From director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and screenwriter Flora Greeson, the romantic dramedy The High Note tells the story of music superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a phenomenally talented singer who has reached unbelievable heights in her career, only to now be stifled by the safe bets that her long-time manager (Ice Cube) and record label are pushing for her to focus on. Secretly wondering if she should take a chance and record new music, Grace has to decide whether to follow her heart or the advice that she’s being given, all while her overworked personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson) just wants Grace to give her a chance at her dream of becoming a music producer.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays up-and-coming musician David Cliff, talked about why he didn’t consider himself a singer, going into this project, what he liked about the script, graduating to playing a real leading man instead of a teenager, the leading men and singers that he looked to for inspiration, why he finds comedy such a challenge, performing the songs, and how his character’s wardrobe compares to his own. He also talked about why he wanted to sign on for Season 2 of HBO’s Euphoria, and the conversations they’ve had about how they can get back to filming, in a safe way.
KELVIN HARRISON JR.: That’s really sweet of you. I like to sing. I think all of us can. I truly believe that. My vocal coach believes that, as well. It’s just about getting the right teacher and the right training. I think what I have is a good ear. I was raised to have a good ear because I played two instruments. I know pitch. But in terms of when I say that I’m not a singer, some of the technical things weren’t there. Also, stylistically, I didn’t really know how to be an artist and create and be a storyteller through my voice. I think all of those things make a singer. But we can always become. That’s what I know how to do. I’m an actor. I can become.
Now that you’ve got this finished product of your singing in the film and you have a soundtrack to accompany it, do you feel like you can call yourself a singer now?
HARRISON: I can call David Cliff a singer. He’s wonderful. He’s really cool. And if I got a record deal and they really believed in me, maybe I would be down for the challenge, but I’m not pursuing it, I’ll say that.
What was it like then to go through an audition process for this? Did you have to convince yourself that this was something that you could pull off?
HARRISON: Oh, 100%. I said no, three times before even auditioning. I read the script and I thought it was wonderful, but I was like, “You can find someone that’s better. I don’t wanna embarrass myself. I don’t wanna do that to your movie. You deserve a good supporting male.” But they convinced me, eventually, and I met with the director (Nisha Ganatra), who was wonderful. So, I did my first tape, and then they brought me in for a chemistry read with Dakota [Johnson], and I was like, “I’m never gonna get this job. I’m not tall enough. I’m not cool enough. Dakota is beautiful. She’s just better.” I think all of those things played into that. Actually, I didn’t get the part, at first. And then, they thought back to all of that self-deprecation that I was doing and that self-doubt, and they were like, “Who better to play the singer with self-doubt that Kelvin Harrison Jr. Let’s bring him in, ladies and gentlemen!”
What’s it like to step into that romantic comedy leading man role? Is it something that you felt ready to do and were confident about, or was that something that also made you a little bit nervous, finding that chemistry?
HARRISON: I’d never played a day older than 18, so the first challenge was figuring out, “What’s it like to actually live like a grown man? I’m a 25-year-old and I’ve been pretending that I was in high school, since I left high school.” That was the first step. And then, it was about, “How do I romance?” If anyone saw the back of my script, or anyone found my script, they would probably just laugh and sell it on eBay because I put pick up lines in there and things that Dakota said she liked, that I might wanna throw in there, every now and then, if it would make her love me. It was like a child’s diary. I was still 17 years old, dreaming of what it would be like to be a grown man. That was cool. It was exciting. I loved seeing Will Smith do it. I loved seeing Ryan Gosling do it. I loved seeing Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits. I wanted to have a little bit of that energy, but a little bit more swag and some recall of some of my favorite artists like Ne-Yo, Anderson Paak, Daniel Caesar and Gary Clark Jr. All of those things made it fun to play.
Would you say that it’s harder to find chemistry with your co-star in a romantic comedy, or to find the comedy without it seeming to forced?
HARRISON: For me, it’s the comedy. I know how to do chemistry ‘cause I do think it can come down to a science. If both people are doing their job when the character scenes require you to like each other, then that works. But the comedy, I still can’t figure it out. I’ve watched Tracee [Ellis Ross] do it, a countless amount of times, and I’m just like, “What is the formula?” And she was like, “There is no formula.” And I was like, “But there has to be.” She’s like, “You have to stop thinking like this, with science and math.” I was like, “But it is.” And she was like, “You’re wrong. It’s art.”
Were you more nervous about performing the original songs in the film, or Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”?
HARRISON: Definitely Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” What was really refreshing about the process was, meeting Rodney Jerkins, Darkchild, our producer, recording the songs, and him teaching us, with this crazy amount of experience and wisdom, from working with Whitney [Houston] and Michael [Jackson], and everyone under the sun. He taught me about storytelling, and he taught me how to use my voice and personalize lyrics. The cover didn’t necessarily need to be a recreation of what Sam did. No one will do what Sam did. That’s done. It’s about what you’re going to do that makes it special and mean something to you. That was a big learning moment for me. I’ll take that with me forever ‘cause that was really beautiful.
Much is made of David’s wardrobe, in this film. How did you feel about his clothes and his style? Are there things that you would borrow for yourself, or do you feel your style is very different from his?
HARRISON: My style is very different. I’m in sweatpants right now, and I’m wearing my Grace Davis t-shirt, my suede do-rag, and I’m barefoot. That is what I’m wearing, every day. Not necessarily the Grace Davis t-shirt, but maybe I should. That is my personal style. David is a man of luxury. I love luxury, as well, but he’s truly a man of luxury. He loves his expensive custom-tailored shirts, his pinky rings, and his boots. The boots are because I’m short. I had to pull a Dustin Hoffman on them. We had a Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise situation, where I had to put some heel on there, for miss supermodel Dakota. That is what David’s style is. He’s cool. I can’t match his cool.
You also joined the second season of the HBO series Euphoria, which is such a beautifully artistic show. What made you want to sign on for that? Had you seen the first season of the series?
HARRISON: Oh, Collider. You guys leaked the tea.
Well, now it’s in your bio.
HARRISON: It is in my bio now. Yeah, I did it ‘cause I loved the first season. I worked with Sam [Levinson] on Assassination Nation. I really wanted to get in the ring with Zendaya. I thought she was so wonderful. I just thought Hunter Schafer was so refreshing, and so was Barbie [Ferreira]. The whole cast was incredible, and I really liked the way Sam decided to tell each person’s narratives and the topics he wanted to explore. In this next chapter of my career, I’m interested in exploring blackness, sensuality, sexuality, and curiosities, and I think that’s so much of what Sam does in that show. So, I was like, “I just wanna be a part of it. What have you got for me?” And he was like, “I’ve got a role.” And then, I audition, and I got it.
And then, the world changed and you couldn’t shoot the season.
HARRISON: And I can’t film. Thanks, Coronavirus.
Have you had conversations about how to get back into production?
HARRISON: Yeah, Sam and I have talked a little bit about it. We talked about work stuff first, in terms of what we want to do with the character. And then, we talked about how we can go back to shooting. I’ve heard that maybe there will be no doorknobs on sets, and stuff like that, and maybe we’ll minimize the amount of crew members and they’ll wear masks. It’s just gonna be a little bit more strict than it used to be. Work was really fun ‘cause you got to mess around a bit, but everyone’s gonna have to be 100% focused. Maybe that will be really refreshing. We’ll see.
The High Note is available on-demand.