(Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
“You’re young, you’re Black, and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?” The line, spoken by a defense attorney to her client, Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), sums up the tension at the heart of Anthony Mandler’s Monster. On trial for allegedly having served as lookout during a bodega robbery that turned deadly, Harmon finds himself face to face with the ugly reality so many young Black boys before him live with every day. Dubbed a “monster” by the prosecution, he’s called to prove not just his innocence but his humanity – to the jury, to the judge, and, yes, even to his lawyer.
An adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’s critically acclaimed YA novel by the same name, the film first premiered back in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival. Had it come out shortly after its festival premiere, the gripping legal drama would have marked the arrival of a major talent. Harrison Jr.’s first foray into leading man territory is electrifying. The young actor captures Steve’s despair with aplomb as the cinephile teen watches his carefree life slip away when he’s entangled in a Rashomon-like trial where his version of the truth may not pass muster. As it turned out, audiences first got to see Harrison Jr. shine in films like Luce, Waves, and, most recently, The Trial of the Chicago 7, where he played Fred Hampton. Less an introduction, then, Monster nevertheless further establishes the New Orleans-born actor as one of the most exciting actors of his generation.
Ahead of the movie’s release on Netflix this May, Harrison Jr. spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about his Five Favorite Films. Despite coming up with them on the spot, his collection of women-led stories feel like a cohesive canon that reveals what thrills the young actor the most, namely the chance to watch performers at the top of their game expertly bringing to life complicated characters caught between who they are and who they wished they could be.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
I just love the visuals. I think Tilda [Swinton]’s performance is so sick. It’s insane. The choices she makes are so great. There’s something about seeing her internalize her situation and her relationship with her son, and kind of take the brunt of her not knowing how to love a child the way she thought she would, that motherly instinct she thought she had not kicking in, and how that affected the child. It also plays into my interest in parent-child dynamics. I feel like in every movie I’m always interested in, like, who are my parents? And how did they either win with me, or really mess up? And how has that affected how I behave in return? But really, it’s just Tilda’s performance – and, you know, Ezra [Miller] is also amazing, John C. Reilly is amazing, the little girl’s amazing, and the visuals are sick and dope, so, yeah.
American Hustle (2013)
First of all, I love Amy Adams in this movie. I love the whole switching up the two personalities thing. Like, I love that everyone’s playing a part. You could tell there’s just a lot of improv and a lot of on-the-fly realizations. They feel so rough and so raw and so alive. That was exciting to me. I love the line where she goes, “The key to people is what they believe and what they want to believe, and I want to believe that we were real.” That always stuck with me because I really do kind of carry that to every movie. Like, people really do believe what they want to believe. I always found that fascinating. So yeah, I love the “hustler” aspect of American Hustle.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
I mean, Cate Blanchett! Her performance is unmatched. I really do kind of look at that and go, whoa! What a master class! I also just love the Blanche DuBois of it all. I love, love, love it. I think it’s so good and it’s fun to watch her spiral. I think it’s a master class in a spiral, in watching someone just like deny, deny, deny, deny, deny, deny — and I think we do that so often in life. She just does a really good job of showing it, and trying to smile through it, and also just spilling out and shooting out her privilege. I also think that’s interesting about the performance, just being like, “This is what I am.” But it’s also becoming who you want to become and convincing yourself that you’re that person again, the whole American Hustle of it all.
I don’t know that I have much to say with that movie. I really just love the writing of that film. I just think the way the stories kind of intertwine, and it’s so messy. It’s so messy! I watched it recently with someone and they didn’t really like it, they weren’t vibing with it, and it really upset me, to be honest. I don’t even know if I can really explain why it upset me. I guess this is getting very vulnerable at this point but I, personally, in my life, I truly think I’ve been very messy in my relationships. And I think it’s hard not to be. And I think the movie does a really good job at kind of highlighting how much we don’t know what we want and how we want everything, and just the games we play, and the power games and power dynamics we kind of subscribe to. I don’t know, it’s just exciting. And the performances! Natalie Portman at the strip club! That whole scene. It’s just so good. And Clive! I don’t know, we’d have to sit down and just talk about the movie beat by beat.
