I think the hardest thing for an actor is trusting the director... If you don’t reel it in, will they tell you?
It’s no hidden secret that A24 is a hotbed of talent: the most tasteful, manicured and clairvoyant breeding ground for our next generation of auteur filmmakers and soon-to-be movie stars. Since first putting down roots in New York in 2012, the still-infant boutique production company has been a masterclass on style and substance: Steven Knight’s Locke (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014). They’re so zeitgeisty: Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016). They’re sometimes brilliant across the board: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) and Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha (2016).
With the score of Jenkins, 2016 was no doubt kind to A24. But there was also Krisha, one of the most acclaimed and innovative American indies to come out last year—eclipsed by Moonlight, as it were. Shults and A24 signed a two-picture deal, with a follow-up on order: It Comes at Night. The psychological thriller/family drama tracks a father (Joel Edgerton), mother (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as a “civilization-destroying pandemic” spreads towards their remote house in the woods. When an intruder (Christopher Abbott) arrives pleading for help, they’re forced to choose between meanness and potential infection. Riley Keough also stars.
To get early insight on Shults’ new film, Anthem reached out to on-the-rise actor Harrison. The endlessly charismatic 22-year-old also opens up about his New Orleans roots, Cate Blanchette’s magnetism, Joel Edgerton’s goofiness, and his upcoming role in Anthony Mandler’s Monster.
It Comes at Night is currently in theaters.
I know you’re originally from New Orleans. If you were to guess, when do you think your acting ambitions started taking root? Can you pinpoint a definitive moment?
It was definitely a culmination of different things. I’m from a very traditional New Orleans family. We all play jazz. My grandfather is the “Big Chief” of Mardi Gras Indians. My dad is classically trained as a saxophonist. My mom is a vocalist and dances. I play the piano and trumpet. That discipline switched into something else. I watched movies. I watched television. But one of the only things we were allowed to watch was the Disney Channel. Figuring out how to apply all of this passion for acting, which I felt I already had, was still through music: “I’m going to look up how to be on the Disney Channel because they get to sing and do music.” Eventually, I got a job as an extra in a movie called Ender’s Game and got upgraded to a day player. I spent five months on set and got to talk to Harrison Ford, Viola Davis and Sir Ben Kingsley. I got to see young actors that are my age like Asa Butterfield, Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld. It felt real all of a sudden. Viola Davis taught me that it’s a craft. It’s not about being seen. It’s not about being the next Disney star. My next film was 12 Years a Slave. That made me go, “I’m an actor!” [Laughs]
I was gonna say—you got your start in two massive movies. That was just four years ago.
That was crazy. I didn’t think about it at the time, but if I look back at it… I shared a watermelon with Harrison Ford on Ender’s Game. He goes, “It’s good,” and I go, “It is.” [Laughs]
Steve McQueen is arguably one of the best filmmakers we have in contemporary cinema. What did you find most unique or striking in your general observations of him?
He has such an interesting understanding of emotions. He connects to people in a striking way. It’s like he knows every aspect of the human experience. He’s so visceral, but in a different way with each film. He’s also visual. He’s in tune with the world and I think that’s where he shines.
You have a movie coming up called Monster that Anthony Mandler is directing. I remember how prolific he was in the music video world, especially in the ’90s. He must be very visual.
Anthony is so visual. Honestly, I wasn’t into that kind of music world so I hadn’t seen his videos. I didn’t really know Anthony’s work until I got to set and he was like, “Look what I’ve done.” [Laughs] It’s interesting with Anthony because I’m very character-driven. Even in film school, I was trying to figure out how to approach things visually on set. Anthony worked with me in a very specific way, but the shots were always so beautiful as well. It made me go: “I’m looking at this amazing composition you’re creating. How can I elevate that? How do I service that?” It’s an interesting approach to acting where it’s still grounded in truth and where your character is coming from, but adding this other element to it where you’re looking at the bigger picture. Trey [Edward Shults] has a similar thing going on with It Comes at Night. The compositions are stunning. It challenges you, as an actor, to look at the medium in a much broader way.
Speaking of film school, you went to the University of New Orleans. Did that involve acting or was the end goal for you to become a filmmaker? You’ve already made a short film.
[Laughs] Oh, wow… Don’t watch that short film.
But everyone says that about their first work. It’s something very relatable.
Totally. So I went to Loyola University for studio engineering because my dad thought that’s where I was going to shine—in music. Eventually, it became about embracing what I actually wanted to do and not being so afraid to do that. That’s when I went to the University of New Orleans for film. Ultimately, I would like to write and direct a film. I also think it’s powerful when actors really understand everything. Working with Joel [Edgerton], who directed The Gift, you could tell he’s much more flexible and aware of what he can do as an actor because he understood what Trey was doing on the other side. I think it builds your performance on a whole new level and holds it there.
This is tangential, but is Joel as much of a goofball as he seems to me?
