Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is Ready To Transform (2024)

The star of Chevalier on violin “boot camps,” playing real-life people, and shedding his teen image.

By Juliana Ukiomogbe and Photographed by Greg Williams. Styled by Ryan Young.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is Ready To Transform (1)

Shirt, Willy Chavarria. Pants, Dries Van Noten. Schlumberger brooches, Tiffany & Co. Boots, Christian Louboutin, $1,894.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is no stranger to playing historical figures: Fred Hampton in The Trial of the Chicago 7, B.B. King in Elvis, and now, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges in the film Chevalier. Bologne’s name might not be as recognizable as the others, but that’s precisely why Harrison was so drawn to the role.

Born in 1745, the French and African violinist, fencer, and composer has been quietly airbrushed out of history, presumably because he was the illegitimate son of a Black enslaved woman and a white plantation owner. “He’s such an enigma,” Harrison explains. “A theme that I like to explore in all my films is identity and what it means to be a young person of color navigating white spaces. Joseph was just another chapter of that, but also an iconic one. And what I like about playing real people is that it’s an opportunity for transformation.”

Harrison first received the script during the pandemic in 2020. At the time, he was deciding between that and Cyrano, a film that he eventually starred in alongside Peter Dinklage. “I ended up choosing Cyrano because Chevalier wasn’t quite ready,” he says. “They didn’t even have a director yet.” So, he went on to shoot Cyrano and then Elvis in the meantime. “By the end of Elvis, Chevalier came back around and I took a meeting with Stephen [Williams, the film’s newly-hired director]. We really vibed. From there, I auditioned and got the part.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is Ready To Transform (3)

Shirt, Willy Chavarria. Pants, Dries Van Noten. Schlumberger brooches, Tiffany & Co. Boots, Christian Louboutin, $1,894.

To prepare for the leading role, the 28-year-old went through a series of strenuous violin “boot camps,” practicing for four to six hours a day and ultimately fracturing his collarbone. But the intense training served as a full circle moment, as Harrison was born to two musicians and grew up playing a slew of instruments—like violin, piano, and trumpet.

During the several months of boot camp, his father, a classily trained teacher, would help him practice violin. “My dad teaches classical music to college students and jazz to middle schoolers,” he says. “So, we just worked for months.” They were also preparing for one of the film’s most important music scenes: a battle between Bologne and a fellow composer. “I told my dad about the six-minute-long scene and he’s like, ‘Kelvin, a concerto takes my students six months to learn. I don’t know how you’re going to do this.’”

Although Harrison had prior experience playing music, jumping back into it for Chevalier was a challenge. “I thought it would be easier and it was not,” he recalls. “It felt impossible. Our composer Michael Abels did not let up. I wasn’t trying to give the performance of a lifetime. I just wanted to have fun.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is Ready To Transform (4)

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier.

He compares his level of extreme preparation to that of Beyoncé’s for her 2018 Coachella performance. “She has this incredible quote when she’s in rehearsals and she’s telling the choreographer, ‘Y’all gotta remember that I still have to sing these songs.’ Similarly, I was like, ‘Y’all, I still gotta act these scenes. Please make this doable.’ [Laughs] And they were like, ‘No, you’re the Chevalier.’”

Undaunted, Harrison is gearing up to play two more legends: Martin Luther King Jr. in Season 4 of the National Geographic anthology series Genius, and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the film Samo Lives. “First, I had my coming-of-age moment, then I had my father-son relationship stuff, and now this last chapter is called ‘legends only.’”

Harrison credits notable roles like these with helping him shed his “teen era” image that was cemented with films like Waves and Monster. “In this phase of my life, I’m 28 and people still see me as a young man,” he says. “I had to force myself out of [that era]. That was partially why I’m glad Euphoria didn’t work out.” (He was scheduled to star in season 2 of the hit HBO drama, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts). “I think [Euphoria] would have just kept me in that space. With Joseph, B.B. King, Fred Hampton, and, right now, Martin Luther King Jr., I get to play men.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is Ready To Transform (5)

Shirt, Willy Chavarria. Pants, Dries Van Noten. Schlumberger brooches, Tiffany & Co. Boots, Christian Louboutin, $1,894.

Up until this point, Harrison has felt like original characters for Black men were few and far between—hence why he’s gravitated towards biopics. “Those are the movies that get green-lit,” he says. But now, he wants to head in a completely different direction. “I’m ready to go into more genre spaces like sci-fi and horror,” he says. “I think my next thing is going be more unique and more extraordinary. I’m looking for things that expand the universe. It would also just be fun to see myself in spaces like that. And, honestly, I just want to look at a poster and see myself.”

As he reflects on his career thus far, he’s in a state of disbelief. “It’s unreal,” he says. “Every moment feels like, ‘Wow, pinch me.’”

Hair by Vernon François for Redken; makeup by Karo Kangas for Westman Atelier; produced by Rhianna Rule.

A version of this story appears in the May 2023 issue of ELLE.


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Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is Ready To Transform (2024)


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