- 17 Jan 20
The acclaimed young actor breaks down his role in Trey Edward Shults' new film Waves.
Speaking to Kelvin Harrison Jr. in December 2019, I put it to him that he’s had a pretty damn good year.
“It’s been sick!” laugh the 25 year old. “It’s been quite the year, I took a shower this morning and reflected, 2019 was lovely, it’s been nice.” In 2019, Harrison Jr. played the lead in the critically claimed drama thriller Luce, a complex tale of racism and the pressures of Black exceptionalism. His new film Waves was also released in the States, and the young actor has again received rave reviews for his performance as high-achieving high-school athlete Tyler, who struggles to cope when his carefully disciplined and predetermined life plan life begins spiralling out of control. When tragedy strikes, Tyler and his family must grapple with the forces of racism, toxic masculinity, assimilation and the demands placed on young Black men that have affected them all.
But then, Harrison Jr.’s hasn’t had a bad year since his first ever acting job, appearing in Steve McQueen’s Oscar winning masterpiece, 12 Years A Slave. Since then, Harrison Jr. has appeared in celebrated films such as The Birth Of A Nation, Mudbound, It Comes At Night and JT LeRoy, and has several films due out in 2020. Though Harrison Jr. is maturing into more adult roles, he asserts that his criteria for picking projects has remained the same.
“It’s the same questions: Is the role challenging me, and is the role making me redefine how I see people, and those I love, and myself?” he explains. “The only thing that has really changed is how I want to be a collaborator, because when I first started, I was taking so much in and still learning that I didn’t really have a voice or understand my feelings completely. My goal when taking a part was to just take everything in and I didn’t really assert myself as much. But now, I’ve lived a little bit more life and so I think about what the collaborative experience will be like, if that person be willing to understand my experience, and will it be fun?”
Under these guidelines, Waves was a no-brainer for Harrison Jr. Having already worked with director Trey Edward Schults on It Comes At Night, and joining a cast of Hamilton actress Renee Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, acclaimed newcomer Taylor Russell, and Sterling K. Brown as Ronald, Tyler’s loving but strict and demanding father. The actor was also passionate about being able to play a young, complex Black man who challenged stereotypes all appealed to him. He collaborated with Schults for months on the character, both drawing on real life experiences as well as their shared interest in psychology (Schults’ parents are both therapists.) The result is a stunning performance that embodies both Tyler’s control and physicality as an athlete, but also his growing volatility and desperation as he fears not living up to the impossibly high standards set for him by his father, coaches, teacher, colleges, and society in general.
“I operated with this character from a psychological point of view, trying to understand the psyche of that boy who was at war with himself and trying to maintain his sanity,” says Harrison Jr. “I was looking at moments of suppression because of how our parents affect us, then how does that suppression lead to a depression, and how does that depression lead to anger, and how does that anger effect a 17 year old’s life like Tyler? So it was nailing down everything the character wants to say, but cannot say, and knowing the weight of everything he’s bottling up, so when you show up to set, you have that full life and range of thoughts to work with. Some of its personal, too,” Harrison Jr. adds. “I applied some of the stuff I saw from my friends and cousins, and I applied some of their traumatic experiences and their losses, and tried to channel that as much of possible.”
The film grapples with the intersection of racism and toxic masculinity, as Tyler feels under pressure to be the perfect student, athlete, son, young Black man – and never show the toll that these demands take on him. His father tells him “We’re not afforded the luxury of being average, we have to work ten times as hard” – but it feels like there’s an unspoken end to that sentence which is “and we have to do it silently.” It’s a feeling Harrison Jr. has experienced, and now pushes back against.
“So much of the Black experience, especially in America, has been about trying to catch up and trying to prove that we are worthy,” says Harrison Jr. “And when you’re doing that, you’re ultimately devaluing and taking away so much of who you are in the process. Growing up, it was interesting for me because that conversation that Ronald has with Tyler is a conversation I had with my Dad as well, and it shook me to my core, because it stopped me from feeling like I could mess up, it stopped me from actually growing, because failure is what helps us learn and grow and become better people. But in Ronald’s case, and even something I said to my own Dad, they don’t even consciously realise they’re trying to appease people who aren’t here to support you, or here to help you thrive. But they believe that’s the only way to win because those people hold the key, so they try to teach young people – particularly young Black boys, because you could be at the wrong place and time and your life could be taken away from you – to constantly be prepared for the obstacles ahead of you and be ten steps ahead of them. That’s the conversation of Luce, too, and how power and privilege work in our country. But it means we’re taught to be tough, to be invincible, to be better than the next – and it’s just not human. What Waves tries to do is look at how this boy is trying to just be himself, not a concept that other people have created for him. He’s not a saint, not a monster, just a human being; but society takes that away from him. We dehumanise that boy. We refuse him the ability to embrace a complex, authentic, human identity by forcing him into a predetermined box with expectations.”
Since this year’s Oscar results came out, a conversation has started about the types of roles the Academy rewards, noting that the rare times that actors and actresses of colour are recognised for their work, it’s often when they perform a racially specific form of suffering, playing slaves, prisoners, maids, or noble saint-like victims of injustice. White actors can play characters that are flawed or absurd or floundering or genius or pathetic or unlikeable, and the Academy will reward them – but only Black suffering or Black exceptionalism is rewarded. Harrison Jr. is not accepting these limitations.
“So many different types of men exist in this world, and it’s a privilege for me to step into their shoes and honour that and give them a chance to be seen,” he says. “That’s something I’m really passionate about and excited about with these opportunities that have come my way, and that more people are trying to tell our stories.”
Waves is in cinemas now.