Joel thinks he’s funny. [Laughs] Joel is hilarious, but Joel jokes about everything, every five minutes, even when no one’s laughing. Joel is always making a joke. I remember Carmen [Ejogo] would be like, “Joel… Everything is not a joke.” He’s definitely goofy and silly. But he knows how to click it in. He’s just one of those guys: He’ll make a joke and bounce back into it for a take. That’s just skill. He’s really cool. He’s really quiet, too. I don’t know—he’s just a little baby.
You were in The Birth of a Nation and Nate Parker is an actor as well. You also worked with actor/directors Gavin Hood and Maria Burton. Do actor/directors work differently?
I think so. They just talk to you, in my opinion. Especially with Nate, he was so careful with me. He knew that I was scared and new. It’s about how to say things that will get a performance out of you. With actor/directors, there’s a level of trust from the actor. I think the hardest thing for an actor is trusting the director. Even if you think they’re great, you don’t know how they’re going to handle you. If you decide to go all out and do this thing, you don’t know if they’re going to reel it back in. If you don’t reel it in, will they tell you? You don’t know if they see you. You don’t know if they see what you’re bringing to the table. There’s something to learn from all directors.
You previously singled out Cate Blanchette as your favorite actor. I know why I like her, but I’m curious to see what you find magnetic about her from an actor’s point of view.
I’m obsessed with her. I love her. She has so much charisma. She just seems real, although she also has this element where I don’t think I can touch her. She just has life! A lot of us don’t have life.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind, for whatever reason, when you think back to working on Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation?
Partying. And I’m an old man! I did not go out in college. I took 21 credits every semester—I’m not the guy that wants to go out. But Assassination Nation pulled out a whole different side. That movie was like the craziest, wildest experience ever. My memories from the shoot is just lots of going out. I don’t know… It was college on steroids. [Laughs] Bill [Skarsgård] was hilarious. Oh my lord. Bella was… Bella Thorne. It’s always fun when you’re with that group.
Do you guys have a release date?
No, no. They just finished shooting that like two weeks ago.
I’m waiting for It Comes at Night with bated breath. I interviewed Trey around this time last year and he was literally starting to cast the film that week. How did you get involved?
It’s so crazy. Joel was already cast. They were obviously looking for someone to play his character and his son. Someone had the great idea that I would be an interesting fit, and Trey entertained it. [Laughs] Then Carmen got involved and it made sense. I sent in a tape to Avy Kaufman and she liked it. I was traveling to Budapest when I read the script, on my way to do Dee Ree’s film Mudbound. I cried when I read it. I read it again and cried again—I was obsessed. When I got off the plane, I was like, “Please, please, please let me Skype Trey.” I remember him sitting by a whiteboard with half of his face in the camera. [Laughs] But that wasn’t as strange as the Skype audition I once had with James Franco. He was sitting on his bed with his shirt off—it was weird. Anyways, Trey and I talked about the character and tried a bunch of things. I thought I was awful and I probably wanted to cry. I sent in another tape, Trey called me a day later, and that was that.
Trey described the film as part psychological thriller, part family drama. What is it, exactly?
Like you said, it’s very much about family. It’s a very personal movie for Trey because it’s about his dad who died of cancer. There’s a father/son dynamic in the film. From my character’s perspective, it’s a coming-of-age film. I’m a stand-in for Trey. It’s about growing up, making decisions, going outside the mold of what you think you should know and do, and basically, preparing yourself for this idea of death. And what is death? How do you handle it? It’s all of those things. Everyone asks, “What is ‘it’?” I even asked that and Trey would go, “It’s just… ‘it’!” [Laughs] So Trey held onto all that secrecy. He wouldn’t tell us everything because he didn’t want us to know. We just kind of moved with what was on the surface, regardless of what ‘it’ is.
If you had to quantify this, how actively do you try to curate your body of work?
Right now, I’m in a different position where I’m getting more scripts, so I can look at stuff to see what’s out there. Before, when I first started, it was more like, what’s coming to me? I trusted my team to make those decisions back then, but now I feel a bit more involved. It’s a moment to moment thing. It’s not necessarily like, “I have to do this highbrow, prestigious project!” It’s just about what looks interesting to me, in a way where I feel like I fit in. If I look at everything I did last year, it makes sense to where I was. When I did the show StartUp, I played this character who’s playing with danger and eager for his life to begin. That was right before all this happened to me as an actor. There’s a script that I’m reading right now that’s completely unlike me and makes me go, “This is so left field.” I’m trying to find my Girl, Interrupted, basically. I want to do something like that. Why do I connect with these people and these personalities when I’m simply nothing like them? I’m trying to explore that aspect of myself. There’s no formula.
Whose role would be more fun to play in Girl, Interrupted? Angelina Jolie or Winona Ryder?
Is there a role that you want right now that’s specific to this juncture in your life?
I just saw Nightingale with David Oyelowo in it. It was like he’s molding clay. The way he did it was so interesting. The world of that movie was so interesting. I want to do something like that right now. Anything that’s interesting that makes me think about big questions… I just got a script that’s kind of like that. Maybe something “off” like Requiem for a Dream or like A Clockwork Orange. You really can’t plan everything and you shouldn’t. I’m just really trying to live in it, be excited about where I am, and appreciate all the little moments in-between.