The 25-year-old New Orlean grew up in a musical family, originally studying jazz instrumental and shying away from acting. “My mum would do this off-Broadway show called Where the Girls Were, where she’d play some of the biggest divas,” he explains. “She played Tina Turner, and she played Diana Ross, and she was so good at it. To be able to see that, and see my dad perform – they were these larger than life personalities on stage. It was weird because I felt like I could never match that.”
Imagining Harrison Jr. “too shy to even speak in front of people” draws a blank. His voice rings with self awareness and he speaks with an authenticity that invites you to take a perch on the periphery of his thoughts. “I’d just grown insecure — growing up in New Orleans, the school system isn’t the best — about my education and how well I spoke and if I knew what I was talking about… I played music because I did understand feeling,” he reasons. “I did understand improvisation. I did understand trying to tell a story.” His “transition into this other world” came when he took a part in a musical and eventually he dropped out of his marketing major at college, despite cautionary tales from his parents of the plights of life as a starving artist. “But that little spirit inside me was like, ‘Be quiet! You’re acting!’” He cackles – always sparing enough seconds between anecdotes for deep-bellied guffaws.
The “spirit” was right, as they usually are. Now, after parts in 2017’s Academy Award-nominated Mudbound and 2018’s Sundance hit Monsters and Men — both wrenching stories charged with racist brutality set almost a century apart — Harrison Jr.’s taking a starring role in the forthcoming Luce, set for UK release 8th November. “I’m like Anne Hathaway getting ready to go to work to see Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada,” he reminisces the day he read the script in 2017, when he’d first moved to LA, “and I’m putting on my clothes and putting on my shoes, preparing for my next audition while reading the script and brushing my teeth at the same time, and literally gasping, like, ‘No! What?!’ Calling my friend like: ‘Girl, you need to read this script!’”
Understandably so, Luce being an exercise in mind games, manipulation and the lingering, painful strength of expectation and assumption. Adopted into an American family (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) from Eritrea’s war zone where he was trained to be a child soldier, Luce is an example student and high school basketball captain. When he turns in a questionable paper about the necessity of violence to his teacher Mrs Wilson, played by the inimitable Octavia Spencer, she searches his locker and finds illegal fireworks – but there’s a catch, the basketball team often share lockers. After her home is broken into, accusations are fired and a whirlwind of blame begins while the audience is left to question which Luce is real – the potential threat, or the straight A student.