Kelvin Harrison Jr. feels like one hit film away from being a full-fledged movie star. In Joe Wright’s Cyrano, the young actor shines as Christian, a handsome soldier who pines for Roxanne but lacks the words to express his feelings. Luckily, he has Cyrano.
Lucky for us, Harrison Jr. has plenty to say without any help. And quite eloquently I might add. The Film Stage was lucky enough to speak with the actor ahead of the release of Cyrano, opening this weekend in theaters. We dish on getting back to work after a long quarantine break, figuring out how to mesh competing working styles between himself and his director, and coming into a project as the new guy and figuring out how to get comfortable.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Film Stage: How did Cyrano come together for you?
Kelvin Harrison, Jr.: I got a little ping from the agents and they were like, ‘Joe [Wright] wants to talk.’ And I was like, ‘Talk about what?’ and they’re like, ‘He’ll tell you in the meeting.’ I said, ‘Fantastic,’ and we talked and he told me, ‘I want you to do this movie called Cyrano,’ and I’d never heard of it before––now I realize I know [the 1987 movie] Roxanne, I’ve seen Roxanne, but I’d never heard the name Cyrano. He pitched it to me. He was like, ‘Okay, this is the Christian character.’ And we talked a little bit about how I felt about being in that world and playing this type of guy. And then I read the script. I was like, ‘Alright, this seems like a really good movie. A beautiful, romantic but kind of sad movie.’ Definitely right up Joe Wright’s alley. [Laughs] Then I auditioned and auditioned and I got the job. And suddenly I was headed to Sicily.
I was going to ask you about Cyrano because it is one of those pieces of work that has been adapted so many times. Most people would think of Roxanne, which is the Steve Martin movie. I was going to ask if there were any adaptations that you loved or knew of…
Honestly, I could’ve sat there and looked [all of the previous versions] up but I thought about it and I was like, ‘I don’t really want to. First thing’s first is: I know there are no Black Christians. So I don’t really want to copy somebody else’s thing. I’m going to make it on my own.’ I honestly found Christian through a lot of journaling, fake backstory work, and I would watch Married at First Sight. I was stealing people’s backstories from that.
I watched this documentary about kids who had parents that were in the military, and I stole a lot from that. And Peter Sellers in Being There, and those were my three references, and I kind of just played with that. And then I applied a lot of myself being like the new guy coming into this space with two couples (Haley Bennett and Joe Wright, Peter Dinklage and Erica Schmidt) that decided to make a movie [adaptation of] a project that they had already been a part of, and I played into that.
With the Christian character, I was reminded that it’s hard because the character is not an intellectual so you have to come in and play not the smartest guy in the room. Cyrano’s giving you the words. So as an actor, that must be a challenge I’d imagine… I was fascinated watching because you access Christian so nicely in the movie. He is so likable, unlike some past versions. So the viewer is always rooting for him. And Christian’s not dumb, he’s just not well-read like Cyrano. It’s a thin line. So how do you approach that kind of role…
It all comes back to perspective and viewpoint. Because when I read it I was like, ‘OK, well, I’m not going to judge this man.’ At the end of the day, it sounds like he came from a place that was very simple where his dad was a soldier and this is what happens. And you train for this and you go and you do this. Letters and books aren’t meant for the son of a soldier, the song says. If you take out nuance it becomes a very straightforward, boring kind of upbringing. Where we go in the fields and we pick the da-da-da, and we feed the family and then we meet the girl and we have babies and we’ll repeat. You know, it was like the south to me, right? Right where I grew up, you know?
So in that way, I was like, it’s not that he comes into the situation and being like, ‘Oh, I feel so insecure about this. This thing that I don’t know how to do.’ It’s more so like, ‘Well, Fact: I don’t know how to write letters. Fact: You (Cyrano) do know how to write letters. And Fact: It sounds like this is what gets you guys off in this particular town.’ And I’m all about that. Like, whatever works, I just want to have friends. That was like the thing. No judgment to any party, not even to myself. I’ll come in confidently because I love this girl. It’s as simple as that.
