Kelvin Harrison Jr. felt an instinctive connection with Taylor Russell the first time they met, which happened to be over FaceTime.
A mutual friend introduced them before the New Orleans-raised Harrison would discover how well he’d get along with Russell, who hails from Vancouver. Or that their birthdays were just five days apart, or that after playing siblings onscreen in the emotional coming-of-age drama “Waves” they’d both leave the Florida set unable to shake the experience of making it.
Maybe, Harrison thought at the time, she could play his little sister in the new film he was working on. He encouraged Russell to audition for director Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”) and she landed the part.
Which is how, two summers ago, they found themselves on the South Florida coast with castmates Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”), Renée Elise Goldsberry (“Hamilton”), Alexa Demie (“Euphoria”) and Lucas Hedges (“Honey Boy”) filming the emotional drama about a family, torn apart, struggling to piece itself back together.
“We’re both intense people,” Russell said during a recent stop in Los Angeles, glancing at Harrison seated next to her, who nodded in agreement. “We both get swept up in our brains. I think Kelvin and I think a lot about things and overthink situations. It’s not always aligned with each other, but we are kind of brother-and-sisterly in real life. And, I don’t know. I feel like we have a ... soul connection.”
She laughed suddenly at the earnestness of her sentiment, and so did he. In conversation, their easy chemistry explodes in bursts of giggles and jokes. Russell is older by five days and, teasingly, doesn’t let Harrison forget it.
They fall quickly back into the rhythm forged during that summer in Florida, when the close-knit cast spent warm evenings in broken A/C and eating at haunts like the Le Tub Saloon in Hollywood, Fla., a locally famous burger joint across the street from a Margaritaville Hotel.
There were getting-to-know-you hangouts before then too, going shopping and dancing and rollerblading in L.A. after their first real meeting, over deep conversation at Hugo’s.
In “Waves,” however, a gulf separates their characters: Harrison brings blistering complexity to Tyler, a star athlete who turns to drink and pills as he silently crumbles under the pressures of his home life and volatile relationship with girlfriend Alexis (Demie). Russell counters that energy as Emily, a quiet but observant daydreamer who steps out of her brother’s shadow, embarking on her own romance with a classmate (Hedges) while coming into her own strength.
Their sibling relationship is fractured by the crushing expectations of their father, Ronald (Brown), and only partly soothed by the presence of their stepmother, Catharine (Goldsberry). In spite of their parents’ good intentions, their comfortable lives and an outward semblance of suburban content, the kids are not alright and they’re hurting without the tools to express it.
You can see why, at 25, Harrison (“Monsters and Men,” “Luce”) and Russell (“Lost in Space,” “Escape Room”) are two of the fastest-rising stars of their generation. Propelled by their heart-wrenching performances and told in two parts — one a dizzying frenzy of distress, the other a search for peace — “Waves” becomes a mesmeric meditation on devastation and healing and belongs to them both.
On this fall afternoon, the pair have just come off a barnstorming tour with “Waves,” which debuted to critical raves earlier this year at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals before A24 opened it in limited release on Nov. 15. Screening the film to audiences across the country, they’ve heard young viewers share their own emotional reactions to seeing the Williams family trying to heal in the wake of the unthinkable.
“It’s been beautiful, honestly. This one young man told me he was going to bring his dad, and that he needs to see the movie,” Harrison said. “We had a young lady and her mom say, ‘We’re going to go home and talk about this.’ It’s bridging a lot of gaps, and that makes the ride feel worthwhile.”
Russell agreed. “So many times as an actor you’re like, ‘What am I doing? Do my actions have an impact? Is this all vanity, or is it self-indulgent?’” she said. “And then we have these screenings where these kids are just baring their souls after seeing this movie, and it shocks you into the present. You feel like, ‘OK, this is really important.’ And we’re lucky to be a part of that.”
Harrison was the first to board “Waves,” his second film with Shults after the 2017 post-apocalyptic horror “It Comes at Night,” and he had a pivotal decision to make. Shults had written the script inspired by his own experiences but offered Harrison his choice of roles to play: Tyler, whose downward spiral shatters his family, or Luke, the boyfriend who enters Emily’s life in the ensuing aftermath.
The decision was easy. “I said, ‘Well, which is the more challenging part?’” Harrison said. It was Tyler, the young man shouldering the crushing weight of his father’s tough love, whom Harrison chose to play after several close conversations with Shults. The choice prompted a shift in the film’s racial undertones as the middle-class Floridian family at the center of the film became African American.