That movie I just love. I grew up in music, so I love the music. But I also love the drama. I love the girl group drama. The fact that somebody was over there doing something she wasn’t supposed to, and somebody was in love, and somebody thinks they’re supposed to be a star, and somebody thinks it’s funny. I also love the underdog story. I love the idea of someone having a gift and the business trying to get in the way of the gift. It’s what I learned, too, in this business; like, everybody’s trying to play. Everybody wants something, everybody’s trying to level up in some way, everyone has some dream, and everyone’s gonna leave some legacy behind. And I love the idea of Effie just being like, “What? Like, I know I’m gifted and I just want to sing, period.” That’s it. It’s not that deep. Like, I want to get what I deserve. And I think that’s the thing: this is a story about deserving. And it’s a story about friendship and not allowing the hype of the industry getting the best of you and kind of turning you into something else. Because it’s just not that deep. I think that’s the thing about all of these films, too, is people are going crazy over stupid s–t. And everyone starts to believe the hype and start reading their own press and believe in their own press and start thinking that they’re something that they’re not. And that is not the key to happiness. It is not for any of them.
Manuel Betancourt for Rotten Tomatoes: Hearing you talk about all these movies, it strikes me that you are very fascinated with characters who are straddling the line between what they want to tell other people and the stories they’re telling themselves. That feels like what’s going on with Steve in Monster. Is that what drew you to the part?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: Yeah, I think, it’s the search for identity. I think that’s the thing about those characters. They’re in a moment where they’re trying to really figure out what they want and, I mean, that’s every movie, that’s everyone in everything — we’re always trying to figure out what we want, what we need, and how do we get it. [Steve]’s 17 and his particular circumstances are: he’s privileged, he’s Black, and he’s curious. And now suddenly everyone’s sitting there trying to tell him who he is, what he can do, and that, because he’s Black, he suddenly is grouped in with a bunch of other guys. And now he’s on trial and it doesn’t really make sense to him. He’s just like, “Dude!” I’m just trying to figure out, like, what sneakers look like. I’m trying to figure out where he got jewelry from, or if he likes that girl, just stupid s–t. And it’s very simple. It isn’t that deep. And now he’s supposed to be really serious and tough to try to convince people of his humanity. He’s not innocent until proven guilty, he’s guilty until proven innocent. And he has to determine that based on somebody else’s standard of humanity.
And that’s such a wild bag to fit in. I also found that when I first started working. I was sitting there (and I even find myself in this trap now) with people telling me who I am and why I need to be a certain way and what people will accept and what people won’t accept and what people will think is, you know, too crazy: You need to do this part or you can’t do this and you can’t dress this way, you can’t say that, you know? I’m just kind of like, “What? I’m 26. Let me decide that.” I think that was the case when I first got the job. I was exploring that then, and I’m still exploring it now. I think we do that for the rest of our lives.
(Photo by Netflix © 2021)
RT: A film like Monster feels like it’s part of a constellation of projects, alongside Luce, Waves, and Monsters and Men. What are the things you’re looking for in these parts and in the projects?
Harrison: I think it’s something that the films are drawn to me and I’m drawn to them because of the path that I had gone on. One kind of serves the other, in a way. I don’t know if I want to say it’s a typecast thing because I don’t really think it’s like that, to be honest. It’s kind of more like chapters. I’ve always seen my career like that. When I first started, my first job when I got my SAG card was on 12 Years a Slave. And then after that, Roots came. And then, after that, Underground came, and then after that, Birth of a Nation came in. That’s the “Understanding My History” chapter. And then I feel like I got into like this “Black Lives Matter” chapter: Monster happened and then Monsters and Men happened. And then Luce happened, and Waves happened. And I think all of those talk about young Black men dealing with the trauma from slavery. The origins of their trauma started then.
And it’s interesting because now, with Godfather of Harlem and BB King [in Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis project], I’ve been dealing with the ’60s now, the Civil Rights era. And, I think, you know, it’s unpacking what blackness means for me and for everyone in this moment as we really start to pull back the curtain and go, let’s take a look at the systems. Let’s take a look at that because we’re not standing for it anymore.
So I guess the movies have been an examination, finding the nuance that these directors and writers and performers are all trying to unpack based on the knowledge they’ve attained over their time on Earth. And if that’s what I end up doing for the rest of my career, that’s cool. That stuff means something to me, you know? It means something from me.
Monster is available on Netflix from May 7, 2021.
Thumbnail image: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images, Francois Duhamel/©Columbia Pictures, ©DreamWorks, ©Columbia, ©Sony Pictures Classics, ©Oscilloscope Pictures