It was one of the coldest New York days we've seen so far this winter, and I was on my way to meet up with actor Kelvin Harrison, Jr., at a diner in Brooklyn. In he waltzed with his red North Face puffer, baggy sweatpants, and trendy Gucci sneakers looking like the kind of winter icon I try to embody on a daily basis. Immediately upon meeting, Kelvin complimented my winter look, and while I was bashfully confused at his kind words (although, I had very intentionally picked out every piece of my outfit for the occasion), I knew we would get along just fine. For those of you who don't know Kelvin, I was initially going to describe him as more of an up-and-coming talent, but after taking a closer look at his career path thus far, it feels as though he's no longer on his way; he's arrived.
In 2020 alone, Kelvin will star in two major pictures, The High Note and The Trial of the Chicago 7, alongside some of the biggest names in the industry including Tracee Ellis Ross, Dakota Johnson, and Eddie Redmayne, just to name a few. In addition to building up quite a reputation in the acting world, Kelvin has also proven he's on the fast track to becoming a true fashion icon. Scan his Instagram for more than five seconds, and you'll quickly realize that this guy has true style, which is why choosing him for Who What Wear's first-ever male photo shoot was a no-brainer. In addition to chatting about his acting life, we also got into his personal relationship with fashion, who he looks up to in that space, where he sees himself five years from now, and much more.
You have two films coming out this year. Can you tell me a little bit about each? From my research, The High Note is a romantic drama and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is obviously darker and based on real historical events.
The High Note's going to be sick. It's so cool because Nisha Ganatra is this powerful female director, and that's what initially drew me to the project. And then to get a movie where Tracee Ellis Ross plays this iconic pop star—she's just such a light and just so dynamic. She's such a real version of a woman who has so much and has such a gift to give to the world. It's cool to see her take that moment from her mom [Diana Ross] and now have her own light. I get to be in this rom-com space with her, who is an icon, and Dakota Johnson, who is also just so wonderful.
And then The Trial of the Chicago 7 is just iconic. I mean, Aaron Sorkin, his writing is unmatched, and it's been great watching him on set working with Mark Rylance and Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne and Jeremy Strong. He's like a master conductor trying to get us all to find our rhythm. He understands humanity in a way that I've never seen it before.
How do you typically tackle roles with such stark contrasts?
I remember Mahershala Ali once talked about how he was doing True Detective, Moonlight, and finishing House of Cards all at the same time. And I remember going, "How did you do it?" And he said, "You need separate playlists." So now I have my set of music for Fred and The Trial of the Chicago 7, and I had my The High Note press stuff.
I already finished The High Note, but it's just compartmentalizing them—having different journals. My body also changes, and that helps me too. And when I put on a wig or if I put on certain shirts or certain rings, it makes me walk differently. The shoe is important too. Like that day, you decide, do I put an arch support in? Is it a heel on the boot, or is it a tennis shoe? Is it a sandal, or is it a combat boot? Do I tie the laces? Do I not? Does it support my ankle? Does it not? Because that all changes how I move. So all those little things kind of help me snap back in.
What was it like getting to work with Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross? Do you ever get nervous being on set with such big names?
I remember going to the table read at Universal. I had never been in their big offices before—that was insane—and I'm sitting at this table, and Dakota walks in. I'd already done the chemistry read with her, and I'm friends with some of her friends, but I had never met her before. She just has this wind in her hair, very girl next door, but also like, don't mess with me, but let's get to work. Boss energy. When she walks in, she has a presence that she commands.
But then Tracee Ellis Ross comes into the room with her big afro and her jumper, and she was like, "I have to go to Tyler, the Creator's set to do his music video right after this." And I was just like, the access and these people's friends and who they know and the way they talk about the work and how they were able to finesse that script was just so incredible. I started seeing what collaboration looks like on that level. How they contribute themselves to a part, how they contribute their experiences.
Let's talk about the music in that film. I've read in past interviews you've done that music was a huge part of your childhood. Obviously, you ended up taking a different artistic route from your family as far as your career goes, but what is your relationship with music like now, especially after shooting the film?
I did a show once called Godfather of Harlem where I played a young Sam Cooke–type guy, and I think that was the first time I truly had to reaccess that part of myself that was from my childhood. My parents are such big musicians, and I always feared that I would never match up to them, and I never wanted to try. I never wanted to force myself into a space because that took the fun out of it. It took what makes music so beautiful—the compensation, the storytelling, the rawness that you're presenting to other people of yourself—out of it.
It was also like me and Tracee had been born in the same boat (both having musical parents). We both grew up around this, and we cherished it. It was so special to us. But we also didn't want to step into this other light. You know what I mean? It was this light that was so big, and this film was an opportunity for us to do it on our terms, under our circumstances, together as a team.
You're from New Orleans, correct? What was it like leaving home to start your career in L.A.?
I was terrified, honestly. I was like, You should just go for it, dude. What's going to happen? What, your parents are going to be mad at you? They'll get over it. Do it while you can. And if not, then that wasn't supposed to happen for you. That's how I looked at it. I had anxiety about it, but at the same time I thought to myself, I don't have to do this. It wasn't like I had to act. I loved it, but there were other things in the world that I loved. It just wasn't that pressed to me.
