Kelvin Harrison Jr. on Embracing His Musical Talent in ‘The High Note’ and the Role That Challenged Him Most

He’s held his own against the likes of Octavia Spencer and Sterling K. Brown in the powerful dramas “Luce” and “Waves,” and now rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr. finds himself playing a different kind of role alongside Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson in the musical dramedy “The High Note.” Harrison co-stars as David Cliff, a gifted musician who is discovered by Maggie Sherwood (Johnson), an aspiring producer who works as an assistant to a pop diva going through a transitional phase in her career. 

Harrison, a native of New Orleans, studied music in his youth and “The High Note” is the first mainstream film in which he has been able to show off this talent. Once production starts up again, Harrison is set to begin filming his role in season two of HBO’s “Euphoria,” and in the meantime he took the time to talk with Entertainment Voice in which he discussed “The High Note,” drama versus comedy, performing onstage, and the music that inspires him in his own life.

What attracted you to this film?

It was Tracee’s role. That was such a cool part. I just loved hearing about what it’s like for a woman of her skin color and her age to be in the industry. That intrigued me the most, and how they decided to depict that character, and when they told me Tracee was playing her, I immediately knew that she would do it with such a truth… I knew she was going to bring light and love to that part. I think that was exciting to me.

But I didn’t think I was right for the role, so I said no. And then, I said no again, and I auditioned, and I auditioned, and then, I didn’t get it, and then, I got it, and, suddenly, I was there. It was a lot of push and pull, and I think it was just a matter of I was supposed to be doing the movie, rather than me seeking the movie out.

What was it like to utilize your musical skills for a role?

It was scary, but it was also very exciting. I’ve always wanted to have a moment like this, performing on a stage and recording music and being in the studio, and just dressing up in cool outfits. It’s a dream a lot of kids have. I think the inner child in me, that nine, eight, ten, eleven, twelve year old was just, like, screaming and going, “Oh my god.” This is everything you’d imagine your life would be like at 25. That catch is, it’s just a movie, and I’m at home in quarantine (laughs).

Compared to “Luce” and “Waves,” this is a lighter film. How do you approach a comedic role differently from a dramatic one?

I learned a lot from watching Miss Tracee. I think it’s always about just coming at it with the truth. Pacing and timing is key, too. Nisha talked a lot about that. With indie dramas, I can take space. I do a lot of breathing in those indie dramas. I can take all the time I want for a moment, but that’s not how this kind of movie works. It’s about, what’s the cadence? How much time do you need between a line and a joke or a punchline? Keeping it light, staying light on your feet, that would be the note I would get a lot. “Okay, Kelvin, I get it. You understand the depths of this man. Keep him on his toes, please.”

Did you and Dakota get to improv at all?

A little bit. She would always have so many fun things to throw at me, so I would always try to come up with a few things and see what happened. We’d do some banter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 

Also, the writer, Flora Greeson, who’s incredible, she was always on set. Sometimes she would throw us new pages while we were there. We’d do a scene ad she’d be like, “Okay, let’s try it this way,” or “How about you say this?” The script would always change anytime we were on set.

Speaking of Dakota, you two have such a fun chemistry. What was it like working with her?

She’s so much fun, and she’s so sweet. What I appreciated about her was that she was really passionate about the project. She always came in prepared and was constantly with her bag of ideas. She always brings something to the table, and that is the type of actress you want to collaborate with. It makes the experience fun for everyone

As artists, we’re all there because we love a script, and everyone has to do their best work to bring it to life. It’s a team sport, in a lot of ways. I think of us as athletes, and she was our quarterback. It was cool to watch her throw around ideas all day, and I got to catch them if I could. Sometimes I missed those balls, but I think I caught most of them.

Something interesting about David is that he experiences a great deal of self-doubt. Although he’s super talented, he’s still playing gigs at grocery stores and kids’ birthday parties. Did you ever feel that kind of self-doubt in your own career?

I think, as an actor, everyday. As a musician, I definitely had that moment, and that’s why I became an actor. But as an actor, I still walk into every movie with imposter syndrome. “What if I’m not good enough?” I think about everybody I worked with in my career, like Octavia Spencer. “What if Octavia Spencer thinks I’m bad? What if Naomi Watts thinks I’m bad? Or Sterling K. Brown thinks I’m bad? Or Tracee Ellis Ross thinks I’m bad? What if Dakota thinks I’m bad? What’s going to happen then? I’m going to get fired, obviously. Then I’ll be unemployed, and my parents will be upset with me.” Every movie I have that spiral, and at the end of the movie, I’m like, “Oh, I did it.”

