Kelvin Harrison Jr. knew Joseph Bologne was a role that he had to play — once he found out who Joseph Bologne was, that is. Perhaps better known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Bologne was regarded as the most accomplished man of his age — he was an officer of the king's guard, the best fencer in France, a virtuoso violinist and prodigious composer — before he was erased from history.
For Harrison Jr., himself best known for roles in the Oscar-nominated The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the Oscar-winning Elvis, portraying Bologne was beyond a dream part. "What blows me away is that I'm actually doing this. Because I'm from New Orleans, and I remember being like, 'It'd be really cool to be an actor,'" the actor reflects. "Once I started to learn a little bit more, I was like, 'Okay, well, it doesn't happen to everybody. I'll be happy even if I get to do a day player role every now and then, and work a normal 9 to 5 and just do it as a hobby.' And then, for it to become this, it is really humbling and really magical to me."
"I got to perform a violin concerto duel with Mozart in the theater where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni! The history that's sitting there is so surreal to me," Harrison Jr. exclaims. "So, I know my career's not promised forever. But I'm enjoying every minute."
Chevalier finally returns Bologne to his rightful place in history, beginning with his arrival in Paris as a young Black boy from Guadeloupe and following him through his appointment as Chevalier, as he takes 18th-century France by storm. The film also unravels his relationship with the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, which ends with the one-time cohorts and confidants on opposite sides of the revolution.
For Lucy Boynton (of the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody), Marie Antoinette was decidedly not a role that she imagined herself playing. "When I first heard the idea of playing her, I paused and I didn't know if we needed to hear from someone like her right now," Boynton admits. Until she learned Antoinette's role in the movie. "Joseph is so our hero. He is everything to admire and root for in this film, and that gave me the opportunity and space to be the villain against that hero."
What were your respective relationships with Joseph Bologne and Marie Antoinette before you signed on to this? How much did you know about the person you would be playing?
HARRISON JR.: Zero. I literally knew nothing, and I was so embarrassed because my dad is literally a classical music teacher and a Black man! So, I don't know where we messed up, but we messed up. I literally sent him the link and I said, 'What is this about? Why didn't you tell me?' He was just like, 'Wow, incredible guy.' I said, 'You're missing the point.'
BOYNTON: I think I had the kind of incorrect preconceived idea about Marie that we so commonly have, that is mainly found in a quote that is misattributed to her. I just thought she was a spoiled, privileged brat of a woman. I'm embarrassed to say that. It's quite dismissive of so much of her. And then when I began preparing for this role, I knew I wanted to put away that preconceived idea and start from scratch. It was really illuminating. All of these elements of her that have been derided were actually, when given the context, so fascinating to analyze and to explore. The sentiment of the 'let them eat cake' quote may be truer than the quote itself — which she didn't say — but there are so many elements of her not to be dismissed. She is so much more than that.
As you were doing your research, was there something you learned that sort of cracked them open for you — that made you say, 'Yes, I can play this person'?
HARRISON JR.: I definitely understood his journey. I understood the whole transactional nature of trying to make it in a certain field, but not necessarily feel like you're fully accepted for who you are. And using your gift as currency. I think that made sense to me and I was like, 'I can psychoanalyze that.'
BOYNTON: When you realize she was 14 when she entered the French court and she married Louis, as an adult reading that number is horrifying and resonates with you so much more. It kind of reframed everything that I thought about her. But I think it was realizing that I didn't have to portray the entirety of her. I was trying to work out how to cram this person in their entirety into the very small time frame that you have in a film that's not about her, but I think the fact that there are so many different iterations of her kind of freed me from that. So it was exciting getting to release yourself from that kind of responsibility and just focusing on this being a really different side of her that we've not really explored much, and that is the ultimate villain.
Kelvin, you were coming off of Elvis, where Austin Butler set a new bar for the amount of homework and training done to portray a musician. What did that prep look like for you here?
HARRISON JR.: Yeah, I was in the middle of Elvis when I was auditioning, and I got the role towards the end of Elvis, so I started prepping when I was finishing up B.B. King. Austin made it so that everyone felt bad for doing what work they were doing, and I was like, 'Oh gosh!' [Laughs] I started the violin pretty early. I went back home with my dad and we started practicing, and we did about five months of training before I started the movie. I did seven days a week, six hours a day, really drilled those songs in. To the point where when I finished the movie, I thought about smashing the violin. I didn't do it out of respect to all the musicians out there, but I thought about it!
