about always being upright and being the perfect model student and being nonthreatening to those who might deem this boy who was a child soldier to be the biggest threat in the classroom. If there’s going to be a school shooter, they’d assume it would be Luce. So he goes against the grain, overcompensating to prove that he’s a good guy. Which makes it extra creepy.
AVC: There’s a moment in the film that’s basically the most chilling 1.5 seconds of the year. It’s when Luce shows his mother that he can fake emotions.
KHJ: When you read it in the script—I guess because I was just so in it—I was thinking to myself, “He’s being so transparent and vulnerable in this moment.” And then I got there on the day of shooting and did it in front of Naomi, and she’s like, “Shit. That’s creepy.” She walked away and was like, “So this is what’s happening today?”
AVC: Is it tricky playing a character whose motivations have to remain a mystery throughout much of the movie?
KHJ: It was tricky understanding, while reading it, what Luce did versus what he didn’t do. So I had to make a lot of decisions for myself, and kind of go, “Well, in order for this to happen, I had to have done this.” I collaborated with Julius to make some concrete choices, because it defines how Luce feels about the events and how he feels about the other characters. So it is harder, but it makes it more fun, for me and the audience.
AVC: Now I’m thinking of the scene where Luce discovers that his mother has the fireworks. You have to tell the audience that your character feels something about it, but you can’t tell us, through your performance, everything he might know.
KHJ: Yeah, it’s tricky, because you want to be honest and truthful to the character and who they are, and so there are takes where I would lean more into it and react properly. But in a movie like Luce, it does come down to the filmmaking and the storytelling choices. You almost have to be a filmmaker as well as an actor, and ask, “Am I giving too much in this moment? How do I be truthful but also play into the ambiguity?” That’s weird. I never had to do that before. It puts me in a technical space I wouldn’t normally want to enter.
AVC: You mentioned code-switching earlier. This is definitely a movie about giving people a version of yourself that they want to see in America, a pretty racist country. You grew up here. Did that element resonate with you?
KHJ: Oh, absolutely. I went to a private high school, and as soon as I got there, one of the first things they told me was, “We don’t say, ‘yeah.’ We say, ‘yes.’” And they told my parents, “C’s are good for Kelvin, considering where he came from. And wear blue blazers and khakis on Wednesday for assembly.” And I didn’t even have that in my closet! So I wore a suit, and they were like, “Why are you wearing that?” It was a big culture shock for me. I was one of five Black kids in my class. I think being around that, I changed the way I spoke. I’m from New Orleans, so everyone has a Southern accent. [Switches into Southern accent.] So everyone’s talking like this 24-7, that’s just how it is, fo sho, fo sho. And suddenly I get there, and I start to change who I was to feel like I could fit in. I knew immediately when I got there that if I don’t assimilate into the culture they set for me, then I needed to get out of that school. So in those ways, I understood what it was like for Luce, coming out of the country he was in and coming into this white home and realizing, “Oh, my god, I’m not enough for these people. My name is not even enough. They’re not going to take the time to understand how to say it. They’re just going to change it.” And the line, “To erase the seven years of darkness.” So, sure, there were not great moments during that time. But you’re saying that who Luce was is not going to work in this world. It’s such a metaphor for being Black in America. Who we are has never been enough. Because of the color of our skin? What? I just ranted. [Laughs.]
AVC: Both of your major roles this year are teenagers. As someone who got into acting fairly young, were you able to have a normal teenage life?
KHJ: Well, I didn’t start acting until I was 18. I was in college. And until recently, maybe the last four years, I wasn’t really doing big movies. So I went to school for marketing. I went to high school like normal people. And when I was in college, I was auditioning for small day player parts. It felt like more of a hobby. And no one really thought much of it. It wasn’t until I turned 21, when I got It Comes At Night, Trey’s last movie. And I was like, “Oh, this is my job now. And Hollywood’s different.” It’s good that it happened that way, though, because I feel like I got a grounding and a sense of reality. I know a lot of my friends who are younger and have been in it for a long time have a harder time navigating, you know, what’s real.
AVC: You were in your mid-2os when you shot both Luce and Waves.
KHJ: Yeah, I was 22 on Luce. And I turned 24 while making Waves.
AVC: In the grand scheme of things, 18 isn’t so much younger than 24. But it’s a big difference in life experience. Is it challenging to get back into that adolescent headspace or emotional state?
KHJ: A little bit. But at the same time, because my career has been playing teenagers—I’ve been playing 17 or 18 since I was 18—I’ve never really left that workspace. For me, being 21 and playing someone who was 18 felt like the biggest gap, because I had to reflect on what it was like to be 16 or 15, too. But because I was so sheltered in New Orleans, I never really experienced much. I didn’t drink in high school. I had my first drink when I was 21. It was at the wrap party for It Comes At Night, actually, that I had my first sip of alcohol. I was naïve. That innocence of what it means to be a teenager was still there, and I kind of lived my teenage years through the films. Like, sex was a thing I started discovering after that movie. And parties were a thing. I didn’t go out to parties before then. I was kind of living those kids’ lives in tangent with the movies. So I basically had my high school experience from 21 to 25.
