Kelvin Harrison, Jr is no longer platinum blonde. In fact, perched on a couch in a suite at Manhattan’s Whitby Hotel, Harrison, Jr. shows no shades of his wild and reckless Waves character, Tyler. Tyler is a high school wrestler, ruthless in his athletic craft; simultaneously motivated and fearful of his father, Ronald (played by resident Sad Dad, This Is Us’s Sterling K. Brown). Tyler’s driven by an idea of perfection thrust upon him by his father, the human personification of the phrase “man of the house.” He’s smart, well-liked, and successful. He goes to church (reluctantly), works out with his dad, and stays up late to catch up with his step-mum Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) when she gets home from work. But despite everything he does right — in the eyes of his father, and in the eyes of society as a young black man — he still finds ways to rebel. Enter: the platinum hair. The freshly-dyed platinum buzz is just the icing on the cake that is the real Tyler. This Tyler blasts BROCKHAMPTON and Pusha-T in his bedroom, ignoring his little sister Emily (Taylor Russel) just a wall away. This Tyler gets drunk on the weekend with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). This Tyler wants to scream “Fuck you!” to his dad. This Tyler secretly has a career-ending shoulder injury that he’s ashamed to acknowledge.
Stuck in his suburban Florida town under his overly watchful father’s roof, there’s no room for failure. When Tyler starts spinning out, and the house of cards his parents worked so hard to build and maintain starts to fall, no one knows what to do. Especially not confused and troubled Tyler. The moments of utter chaos that lead to the quieter portrayals of male vulnerability is what makes the film so impactful — you will be moved by this film. Loosely inspired by the writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ teenage years, Waves is an examination of generational pressures, especially the pressure of black excellence in young men around the country. It’s a theme that Harrison Jr. has been delving into, deeply, with Waves and his previous 2019 drama-psychological thriller Luce.
Despite his interest in exploring the modern definitions and depictions of masculinity, he’s not Tyler. He’s not blonde (although it looked dope, and he should colour his hair again soon) and he’s not losing control of his life. He helped create and mould his character, and contributed his own life experiences to the script in its inchoate stages. He isn’t Tyler, but Tyler is him.
Ahead, he tells Refinery29 about rewriting the narrative on what it means to be “masculine,” and just how influential that first box of Target blonde dye eventually became.
Refinery29: You previously worked with Trey on 2017’s It Comes At Night, and you were part of building the role of Tyler. How did the character evolve with you?
Kelvin Harrison, Jr: Originally, [Shults] had mentioned he was making his version of a high school movie at the end of It Comes At Night, and I was like,‘Oh, sick! Is there a role for me in there?’ He responded "Maybe." I thought he wasn’t going to call me back. A year later, we go to this coffee shop in New York, and he says, "I’ve started writing the script and there are two characters: The brother in the first half, and the boyfriend in the second." The brother is probably more challenging for you because he is an athlete, and you couldn’t chop wood in my first movie, so I doubt you can play a wrestler. I was like, Bro, game on. Let’s do it. He said, "Okay, if you’re serious, I’m going to start tailoring the role for you."
For six months after that, we talked about what our romantic relationships were like; what my relationship with my father, mother, and sister were like. [We were] just trying to flesh out those dynamics and what my experience was like, and what felt familiar to me growing up in New Orleans and the South and being a young black man, and trying to understand the nuance of it all for the script. I just was so blown away by how much he really did see me and hear me and how beautiful the story was. It isn’t a story about necessarily Trey or me, but it is about the story of a young man. He was able to take those experiences that we both shared and find this universal truth of what it is like to be a family, and that people can make mistakes and ultimately it doesn’t define us. I was so moved by that because we all need healing, and we’ve all felt guilty at times for things that we’ve done. We all feel the pieces of ourselves and all the guilt that we carry.
One of my favourite scenes was you and Sterling working out together. How did you two build that relationship for the film?
I always looked up to Sterling as an actor, so the dynamic between Tyler and Ronald is based on a little bit of Trey’s dad and their relationship, a little bit of my dad and our relationship, and even my relationship with Sterling. I remember seeing The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story and I was like, He is such an icon. We met before the movie started so I could talk to him, and he could see where my head was at. He said, “You remind me of myself a little bit.” That was all he needed to say, because then it opened up so much for me because I wanted to be more like him. I wanted to be taller. I wanted to be stronger. I wanted to be a better actor. That is Tyler’s relationship to his father in a lot of ways. He loves his father so much, and he puts his dad on this big pedestal as this ideal man that, at 17, he is not even physically capable of becoming yet. We naturally sunk into it, and he was protective over him as a young African-American male doing this part, especially with some of the themes in the movie.
In terms of working out together, he came to my wrestling training once, and it made me so mad — it was actually so perfect now that I think back at it — but, he made me so mad. I did three months of wrestling training, and Sterling comes in for one practice and can literally do all the moves. I was like, This so unfair! This doesn’t make sense.
The blonde hair seemed like a big part of getting into character.
I remember me and Trey were in Target, shopping for groceries, and Trey was like, "I just want you to look different than you did in your other movies. What do you think about dying it?" I said, Pink! He was like, “Hell no!” And I was like, Blonde.
It really made sense because of the whole Kanye of it all: The artist that this kid might listen to, and the artist of this generation and the progression of the young man redefining masculinity in 2019. We have Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, you know? Even Pharrell on the GQ cover [about masculinity]. It completely encapsulates where young black men are trying to express themselves and have the freedom to be who they are, and try different things and not be boxed down by the toxic masculinity. That is also one of the themes in the movie with Ronald and Tyler, and the generational gap of what it means to be a young man.
It’s a necessity to understand. It’s a necessity to listen. It’s a necessity to come together.
kelvin harrison, jr.
Luce shares a lot of the same themes, albeit in different ways. Specifically, there is a similar conversation about black exceptionalism.
I did Luce before I did Waves, but I don’t think I could have done Waves without doing Luce. [My character] Luce is so smart, and he is so well-spoken. What I love about the movie is that he says what a lot of people want to say, and we can’t find the words. His understanding of race and power and privilege, and how it works in our country is so profound. Having a better understanding [from playing that character] allowed me to do Tyler and know what his relationship with his father actually is. But it all comes back to these black boys being like, you worked so hard as a generation to give me the privileges and opportunities that I’ve had so far, and you’ve made sacrifices, but for what?
Are young people of today better represented in film and TV?
I think we have settled into the moment we are in now. Social media is a thing, and everyone knows about it. It has become a part of our culture, fully. I think the reason we are making these movies is because we are trying to get better at communicating with the youth, and bridging that gap between these two generations so that we can all be on the same page and grow together, because the country is in a crisis. It’s a necessity to understand. It’s a necessity to listen. It’s a necessity to come together. When the stakes are that high, people are willing to watch and listen. We are craving understanding.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Waves is in UK cinemas from 17th January 2020