Now I know you’re from a musical family down south, like you said, is this your first musical? Or am I crazy?
This is the first proper musical. I did a show called Godfather of Harlem [where I play aspiring musician Teddy Greene] and then I did this movie called The High Note, where I play this aspiring pop star type dude. But this is the first time where there are dance numbers. [Laughs]
I know you were surrounded by a million instruments growing up and dad was a jazz musician. Was there a lot of singing as well?
My mom is a singer. I did a little bit of singing… I really wanted to be a singer, to be honest. That was the whole thing. But I wasn’t good enough. The whole music thing was like, I wanted to be a singer, play piano, and then I wanted to be a trumpet player and maybe I was singing like, you know, Jazz Fest or do French Quarter Fest, and be a Louis Armstrong type guy, or Kermit Ruffins or any of those cats and––
You could be like Chet Baker!
Yes. Yes! That was my dream at the time for a little bit.
But Chet Baker had a small register, didn’t he?
Yeah, but he had the tonality. Something about that, if you got that individual like “next to no-one type” sound, you can kind of do anything.
It’s funny because Peter Dinklage doesn’t have some great, bombastic voice, but he lives in this perfect space within his songs. And it really works. And then you come in and it feels like you’re expanding the movie because you have this bigger voice than him and in this totally different way. And then obviously Haley Bennett goes big too. So that’s interesting you say that about your singing—in Cyrano you seem like the singer to me. You come in and it’s like ‘Oh man, this guy, here he is.’ But to your point Dinklage is crushing it in this very specific space.
Yeah! Owning that space. There’s a lot of character in it. That’s the thing. He has a lot of character in his voice.
Did you guys record the singing on set or was it more of the traditional pre-recorded then lip-sync on site?
The vocals in the movie are live. They always said we were going to do it [live], but then they were also not sure. So we ended up deciding to do it because it honestly started with Pete and Haley. I was like ‘These guys!’ They sounded good the first couple days of shooting and I think that’s when everybody was like, ‘We’re going to shoot [and record the songs live]’ Listen, no one said this officially, this is me guessing, but we did pre-record for rehearsal to learn to dance numbers so we weren’t wasting our voices, you know? But when we came to [filming], that is not the recording I made, and that was [my voice] on the day. And I was like, ‘Nobody told me that!’ [Laughs]
Tell me a little bit about the on-location filming. My colleague Conor and I were lucky enough to speak with Joe on our podcast and we were talking about Sicily and filming there. What was that like? Were you filming in quarantine times or before that?
Yeah, we were filming during quarantine times. We had to go to London first to quarantine for two weeks. And during that time, that was also when we did a lot of the vocal lessons and dialect coaching and all that stuff like that. And there were a lot of people already there like doing the stunt routines for Pete’s “Ten Men Fight” and my introduction sequence and also Pete’s opening as well. So Pete started doing that and then we got exemptions, and the only exemption we had was to go to this one location and we would do that and work. When we got to Sicily after the two weeks, we all lived in this house together––pretty much this castle––which we shot the theater…the theater was built in our backyard. So we could open up the window and be like, ‘Oh! Shut up you’re too loud! We’re trying to sleep!’ It was like a bubble, you know? We became a real family. We spent Halloween together. We spent Thanksgiving together…
…like a traveling troupe!
Yeah, it felt like that. It felt like a theater troupe and all of these English actors as well that Joe knew from when he was doing plays and stuff and from his sister and his family and the puppets. You know, Joe’s mom was a puppet maker and stuff like Joe used to make puppets, and so it felt like community theater to an extent, except with, you know, letters flying from the skies. [Laughs]
I think one of the things the movie has going for it is the location and community. All of you guys in a house, going to the location, filming with most likely minimal outside interruption because of protocols. It must’ve added something to the final product. It’s hard to probably quantify, but did it feel particularly different from other sets you’ve been on? Special in some way?