AVC: Tyler, the character you play in Waves, is like Luce in that he’s a high school athlete under a lot of pressure. But they’re also very different. Luce is someone who’s constantly masking his emotions, whereas Tyler has a very difficult time controlling them. Do you have tricks as an actor to summon really intense emotions, like the ones you express in Waves?
KHJ: Not tricks, really. Breathing is a huge thing for me. Just taking the time to breathe through a scene, and not get so caught up in the results of where it needs to go. What was so wonderful with Trey was that he gave me a warm, trusting space to act in. I never feared disappointing him. I knew he believed in me, and knew whatever I did, it would be enough. It allows you to freely do the job. It’s always about connecting to the material and understanding how it affects the character, and how would I feel if this was taken away from me, how I would feel if my space was violated, how I would feel if I didn’t understand my own self-worth.
AVC: Were there hard days on the set of Waves?
KHJ: Every day. I don’t like sports, for one. I don’t like working out.
AVC: You work out in both these films!
KHJ: I know, in every movie. The discipline I had to maintain throughout this movie was tough, in addition to the emotional space my character is existing within. You never feel grounded in a film like Waves. Because Tyler’s in chaos. Every scene was on 10. Having the time of his life in the car while the camera is spinning, and me and Alexa [Demie] are driving this massive truck that I had to, like, leap to get inside, and my foot’s hanging out the window. That’s a different kind of intensity. Or if I’m screaming at the top of my lungs or if I’m crying in a bathroom, it’s always on 10. And I think living in that space every day does something to you where you go home and you carry it with you. You try to have moments of silence and peace, but at the same time, you’re stirring up all your emotional traumas and all the things that have existed within you from childhood, from your own experiences, from all the relationships you’re currently building, and it’s just swirling around. You’re shaking yourself up when you don’t need to. So I’d walk on set and be exhausted. But the day has to go on.
AVC: How did you unwind before the next project?
KHJ: I didn’t. I literally had a week apart. I had to go to Toronto for JT LeRoy and Monsters And Men, and then after that, I started on my show, Godfather Of Harlem, in New York. So I had no choice but to snap out of it. But I didn’t expect to carry this movie with me so much. I’d have off days, and still be contemplating what was going on with Tyler and “How was he?” and pieces of the character that I hadn’t let go. I was, like, grieving the movie. I felt like Emily.
AVC: Speaking of Emily, Tyler plays a smaller role in the second half of Waves, when the perspective shifts to his sister, played by Taylor Russell. Watching it, are you able to disassociate at that point and just experience it as a movie in a way you can’t in the first half, when you’re front and center?
KHJ: I remember reading that second half of the script maybe... twice? At first I was like, “Wait, I’m not in it?” [Laughs.] Looking at it now, I’m just so blown away about where it could go and being able to see this family grow and heal in such a beautiful way, and watch Taylor bring that role to life. I met her, and we shared a trailer. It was like a honey wagon. There was a sliding door that separated our rooms, so it was like the movie in a sense, where we’d open it up if we wanted to hang and close it if we didn’t want to look at each other. So that was the only version of our relationship that existed, apart from the few scenes we have together. So I was more moved by her journey. I mean, watching myself, I don’t blink. I’m just like, “Interesting, that’s the back of my head. Okay, my hairline looks weird, cool.” But I’m blown away watching the second half. I just feel so many things. I’m grateful. I’m moved.
AVC: So much of Waves unfolds through this churn of montage: Tyler on the beach, Tyler working out, Tyler driving. How meticulously blocked were these scenes? Or was the shoot more improvisational?
KHJ: It was a good combination. You look at something like Luce and the blocking would almost be too much at some points. But this wasn’t too free. We did have the opportunity to come in and explore things. But at the same time, because I came right from Luce, I was really big on knowing where we were going and what the trajectory of a scene was. Certain scenes would be a little more carefully planned than others. Like the one where he goes into the party, those tracking shots? That’s blocked. Whereas the big scene in the garage, not blocked at all. It’s more, where emotionally will this take us? It was about acting out the scene and saying what happens here, and what makes sense here, and what is the truth, and why would I do this, and how do I get to the end? Because we see the script on the page and go, “How do we get from A to B?”
Some of the opening stuff would be “Okay, Kelvin, you can be here,” because Trey wants his composition and you just trust that and you live in that space. But there’d be stuff in my house and in the bedroom where he’d just roll the camera and I’d riff. The wrestling stuff was riffing, too. “Just wrestle, and I’ll capture it the way that I need to.” It was a proper balance of letting the actors play and explore, and Trey having a vision for what he’s trying to achieve, for how he’s trying to create Tyler’s mental space.
AVC: What are you doing next?
KHJ: I’m starting on a new movie called The Trial Of The Chicago 7, the Aaron Sorkin film.
AVC: Who are you playing in it?
KHJ: Hm, can I say? Whatever, I’m going to say. I play Fred Hampton, who took over the Black Panther Party after Bobby Seale got arrested. The FBI drugged him and then killed him in his sleep. So I get to play a small piece of that story of what’s happening with Bobby Seale and the 7 and the trial. It’s going to be a great ensemble piece. Eddie Redmayne’s in it, and Mark Rylance, and Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s going to be sick.