If you’ve been following Cinemaholics closely over the last year, you’ll know I’ve been an outspoken proponent of Kelvin Harrison Jr. as one of the best actors of the year, first due to his landmark performance in Luce from this past summer (which is still on my Top 10 movies of the year list), and now in Waves, an inventive family drama from A24 that has a real chance at scoring some Oscar nominations.
So you can imagine my delight when the opportunity to interview Harrison Jr. came my way recently. And in preparation of this conversation, I realized how badly I want to hear his thoughts on the current status quo of Hollywood and the kinds of stories he wants to tell next as a young, talented actor on the rise.
What’s your elevator pitch for Waves? Why should people seek it out?
KHJ: Well, we always say it’s an epic drama about a modern family learning to heal and grow and nurture that dynamic that means most to us, which is family. And trying to heal past tragedy.
Waves is a film with a lot of striking cinematography, where the camera sometimes orbits you, follows you at close angles, and so on. While filming, how aware were you of how this was going to look and feel and sound like once it was all done?
KHJ: I didn’t know how great that sound design would be…that was so immersive. But I do know Trey [Edward Shults] as a filmmaker because of working with him on It Comes at Night, and I knew he knew how to draw us in. So even in the scripts, he talks about the aspect ratio changing, and the colors, and I know how he shoots things, and the angles.
Trey has always told me, ‘I’m right with you.’ And even on set, Trey would either be under a seat in a car, or in a closet, or on the other side of the bathroom if I was there. Trey was always with me. We were almost attached by an umbilical cord, because we were in this together. This character was a piece of both of us.
So I knew that when we saw the film, we would be in [Tyler’s] head. We would feel his pain. We would feel his physical pain, and we would also be with that beautiful second half of the movie. So you know the kind of filmmaker Trey is, but to hear the sound and to see the color correction and to see the music—you know, all of it come together—it’s even more of a mind. Like, ‘Whoa!’ I’m just blown away and just moved by the whole film, to be honest.
Did you get a chance to collaborate with Shults on forming this character and carving out his personality and quirks using your own judgement and creativity?
KHJ: Oh, yeah. Eight months before the movie even started, we literally talked to each other on the phone, through text message, and we talked about our relationships with our fathers and our relationships with our mothers and our sisters, and our romantic relationships. We really just started to examine…Trey and I called them ‘little therapy sessions.’ So much of what was personal to him also became personal to me when the nuance came into the script.
So once he finally wrote the script, and I read it, and I was like, ‘OK, so this is the story we get to tell, and this is the character I’m playing,’ it went even further into the hair. Making that decision was very early on, dyeing the hair blonde. We talked about Kanye, we talked about Frank Ocean. We talked about Odell Beckham, and athletes, and trying to find identity. And what does that blonde represent in Tyler’s world? What does it represent in the black community? What does that do to a man [Tyler’s father] who is very traditional in a lot of ways? And grounded in religion and masculinity and his idea of what it means to be a black man? And how does he view his son because of that decision? And how have those views projected onto him?
Trey was a wrestler growing up, so I did three months of wrestling training. I did three-a-days, I would go and do CrossFit and then choose two wrestling sessions every day for three months straight. I gained 45 pounds for the movie. And so all of these things kind of helped me understand what world that this boy lived in, and also understand Trey’s concept and idea and vision for this character.
I started an Instagram for Tyler, and I would post pictures every day. There were so many little pieces of how we wanted to make him feel ‘lived in,’ and that we never thought we were watching a movie—we thought we were just like a fly on the wall watching this boy experience life.
Is there anything truly unique you learned from making this movie, either from the process, or maybe the story itself?
KHJ: I learned to just love myself more. I think when you do a character like this, you start to realize how much we’re harboring as people, and how much it does affect us and how not feeling secure in your own identity is such a key component to existing in a healthy and happy life.
Living in that boy’s pain every day was the extreme of what I think I would ever experience, but I think he has a little piece of what all of us might have felt at some point or another. Whether it be judgement, whether it be a lack of feeling like you fit into a certain group. Or seeking validation from people that can’t give it to you. Or not knowing how to communicate in our times of need and our times of feeling isolated and alone.
The movie reminded me that I can be in process and that I can fall down and I can get back up. And I can use my voice. And that people in my family, most importantly, do love me unconditionally. And it doesn’t matter what I choose to do or how I make decisions. I’m a young man that’s growing to become the man I want to be. But also, it’s important for me not to project and force myself into this idea of the man I think I want to be. I will become that person with time.
And I think that’s the beautiful thing about this film, that Trey has a beautiful outlook on and a wisdom about, which is time. We will thrive with time, and we don’t have to try to chase it, if that makes sense.
You have a lot of momentum right now as a young, talented actor. Moving forward, what kind of stories do you want to tell?
KHJ: I came into [this business] not knowing what it was or what I wanted to do, per se. Literally, I almost was on Famous in Love. I tested for it. I wanted it. I almost got it. That was my goal. I grew up watching the Disney Channel. I didn’t know how much power we had in storytelling. I didn’t know how much we could be capable of doing.
What I’m constantly seeking out is something that challenges me. An opportunity from a person that I didn’t even think could envision something so grand. Something so unique. Something so specific to their experience, but that can drive us all to learning more about each other. And so I’m constantly just looking for that reinvention. And that thing we think we’re not supposed to be watching.
I think It Comes at Night was that. Some people love that movie, some people don’t love that movie. But it’s an interesting genre film about family. Then you look at something like Waves, and it’s unconventional in so many ways. You look at something like Luce, and that’s another movie that does not provide us with easy answers and easy ideas of what it means to be a young, black boy. These stories are just not easy to watch, and they’re not simple. They’re not just throwaways. They’re unique and they’re just different.
I want to do that in sci-fi. I want to do that in more horror films. I want to do rom-coms. I want to do all of it. There’s no specific thing that I’m aiming to achieve but to be honest, to be authentic, to just challenge myself. To not exist in just the world that I know, because that’s not what cinema is, and that’s not what filmmaking is supposed to do. It’s supposed to inspire and challenge.
What’s something you wish was different about the state of filmmaking today? What would you like to see changed?
KHJ: I really would love if people would stop just trying to project agendas onto film. I think it’s important to have a point of view, but I think when your point of view is to be politically correct but to also sneakily slide in your biased version of what story you’re trying to tell is not productive. And these ideas of remakes? Also not that interesting [laughs].
I think we run out of our individual ideas because we’re so busy trying to seek attention. And we crave it. And we crave to be number one. And we crave to be accepted by the majority. And that’s just not what it means to be a human being. To be a human being means to be an individual, and to be different, and to be able to seek to love and understand other people as a collective.
It’s not to throw and push and force people and shove things down your throat. And that’s where cinema kinda can get tricky and go wrong and be off-putting at a certain point. I want people to just be themselves and to tell stories that matter to them genuinely.
Waves is now playing in wide release.
Jon is the co-host of Cinemaholics and author of two books: the novel Killerjoy and a book about Pixar called The Pixar Theory. His favorite movie is usually The Mask of Zorro (don’t ask).