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'Luce' And 'Waves' Boost Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s Career

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I think it's safe to say actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. is having a pretty good year. The 25-year-old was just nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, which is really the Oscars of indie film. It was for his role in the film "Luce," which came out this past summer. He's also getting buzz for his performance in "Waves," which is rolling into theaters right now. NPR's Marc Rivers has this profile.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: In the movie "Waves," an African American high school wrestler named Tyler is pushed by his stern and domineering father to excel, no matter what.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAVES")

STERLING K BROWN: (As Ronald) We are not afforded the luxury of being average - got to work 10 times as hard just to get anywhere.

RIVERS: The actor who plays Tyler, Kelvin Harrison Jr., had a similar relationship with his own father.

KELVIN HARRISON JR: I always felt like I needed to please him, and I really wanted to pay him to respect me as an artist.

RIVERS: Harrison was born and raised in New Orleans. The son of a jazz musician, he learned piano and trumpet. By chance, he accompanied a friend to an audition for the sci-fi film "Ender's Game." Harrison got a part and even a line, though it didn't make the final cut. After being surrounded by heavyweights like Viola Davis and Harrison Ford and impressed by young actors like Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld, he switched pursuits. He picked up parts in film and TV - "12 Years A Slave," "Chicago P.D." - before getting a big role in the post-apocalyptic film "It Comes At Night." It was directed by Trey Edward Shults.

TREY EDWARD SHULTS: He was just raw and honest and real, and he just intuitively got it, you know? I was crying just from his audition tape.

RIVERS: Shults and Harrison reunited on "Waves," which centers on an upper-middle-class African American family in South Florida. A tragedy involving Harrison's character shows that healing can't be done alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAVES")

HARRISON: (As Tyler) I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I know.

HARRISON: (As Tyler) I just had a really bad night, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I know. I know.

HARRISON: (As Tyler) I just had a really bad night, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I know.

HARRISON: (As Tyler) And I didn't mean to, like - I didn't mean to wake you, you know?

When I got the script, I was just blown away that my experience as a young black man growing up in the South had such universal truths and had a proper reflection of what it meant to me to be, like, a upper-middle-class black family surviving in American in 2019.

RIVERS: Surviving while black in America links Harrison's role in "Waves" to his work in "Luce." In that film, Harrison plays a parent's dream - A student, track star, on the debate team. But he may be hiding a darker side.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You threaten your teacher?

HARRISON: (As Luce) I didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Luce, don't lie to me.

HARRISON: (As Luce) I'm not.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Luce.

HARRISON: (As Luce) It's the truth.

RIVERS: "Luce" director Julius Onah says Harrison is key to the film's ambiguity.

JULIUS ONAH: He's utterly transparent, right? So there is an effortlessness with which he is transparent. And as a result of that, every time the character switches a mask, you think that version of him is the authentic version of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

HARRISON: (As Luce) Just goes to show you - you never really know what's going on with people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIVERS: Both "Luce" and "Waves" conjure a tense, suffocating atmosphere for kids growing up in America, particularly African Americans. Harrison understands that pressure. He attended a private high school where he was one of just a few black kids.

HARRISON: For me, it was like, I need to be the best black man. I need to be acceptable to everyone.

RIVERS: In Hollywood, the idea of being the best black man dates back to at least Sidney Poitier. But today, with the industry trying to be more inclusive, Harrison hopes that he and other young actors of color won't just be stuck with grueling portraits of American youth.

HARRISON: Let's get some of these coming-of-age movies that, you know, we love so much from our youth, and let's give our black kids some stories. Everything doesn't have to be so political, you know? Like, can we do something fun?

RIVERS: With any luck, Harrison will get to have some fun and maybe in the process win an award or two.

Marc Rivers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GODSPEED")

FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) I will always love you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.