Kelvin Harrison Jr. on the years-long wait for Netflix's Monster, and why he's done playing teens
"I thought it never would come out," the actor tells EW of his new film, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. "It's like my origin story."
The new Netflix film Monster, a film adaptation of the award-winning 1999 novel by Walter Dean Myers starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. as honors student and aspiring filmmaker Steve Harmon, who becomes incarcerated and caught in an intense legal battle in connection to a murder, has been a long time coming. In addition to being in development for over a decade, the movie first premiered at Sundance Film Festival back in 2018.
Three years later and Harrison, who's since starred in a wide array of films from Waves, to The Trial of the Chicago 7, to The Photograph, looks back on the movie as a turning point in his career.
"I never intended to be an actor. I think I ended up doing it because that's where I was making the most money. And I was like, let's go for it," he tells EW. "As I was learning who I was in that space, because I do think I was supposed to be one, it was like I wasn't necessarily looking for it, but that's where I was supposed to be."
Harrison explains Monster helped him "figure out who I was as a young Black man, and also who I was as a filmmaker and as a young actor and what stories did I want to tell." Now the actor, who unfortunately will not be coming to Euphoria season 2 due to conflicting schedules post-pandemic, but will be in director Baz Luhrmann's upcoming Elvis biopic, admits, "It seems like they're telling me what to do. I'm obedient to the process."
Read on to hear how Harrison's views on Monster have shifted over the years he's spent with it, why he's done playing teens, and what aspects of the film's harrowing story he finds "refreshing."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel now that the movie is finally coming out?
KELVIN HARRISON JR.: It's exciting. I mean, it started in 2016, so it's been like five years and I thought it never would come out, and I kind of forgot about it, but it's cool. It's like my origin story.
Have your feelings about the film changed at all? Have you looked back at it recently and been like, "Oh, this hits differently" now?
I don't think it hits any differently. I think I just have a better understanding around the movie now that I know myself better, now that I know how I fit into the world as a young Black man. I think that has changed because at the time I was just asking questions. I'm still asking questions, but I think I have more answers than I used to, or my questions have evolved into something a little bit more nuanced or specific. So in that way, yes, it's changed. But in other ways, in terms of its relevance or anything, it hasn't really changed for me.
Has any part of the wait made it better? Especially given how a lot of people involved have gotten more shine since it premiered at Sundance. In addition to you, there's also John David Washington, Lovie Simone.
Yeah, it's been really cool to watch everybody — I mean Jharrel too! Jharrel Jerome winning the Emmy for When They See Us is sick. I think [this] was one of JD's first films that he had done. He was doing Ballers and it was like his first movie role, I think. And so it was kind of funny watching him there, and then we went on to do Monster and Men together, and then he decided to be a movie star. It's cool to kind of glow up with everybody like that. It's different.
Did you read the book at all before auditioning for the film?
No. I read it once I got the job. I got the graphic novel, and I also had the original book and I loved it. It was such a great story, and he really felt 17. That was the cool thing about it. I really identify with Steve. I identify with his innocence, and his curiosity was really interesting and attractive to me. So I really used a lot of the book to decide my version of Steve.
What's interesting about the book is that it's written like a script as well, so were you at all leaning on that as much as the actual screenplay?
Yeah, for sure. I always went back to the screenplay first. It was like, "Okay, what movie are we making now?" Because the book was written in '99 I believe, [and] we were making the movie in 2016, which was very different. The goal was to try to make [the script] as current as possible so that young kids now could relate to it, but at the same time still have the heart of the book.
In terms of the script elements that Steve had in the novel, I loved those because it helped me try to take my knowledge of filmmaking and how I broke down the script and the significance of characters because I was like, "Okay, well, how does Steve want us to see the story?" Because his script's in development, he's drafting it right now. And I looked at it as if he's submitting his first draft to producers to see if he can get this movie made into something. And with that said, there's a lot of holes and things he hasn't figured out yet. And there's a lot of his personal take on it. So it's like taking those pieces that felt really developed, and really solid and honest, that he brought to the table, and also pondering the stuff that he was still trying to figure out, and playing with it to see how I would make choices throughout the movie.