“What made me really want to get into it was texting with [Shults], having conversations about our home life, growing up, what our relationships with our parents were like, what our romantic relationships were like,” said Harrison, noting that his previous films, like this year’s searing dramatic thriller “Luce,” explored race in more direct ways. “He’s white, I’m black ... but there were so many universal truths between us both. And it just made me feel seen, and not alone.”
But a key moment of violence in the script did give Harrison pause, and he wrestled with the optics of a young black male protagonist taking such a risky turn. Ultimately, Harrison said, “I trust [Shults], and I think it means more to dive in than to shy away and be afraid, and to be protective of these narratives that often don’t get told properly anyway.”
During the Toronto Film Festival, Brown and Goldsberry revealed how their initial concerns over how race would be handled in the film were eased in speaking with Shults, who welcomed them into a collaborative process.
“I read the script and was profoundly moved, and also somewhat terrified, because I have two sons,” Brown said. “I talked to Trey about my reservations and he said, ‘I hear you.’ I said, ‘I love the second half of the movie but I’m wondering, will audiences stay for the whole journey?’ I realized what fears I had were actually an asset for the character. Rather than something to run away from, they were something to run towards.”
“One of the things I love about it is that it’s not just a great film that happens to be about a black family, it’s a great film about a black family that actually really, genuinely and organically understands who we are,” Goldsberry said. “I think that’s hard to do.”
It took only five pages of dialogue for Russell to fall in love with Emily. “You don’t get roles like this for young women,” said Russell, who had seen Shults’ debut film, “Krisha,” a deft exercise in tense and tricky family dynamics and an indication of the vision he’d bring to “Waves.” “It just doesn’t happen, especially for black girls, or mixed girls, so it was a no-brainer. I think there were a lot of aspects of Emily I was like when I was younger and that are probably still within me, and a multitude of things that we all are.”
For her, many memories from making “Waves” are vivid treasures, like the adventure Russell and Hedges took with Shults, cinematographer Drew Daniels, and a splinter crew to film the freewheeling interstate road trip Emily and Luke take in the film, stopping to swim with manatees along the way to pay a difficult visit to his father.
“It was the most fun I’d ever had on set,” she said. “We were all in a tour bus that broke down one day on our second-to-last day, and the tire flew off, and [we] were watching this happen while we were shooting at a gas station. And then it started pouring down rain and we ran into a field and started dancing to Kanye West, and then they came after us with the camera. We ate chili after in a 7-Eleven.
“Meanwhile I was sitting in the house getting pictures, sad, and Taylor would go, ‘We’re having so much fun!’” Harrison mock-complained. “Me and Alexa were just sitting, waiting.”
Both describe making “Waves” as a transformative chapter in their real lives. But letting go of Tyler and the agony of his emotional journey wasn’t easy, Harrison said. Acting is a conduit to his own vulnerability and growth, as he describes it, and each role he’s taken has helped him understand himself in some way.
“It’s weird,” he said. “You make a movie like that and you have to sit in the pain and the exploration of what that world is and where these people are. But then you have to grieve these characters in a lot of ways.” Step one in the post-"Waves” grieving process? “Find a therapist,” Harrison said with a laugh.
Both actors had jobs lined up after the “Waves” shoot, so there was hardly time to decompress, and their schedules haven’t let up since: As we speak, Harrison, who’s made 10 movies in the last two years, is gearing up to film Aaron Sorkin’s period drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7" and Russell is preparing to head to South Africa to shoot “Escape Room 2,” the sequel to her recent horror sleeper hit.
Some things are immediate gifts, and some things are gifts that you see in hindsight ... It’s only when you have distance that you realize that it all meant something.
Diving into the next acting job helped wash Tyler away, Harrison says, but he still needed time to understand how the experience of “Waves” had affected him.
“You’re still thinking about it and you’re processing what it was and what it meant to you on a personal level,” he explained. “You start to reexamine all your other relationships in your life, and for me it was cherishing those beautiful moments and really trying to bring them back to life, or nurture or preserve them.”
“It was really hard to go back into my life after,” Russell admitted. “I really didn’t want to leave Florida. I was really sad and heartbroken for a long time, because I really loved making this movie with these people. It changed my life, this movie, and for the better.”
Not every project feels so profound, Harrison joked, but Russell countered with an overriding sense of optimism.
“Some things are immediate gifts, and some things are gifts that you see in hindsight that you don’t realize in the moment is a gift, because it comes in a strange package. And it’s only when you have distance that you realize that it all meant something, that it was there for a reason,” she said, turning to Harrison. “Right?”
He relented, breaking into a warm grin. “That’s a beautiful way to say it.”