It was more about coming of age and being an adult and being exposed to a lot of things that I wasn't normally seeing and trying to figure out what is my moral compass? What's my moral code? Who am I as a young adult? That's the excitement of it all. It's learning to shift your perspective and to see the beauty and the scariness of it all instead of dwelling thinking, What am I doing?! I thought of it as an opportunity that I might never get again. YOLO.
No one says YOLO anymore. We should bring that back.
Great, I'll quote you on that. That takes a lot of courage, especially coming out here all on your own, but clearly you've built a strong community around yourself now. What do community and relationship mean to you in this industry?
I moved to New York simply because of that guy [points to a friend, Charlie, sitting nearby]. That's my best friend. I was in L.A., and I had friends, but it just wasn't the same. I felt a brotherhood, and I felt a sense of being seen and a comfort. It was like family again, and family was so important to me growing up in New Orleans. I needed that because everything moves fast in this business, I've learned, and there are always a lot of other elements going on that you don't necessarily have the answers to. It's when you have someone that understands what you're doing and someone that you can laugh with, and you can joke with, and you can go hang out with. It makes life easier, and it keeps you having perspective and keeps you feeding. You're feeding yourself.
As artists, we're constantly giving a lot. Whether it's a role or an interview or a class, you're always giving pieces of yourself, and if you're not replenishing, then you find yourself depleted at the end of the day. So keeping a community of smart, healthy, adventurous, artistic people, and a variety of people that maybe might not be artists, that's key to me at this moment. I think your 20s are so important because it's the time when we start to really take in that youthful, adventurous, imaginative quality that we had when we were kids into this space we are in now as adults. This is the chance to start turning the wheel and taking as many things in as you can and using that stuff.
Speaking of relationships, explain your relationship with fashion to me. Did you know you are our first-ever male to be shot for Who What Wear?
That's what they told me. That's sick. Fashion is constantly evolving. I mean, shit, I don't really know what it is or what it's going to be. I have no specific style. It depends on who I want to be that day. I think there's a lot to me. I play with clothes like dress-up.
Who are some of your current style icons?
I love everything A$AP Rocky does. He's so comfy, and he constantly just doesn't care. I got a babushka because of him. I'm a "Babushka Boi." I should have worn my babushka today. I wear it with one of my ball caps, and I put it over that thing, and it has a fly vibe. I'll walk around, and people are like, what is going on over there? And I'm just kind of like, everything.
Who else do I love? I love Harry Styles, obviously. He's just a Gucci boy. Shia LaBeouf. He's evolved so much from Even Stevens. I also just love Shia LaBeouf. He's really found his stride. His corduroys or cargo pants, whatever he's got going on with the boots and the sock situation. His shorts game is everything. His style is just sick.
Your stylist is Matthew Henson, who also styles some of the best dressed guys around, in my opinion (e.g., A$AP Rocky and The Weeknd). What has it been like working with him?
The best. He really understands the body and immediately knows what's going to look good on me. But he also challenges me constantly. I remember one time I wore this powder-blue suit with blue trim on the collar and a white shirt. It was very simple, but I remember when I first saw it, I was like, I'm not going to wear that. I was like, there's no way. I would never be able to pull that off. I'm just too boring. And he was like, just put it on.
I trust him, and I have so much respect for the people he's dressing. It's subtle, it's never overly tailored, it's fun, and it's functional. He really understands personality and how to infuse personality and also thinks about what moment you're at in your career. Henson just gets it. Henson gets it; Henson's fresh; Henson's everything.
Is there anything that's off-limits in terms of what you won't wear?
I'm open to trying everything until I'm not. If you convince me, you convince me. Usually, when something doesn't work, everyone sees it and collectively agrees. Some stuff is just way too oversize. I don't think I can do that yet. I'm too short. Sometimes the suit can wear me, and we don't need that.
What has been a particularly noteworthy style moment for you in your career? Any particular shoots or red carpet moments stand out?
I wore this green jacket recently. It was like a tillage jacket with these cool bell-bottomy knit pants. It was a whole Gucci look, and I looked sick. I also loved my BAFTA look. It was just very classic. It's was a white coat with a satin lapel and a nice big bow tie. I also wore this burnt-orange suit from Gucci. It kind of looked like the Joker's suit. It was so good. I was like, Who am I? I don't know.
You are clearly having a major moment right now in terms of your career, but from what I can assume after getting to know you a little better today, you're always thinking ahead and putting in the work. Where do you hope to see your career five years from now?
That's an interesting question. I practice not necessarily always looking too far ahead because it gives me anxiety, honestly. But hopefully, I'll be in a place where I'm more in the development side of things—finding material and creating things—instead of waiting for things to come to me. I've had a beautiful career because I've been able to work with some of my favorite actors that are older like Naomi Watts and Tracee Ellis Ross and Octavia Spencer, and I've learned so much from them. But five years from now, I'm going to be making movies with my buddy, and hopefully, we're fostering the next wave where we're adults now and we're taking on these challenging roles that are really reflective of the progression that we've made in the industry and in the conversation.
My whole career has been based on pushing those boundaries. It's expanding to the point where you won't be able to say, well, this is what actors that look like this and that are this age do. There's no such thing. We all have such a vast spectrum of what we came to pull off. So hopefully that continues for me, and I'm still doing that and not just sitting on my couch eating popcorn.