When you have to master so many skillsets for a role, how did you know you were ready? Did you get to that point?
HARRISON JR.: No, because I think the thing is, I remember showing up every day being nervous. Luckily, my violin teacher really put me through conservatory-style training. He was with me on set every day, so even when I was on breaks during lunch, he would come to my trailer and we would practice. When I finished, we would still practice. The only thing bad about the violin is it's really loud, so everyone hates you. But you get it once you get it.
Costuming is such a long process, but with characters like these, it is so integral. Do you have a standout memory from one of your fittings, or of the first time you were fully done up in the outfit with the wig and everything?
HARRISON JR.: I remember sitting in the makeup chair, and I have these photos — I used to take a lot of selfies because, I don't know, I was really feeling myself once the wig came on — and once the wig comes on, you feel like everything changes. I'm sitting in the chair and I'm tired. I usually have dark circles under my eyes. I get the makeup, I get the beauty mark, and then they place the wig. And it's like three people putting the wig on you, and then suddenly you go, 'Yes,' you know what I mean?
BOYNTON: It was a such a light bulb moment of realizing what it is to be that woman in that environment, especially Marie Antoinette, she was very aware of how she could be an author of people's perception, while also being rebellious, and young, and in the camp of more is more is more. So, on the one hand, you have all eyes on you, and you're this spectacle, and you are taking up all this space. And on the other hand, you are entirely restricted with breathing, the way you can project your voice, the way you can move. You are this walking contradiction. And that was so informative to the way I was going to then play her. And I think it helps so much when you have such a tangible and physical ritual of exiting yourself and entering the shoes of this very, very different person in their world.
Oh my God. I have so many videos and selfies. I had to shock a few people with them, obviously. The reaction was really satisfying. [Laughs] And a lot of memes!
HARRISON JR.: One hundred percent. It's too epic. But people were like, 'Gray doesn't look good on you.'
The dynamic between Joseph and Marie is one of the most riveting arcs of the movie. How did you work together to find that relationship?
HARRISON JR.: We really just got along as people first. We were like, 'Oh! We like each other!' And then it was like, 'Oh, well, Joseph and Marie Antoinette also just really each like other.' They think they're cool. So, it was just fun. I think what we understood was that these were two young people that were in really big positions, considering where they came from. I like to use the example that it feels a little bit like they were in the Mickey Mouse Club, and you think about Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera — only they know what that experience was like. So, they have a different connection to celebrity and notoriety than everyone else. That's what Marie Antoinette and Joseph were like.
It seems like Joseph would be the Timberlake in that scenario, or is he the Britney?
HARRISON JR.: I'd be the Britney!
And Marie is obviously the Christina.
HARRISON JR.: She's the Christina.
BOYNTON: Those younger scenes, we got to sit in getting to know each other, and he's so kind and easy to be around. He makes it all look so easy — which you know it's not when you're doing six hours of violin lessons a day, as well as carrying a film on your shoulders — but he's just such a pleasure and a joy to work with and be around. So, it was nice to let that enjoyment and fun come through in those earlier scenes. And it just makes the later scenes all the more devastating. I think we were lucky in the sense that we filmed almost chronologically.
HARRISON JR.: For the most part. The first scene with me and Lucy, we shot at the very end, which we giggled a bunch about, because we were just like, 'This is so funny and weird.'
If you learn something new on every project, what do you take away with you as an actor, an artist, or as a person from Chevalier?
HARRISON JR.: To just keep telling people the business, you know what I'm saying? Joseph was not holding his tongue and, honestly, I don't think I want to either. Because people try to play games, and games only get you in the hot seat. Games get you with nothing at the end of the day, Marie Antoinette played games and it cost her.
BOYNTON: On a technical level, I learned that you can tell a story of this gravity, of this weight and impact, and deliver it in a film of this scale with this amount of electricity, and comedy, and theatricality. It's such a powerful way to kind of Trojan horse a message to an audience. That was a great learning curve. And also in the story itself, to keep challenging history as it has been presented to you, and challenge the source material and the authors. Because history has had a very singular and specific author, and our history and society as it's been presented has not been an accurate portrayal. It's time to start filling in that tapestry and filling in the gaps.
By John Boone
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