You know it’s interesting because we were all in a very different headspace, especially me. We hadn’t worked in a bit because we were at home. And so even when I Facetimed Joe [Wright] for the first time he was like, ‘I need to go to work…I’m sitting here. I got a baby and a wife and I got to go to work.’ I think we all had this fear because what we talked about was like we were a bit scared. Joe had never done a musical before. A lot of us hadn’t done a musical like this before. I’d never done a period piece before this. You know, so, so much of it was like: Do we know what we’re doing? How do we do it? And we relied on each other even more to make it happen.
It wasn’t like, you know, sometimes you show up to sets and for all of the actors it’s like ‘I don’t need you, but it’d be nice if I wanted to use you today.’ Whereas with this it was like we need each other, dive in everybody. On three! So I think this being a movie so much about connection and missing people, it really lent to the overall environment and energy on set, which was we all needed connection after being locked down and wanting to, like, be around people and share these, you know, these intimate moments.
It’s funny this is your first period piece because you have a couple more period pieces coming up right? You got the Baz Luhrmann Elvis movie coming up, where you’re playing B.B. King, and you’ve got the Chevalier movie coming up too. So you’re full-blown into the past now.
Yeah, you do one, they call you for all.
Is there anything you took from Joe’s earlier work? Like you said, this was his first musical. I know he had been kind of angling to make one. He’s said that Anna Karenina was a dress rehearsal for a musical in a way. Was there anything from his work that kind of sparked for you?
I had seen Pride & Prejudice. I’d seen Atonement. I’ve seen most of his films, to be honest. And so I understood Joe’s tone. I think the thing that me and Joe had to figure out was how do we make me make sense in your films? You know, like this isn’t The Soloist, you know? That was a conversation. And also our styles… Joe has a specific style of working, and I think it has worked so well for him every single time he’s made a movie––for the most part––and I don’t work like that. And I was like ‘We really gotta figure this out, boss.’ [Laughs]
Well, you did. You figured it out, right?
Yeah, we figured it out in the end. But it was a process and I think we both learned a lot from each other in that process. It was refreshing at a certain point. And also we were very vulnerable, like I said, because we hadn’t worked in forever.
You came into it and Peter had already done it on stage, right? So you were coming in kind of a little bit with people who were like ‘We know what this is already.’
Haley had been with Joe while he was developing the movie. Haley had worked with Peter doing the play twice. Erica [Schmidt] wrote the script for Peter. Everybody’s got a very strong idea of what this movie looks like. Everybody! And I’m like, ‘I don’t have any strong ideas other than what Christian is talking about. So it is a lot of trying to take all the bits that serve you with the conversations that have happened with everybody. You know, my confidence was super low in the beginning because I was like, ‘I’m not going to keep up or bring the level of nuance and depth to it that they are.’ But honestly, I’ve changed that mindset now. Actually they are all assets because they are so deep in it. I can only go deeper. It’s that thing of like you’re only as good as that person opposite you. And they were so fantastic that I’m going to be fine even at my worst.
I know we’re coming to the end of our time, I wanted to ask one last question: Is there anything you’ve made that you’d encourage people to seek out? Maybe something underseen or a movie that you love?
There are some movies that I actually like but they straight up kind of don’t make sense. [Laughs] And I’ll be like, ‘Should I tell somebody to watch this movie but I don’t really know what they can take from it.’ You know what movie I do really enjoy in terms of the conversation. I love Luce. I think that’s a fascinating conversation piece and the questions it asks and [explores] the different types of relationships that exist. And just how the movie ends, I think it’s a lot to talk about, and that still isn’t like we’ve watched it and we moved on and we’re resolved from those issues. We haven’t. So I find it fascinating and the fact that this kind of a genre movie, it’s a bit of a psychological thriller.
Cyrano opens on February 25 in theaters.