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Chevalier: Kelvin Harrison Jr on being a 'soldier' for overlooked Black history

The actor has become known for playing important figures in Black history. His latest role – in Chevalier as composer Joseph Bologne – was a chance to right wrongs

Kelvin J Harrison in Chevalier

Kelvin Harrison Jr plays the overlooked composer Joseph Bologne in Chevalier. Image: Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“He was the rockstar of the time,” says actor Kelvin Harrison Jr of Joseph Bologne, a renowned French composer who, despite being widely appraised for his talents and granted the high title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Queen Marie Antoinette, was known for decades solely by the belittling moniker Black Mozart.

Upon learning of Bologne’s fascinating yet overlooked life, Atlanta writer Stefani Robinson worked with Watchmen director Stephen Williams and Cyrano star Harrison Jr to shine a light on the composer’s legacy and correct a longstanding historical erasure with Chevalier, arriving in UK cinemas this week.

“When you first get the job, you kind of go, ‘Wow, I would love to be a soldier that will fight for Joseph’s legacy and for his name and work to be seen and heard.’ Then, once you get into the process, there is a moment when you are no longer a fan, you are an actor with a specific assignment, and my assignment is to make sure I find the humanity in this person.”

This humanity fuels Harrison Jr’s moving performance as the Chevalier, the latest real-life figure in the sprawling career of the young American actor.

Bologne joins blues musician BB King and political leaders Fred Hampton and Martin Luther King in the roster of iconic figures previously portrayed by the Chevalier lead. On playing real-life people, the actor compared the experience to a “simulation”.

“There are people who I admire and find fascinating and I don’t have a lot of time in my life to sit down and read a biography. It’s a different experience when you live it out, dress like them, and talk like them. I get a deeper understanding of not only my personal history as a Black man but also of who these people are as artists.

“And then there are the technical elements of it as an actor…” he continues. “I find it to be just a great character study to dive in. When you’re playing real people, there are all those little tools you can use and then can start applying that to original characters because you now know what the building blocks are to make a human being. I think it makes me a stronger actor.”

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On top of the pressure of portraying a larger-than-life historical figure, Harrison Jr had the added challenge of embodying a musician deeply skilled in the violin. In a case of great serendipity, the Chevalier star happened to be a trained violinist with a music teacher for a dad. Kelvin Harrison Sr and Kelvin Harrison Jr came together for an extended period of musical training.

He says, “My first instrument was the violin, then I started playing piano and trumpet and my dad made me practise every day after school, two or three hours a day. I practised on Saturdays, played in church and went to three different jazz camps in the summer. I was constantly working at my craft, and I think that work ethic transferred into acting.

“So when I got this movie, we did five months of training, not just with my dad but with other violin teachers, seven days a week, six hours a day, up to the day I went to Prague to begin filming. I would shoot 10 hours a day, then go fencing for an hour and have another two hours of violin afterwards. It was intense, but if you want to play a legend, you got to have the work ethic of a legend.”

The combination of months of in-depth research followed by a gruellingly intense routine of musical practice and shooting was bound to leave a mark on the actor. The experience of working on Chevalier, Harrison Jr says, allowed him to appreciate the qualities that make him unique within a highly competitive field. “[Joseph] reminded me of being true to myself and not necessarily trying to become another actor. I think what made Chevalier so special is that he was so singular in his space.

“He didn’t sound like Mozart, he was doing something different and contributing to the culture and the community. This reminds me not to want to have the career of Denzel Washington or Michael B Jordan, but to foster a space that represents where I come from, the things I am curious about and what challenges me. And then sharing it with the world.”

Chevalier is in cinemas from 9 June and on Disney+ from 26 July in the UK

Rafa Sales Ross is a critic and programmer at the Edinburgh Film Festival

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income

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