Listening to you talk about the movie, and especially the experience around it, coming into your own as an artist, and as a Black man, has what you saw in Steve going into production on the movie different from what you see in Steve coming out of it years later now?
What I thought going into it was it was really refreshing to see a kid being a kid. A kid who came from a certain level of privilege because his parents worked so hard to get him certain opportunities. Also, seeing a kid who was not exempt from this oppressive system. That was refreshing to get the full story instead of just getting the highlights, or the media, or just the trauma of the prison. We really got to feel his home life, and that was exciting to me when I signed up for it originally. Just a kid who was genuinely curious about life and it was okay that he did not know what to do with that curiosity, I really identify with that as well.
And I think now when I look at it, it's some of the same things that I appreciate about it. But now I can understand more some of the other characters in the story. I look at Nas's character and I think about how amazing it is when he tells him, "Stand in your truth. People will say what they want to say about you, but you need to look a man in the eye and stand in your truth. Don't let them sway you anywhere." Looking at some of the adults, looking at my father in some of those scenes, and thinking about how often we, as young people, want to please our parents, and we don't want them to feel like they failed. How some of these systems can hurt the whole family more than we think they do. Hurt our mental health. And so I really do think that the movie now, too, I'm so grateful we're putting it out because I do think it makes a beautiful comment on trying to protect our mental health through these really challenging times.
This was shot years ago, but as your films have come out, we've seen you play both teens and adults. What do you look for now when approaching whether or not you're going to play a high school character?
I mean, I decided I don't want to play any more high school characters. So I have not done it again since, and the thing is all of those movies kind of happened at the same time. Because the order they came out wasn't the order I shot them. I was around the same age. I did It Comes At Night, I did Monster right afterwards. I did Assassination [Nation], then I did Monsters and Men and Luce, and it was all within like 12 months. So they just came out over the last three, four years. Now five years with Monster being the last one, and I haven't really revisited. I'm 26 now and I'm interested in living my adult life, and what my twenties look like, so if anything I'm looking at 21-to-30 right now. In terms of the projects that I'm interested in, that's been the trajectory, even if it means I'm playing figures from the past, like B.B. King in the Elvis thing. B.B. is my age, or a little bit older, in the time that we're portraying them. So I'd say I'm just looking at things that fit me more where I'm at in my life right now.
There's been a lot of conversation within the Black community about fatigue concerning "Black trauma movies." That's a very subjective label, but for someone who may write this film off because of the perception of Black trauma, is there a particular message from this story you hope they can connect with?
I think it's going back to the fact that we look at so many of these stories about Black men and women, and girls and boys now, and always have been, all ages being murdered by police, right? And we rarely, truly get the full story. We ask a lot of the wrong questions, or recently now we post the picture, the hashtag, the name, and with Ma'Khia [Bryant] the TikTok videos to really try our best to humanize these people because the media doesn't. And what this movie does is really give us a play-by-play from him showing up to the police station and pulling out Pop Rocks and some change. We really get to see this is a kid; a kid who was falling in love with his girlfriend at the time, and hanging out with his friends, and going to parties, and loved his little brother. We get to see what that looked like for him.
And it isn't just some guy that we want to place into these narratives, "He's in the streets, hustling people, and manipulating, and trying to beat the system." Which, that has its own story as well, and it's called survival in a society that doesn't want to allow them to. But I think that's something to celebrate, and something to remind ourselves of, because as we move forward with this stuff, we can't start to believe the hype that they tried to indoctrinate into our psyches around how we see ourselves as Black people and how other people outside of our race see us as well. And this movie is a celebration of that.
Monster is now streaming on Netflix.