When Kelvin Harrison Jr. was growing up in New Orleans, he dreamed of starring on a Disney TV show. That way, he could blend his talents of acting and singing.
“I always thought to myself that I could be like Hannah Montana and have the best of both worlds,” Harrison says with a laugh. “I get to have a sitcom, sing, do an album and tour.”
He says his latest project, the film “The High Note,” is a “beautiful combination of the two.”
Set in the LA music scene, “The High Note” is the story of Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a superstar who must choose between playing it safe or listening to her heart in a life-changing decision.
Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is Davis’ overworked personal assistant who’s stuck running errands but aspires to be a music producer. Things come to a head when Davis’ long-time manager (Ice Cube) presents the singer with a choice that could alter the course of her career. Harrison plays aspiring musician David Cliff, who befriends Maggie.
The movie, which was set to debut in theaters, instead premiered as video on demand on May 29. The soundtrack, on Republic Records, includes a handful of songs by Harrison, like the pivotal “Let’s Stay Together.”
“We were worried,” he says. “Would the movie come out? Would it be shelved? Would it go through the Netflix shuffle? Instead, we’re doing the proper release and found the ‘new normal’ style.”
Working with Ross — the daughter of Diana Ross — was “wonderful,” he says. First and foremost, she was “so much fun.”
“She’s a big personality,” he says. “It just adds to the energy that’s always in the room. If you’re feeling down or nervous or scared, Tracee has a way of just brightening up the room and the day. We really needed her expertise and wisdom for this movie.”
Harrison, who appeared in “Ender’s Game” and “12 Years a Slave,” says “The High Note” is an important film to him.
“I really wanted to be in a space where I got to play a romantic lead in a movie,” he says.
“That was exciting, especially being a person of color who gets the girl at the end. We don’t get the girl. I thought the elements were fascinating. The music industry felt honest and brought back some of the magic to Hollywood and LA — the artistry behind it all. I love the story of following a dream and persevering despite our own blocks and insecurities. It’s up to us to create the universe we want to live in.”
Harrison did that. He grew up in a family of musicians, all of whom went to the NOLA School of Music in New Orleans. His father trained with Ellis Marsalis and grew up with Harry Connick Jr.
“He introduced me to Ellis, and I went to NOLA,” he says. “Jason Marsalis was one of my teachers. I met Wynton. I also worked with Delfeayo. I recorded tracks with him for a kids’ album when I was about 12 to 15.”
At the time, Harrison didn’t grasp what he had.
“I’d come home from school and say, ‘Mr. Marsalis told me to do this,’” he recalls with a laugh. “It was such a beautiful experience that a lot of people wish they had.”
For a bit, he put his music aside to act. In 2019, Harrison gained wider recognition for his critically acclaimed portrayals of Luce Edgar in “Luce” and Tyler Williams in “Waves,” for which he received nominations for the Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards for the former and the Rising Star Award at the British Academy Film Awards for the latter.
His next film is “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the story of seven people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Later this year, he’ll join season two of HBO’s “Euphoria.”
“That’s going to be my thing for the next few years,” he says.
Harrison enjoys the variety of films he has released. It keeps him excited and on his toes.
“The language we learn from different genres helps the other genres,” he says. “I can understand fear and apply that or neurosis in a character’s head and put it in a drama and blend it really well with comedy to figure out how to drive those funnier moments. Trying different things ultimately helps you become a more well-rounded human performer. It gives us a variety of tools in our bag.”
Harrison has been keeping busy during the quarantine — reading books by James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, as well as “Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance” and “Sister Outsider.” He’s also perfected his go-to dish: lemony salmon with garlic roasted potatoes and spinach. He serves it with a side dish of white macaroni and cheese and broccolini.
“It’s a lot of food, but I like to eat,” he says with a chuckle.
As for “The High Note,” he hopes it’s the treat that everyone needs during the pandemic.
“What’s so beautiful about Tracee’s character is she’s a woman who knows what she has to offer, and he’s not interested in anyone telling her she can’t,” Harrison says.
“It’s what David needed to learn and what Maggie saw and learned from Grace as well. They learned not to get in the way of their own opportunity. I hope people who see this film learn not to give up until they get what they want. I absolutely believe that.”