I really emphasize with David and that self-doubt. I think we all have a little bit of it in us. It’s part of life.

Tell us about the musical scenes and bringing the soundtrack to life? Were you involved at all in writing any of the music?

Oh, no no no. They had some really great writers. They won’t let me touch that one (laughs). We had a lot of different songs to choose from, so I did get to have input on which songs I thought made the most sense for my character based on batch, but that was the extent of my collaboration in that department.

Was it nerve-racking doing those performance scenes, especially the large one at the end of the film? 

Oh, yes, that was the first day of shooting, too. It was so exciting; it was so intimidating because we had been in the studio, in our private, little spaces for a month and a half, recording all the music. To share that for the first time — It was the first time the crew would hear it, it would be the first time the extra would hear it — It’s revealing. It’s like walking on stage naked, a little bit. You’re like, ‘Oh? You like what you see?’ (Laughs). There are better ways I could explain that, but you know what I mean.

David is also a bit of a music historian. Are you like that at all? Do you pick songs to go with your moods?

Oh, yeah. Depending on where my head’s at, I’ll choose an album. At the beginning of quarantine, I was listening to Lauryn Hill. I was trying to find peace. Now I’m listening to the Zombies and Donny Hathaway. It’s a different feel. Depending on where I’m at, I tend to mess with playlists.

Do you have a person like Maggie in your own life, someone who builds you up and with whom you can collaborate?

It changes over the years. When I was younger, when I first started working, one of my best friends, she was one of the reasons why I started acting because she introduced me to really good movies.

Now, it’s kind of my manager. I’ll call him and we’ll chat about theories that we finished, books that we’re reading, scripts that we want to do, stuff like that. It’s always good to have another pair of ears to have as a sounding board for your ideas. I definitely have that.

You only have a few scenes with Tracee, but you guys are so good together in those scenes. What was it like working with her? And how did you react when you read the twist at the end?

She’s like a ball of joy. Seeing her light up a room in any given second, and never shrink herself in the process, it felt like magic. It was such a big set with so many people, and there’s so much going on, and she was also very vulnerable in that moment, as well, because she’s lending her voice and her experience from all her years working in this industry and living in this world to this movie, in some ways. She did it with such grace, like her character’s name.

Reading that twist, I was like, “Oh my god, I never saw that coming. It makes sense.” Now that I look back at everything, it all checks out, but it shocked me as well.

What was it like working with director Nisha Ganatra and what was your favorite scene?

She’s so sweet and she’s so bubbly. She’s hilarious, honestly. Comedians hate when you tell them to make jokes, but Nisha can crack jokes all day, any day, no matter what you say to her, but she always gets the job done. If I could work with more directors like that who could make us laugh and still make us work, I’d be a happy camper. She’s really good at her job.

It’s a toss between that final scene that I have onstage and making “Track 8.” I thought that was a lot of fun, just making the music and being in the studio and showing that side of David, and playing with Dakota is always a lot of fun.

You’ve already been in multiple memorable films in your career. Which character has been your favorite?

My favorite experience on set has been “It Comes at Night.” I loved making that movie; I loved playing that character. We were in the woods and I got to get dirty and we were wearing masks, and there were fires everywhere because we would burn things (laughs). It was kind of cool. And it was a horror film, so we got to be scared all the time. It was fun.

I think the most challenging character, but also the most rewarding, was playing “Luce.” It was technically very strenuous on all of us, Octavia, and Naomi, and Tim, as well. I think I grew a lot during that process, and I think that is probably why I love and cherish that moment.

Do you have anything coming up that you worked on before quarantine and how are you holding up during lockdown?

I have “The Trial of the Chicago 7” coming out, hopefully at the end of this year. It’s an Aaron Sorkin movie and I play Fred Hampton, and I’m really excited about that. I have so much respect for him for what he’s done. It’s going to be a really great movie. The script is phenomenal, as you can expect from Sorkin. 

I’m doing really well. I’m sitting on my couch. I’ve been reading books, cooking, painting. I did some workouts this morning. I’m helping my buddy teach an acting class. Stuff like that has been really fun.

What has that been like, helping out young actors?

It’s really refreshing, seeing some of these kids. Today, they were doing monologues, and some of them were just so giving in their work. It was inspiring to see how kids create, and the things that they think about, and hearing other people talk about scene work, and the fresh perspective and the various things that they bring from their lives to the table. It just reminds me, from the core of it, what all this is. It’s just creation.

The High Note” is available May 29 on VOD.