Sundance breakout Kelvin Harrison Jr. found his form of activism through ‘Monster’ and ‘Monsters and Men’

Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., from the films "Monster," "Monsters and Men" and "Assassination Nation."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When Kelvin Harrison Jr. was younger, he thought he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his musician parents — a vocalist mother who’s also a ballerina and a classically trained jazz saxophonist father. In that vein, he learned how to play the trumpet and piano. But the passion for music never quite kicked in.

“My dad pushed it a lot so it didn’t feel like me expressing myself,” Harrison said. “That turned me off, I guess.”

As for what turned him on to acting, he credits the classic film “Imitation of Life.”

“I don’t know why but I cried like a baby during that movie,” he said. “I didn’t realize that such a response could come from a film, other than laughing at the Disney Channel. That made me realize I had way more to offer and had a lot of feelings that needed to be let out. Acting became that outlet.”

Years later, Harrison is a standout at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival with no less than three films premiering. In one of those — Sam Levinson’s “Assassination Nation” in the midnight section — he has a supporting role. But the other two — powerful leading turns in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men,” which premiered Friday, and Anthony Mandler’s “Monster,” which premieres Monday, both in dramatic competition — already have festival audiences buzzing.

In both pictures, Harrison embodies the quintessential young black male experience: coming of age in a world that has been historically guilty of stunting one’s growth, chaining and caging young men of color into rigid ideas of existence. He not only delivers stellar performances, but puts the industry on notice of his talent — both an ability to act well beyond his years and also to bring a picture its needed authenticity and subtlety.


Pulled straight from recent headlines, “Monsters and Men” follows three black men as their lives are impacted by the death of another black man by a white police officer, a situation eerily similar to the killing of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014. Harrison plays Zyrick, a star high school athlete who’s socially awakened by the incident. Costars Anthony Ramos and John David Washington play a new father who recorded the death and black cop in the same precinct as the shooter, respectively. The cast also includes Chanté Adams, Nicole Beharie and Rob Morgan.

Meanwhile, “Monster,” adapted from Walter Dean Myers’ 1999 novel of the same name, chronicles the trial of Harrison’s Steve Harmon, a 17-year-old honors student and aspiring filmmaker on trial for serving as lookout during an armed robbery of a Harlem bodega in which the store owner was killed. The prosecutor (Paul Ben-Victor) paints him as just another young black criminal — “a monster” — as Steve and his lawyer (Jennifer Ehle) declare his innocence. Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson play Steve’s parents with a cast also including John David Washington, ASAP Rocky and Nasir “Nas” Jones.

The stars and director of “Monster” stopped by the L.A. Times Studio at Chase Sapphire on Main to discuss the topicality of their film and how it can affect a wide audience. FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2018 »

“Monster” was the first of the three pictures Harrison filmed. He auditioned in February 2016 for the project because, he said, “I had never seen a narrative of a young black boy that’s super-introverted, a free-thinking intellectual and an artist.”

But he admits the tape he submitted was “terrible.” After not hearing back, the opportunity came to him once more after Avy Kaufman, the casting director from “It Comes at Night” — the post-apocalyptic horror film released last summer in which he played the son of Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo — signed on to “Monster.” She thought Harrison was a perfect fit. He initially declined.

I think it’s a beautiful role, so I want the best person to do it. So I said no.

— Kelvin Harrison Jr.

“I think it’s a beautiful role, so I want the best person to do it. So I said no,” he said, thinking he couldn’t pull it off.

Kaufman was persistent, which led to a Skype call between Mandler and Harrison.

“We saw 50 kids,” said Mandler, a veteran commercial and music video director making his feature debut with “Monster.” It wasn’t until Harrison that he “saw the vulnerability and internal passion and drive” needed to pull off the character.

After “Monster,” Harrison filmed “Monsters and Men,” which he sees as “the sequel or aftermath” of what his “Monster” character goes through.

Green first reached out to the actor through Facebook after seeing a photo of him in another film.

“I was like ... [sucks teeth] ‘Spam!’” Harrison remembered. Then, after he signed with WME, the film was the first script the agency sent his way.

“I was blown away,” he said about his first read. “This story is so different and beautiful and human.”

Green had a similar response to Harrison. Through early footage of “Monster” he had access to from Mandler and WME, the “Monsters and Men” filmmaker was able to catch a glimpse of what his potential lead could do.

“What I got was very limited, but enough to know Kelvin would be a star with or without my film,” he said. “He just has it. It’s rare. It’s in his eyes and in his heart.”

Once he had the role, Harrison put on 30 pounds and learned how to swim and play baseball.

Rob Morgan, Kelvin Harrison Jr., writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green, Chanté Adams, Anthony Ramos, John David Washington, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Nicole Beharie from the film "Monsters and Men."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times )

“It shows how dedicated he was and how committed [he was] to being in character,” Green said. “Baseball is such a small part of his character but the mind-set of an athlete is what was at the heart of his character which he portrays so beautifully with brilliance, subtlety and grace.”

Filming two such meaty roles one right after the other is something Harrison now looks back on as the beginning of his own social awakening.

“My characters, they’re recognizing the fact that what they look like and who they are and how people see that impact those people’s perspectives of them,” he said. “I’m just having my awakening of that as well.”

“I finished ‘Monster’ and [didn’t know] what to do with all these feelings,” he continued. “It was necessary for me to do ‘Monsters and Men’ to dive into the next chapter, to explore me, as Kelvin, through Zyrick.”

And through these roles, the 23-year-old discovered, in a way, his purpose.

“I realized that I was doing these films and that was my form of activism,” he said. “That’s my form of conversation. I’m just a vessel.”

As such, Harrison’s professional goal is to “tell stories that matter to me,” he said, “and hopefully they matter to other people.”

He referred back to “Imitation of Life.”

“It gave me a different perspective on life and who I was and if I can do that for someone else, and even myself and keep growing by challenging myself, that makes me most happy,” he said. “Once I stop doing that, I need someone to tell me to retire.”

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