Watch: Kelvin Harrison Jr. talks Chevalier
Kelvin Harrison Jr. says he drew inspiration from some iconic musicians for his new film Chevalier, which arrives in UK cinemas this week.
The actor, who plays Joseph Bologne — a real life violinist and composer in the 18th century French court of King Louis XVI — found the key to his character in a comment from the film’s writer, Stefani Robinson.
“She said [the opening scene] was like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton battling it out,” he recalls.
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“So my immediate reaction was ‘this is the guy I’m playing.’ I pulled from Hendrix, I pulled from Prince and found that showman.”
He also believes Bologne was something of a superhero. “He’s very grounded, very focused and I liked the fact that tonally the movie was about someone who had so much drive and was like a superhero.”
Born on the island of Guadeloupe, Bologne’s parents were a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved 16-year-old girl from Senegal.
Educated in France in music and fencing, he enjoyed a rapid rise to fame but, despite recognition by the King himself, his African ancestry prevented him from inheriting his father’s title.
His ambitions, especially to become the head of the Paris Opera and how his colour was used against him, are the focus of the film.
His later military career, which included leading France’s first all-Black regiment during the Revolution, was almost erased from history so Robinson had to undertake extensive research to uncover his full story.
Chevalier’s Primetime Emmy-winning director, Stephen Williams shares his lead actor’s views on the character, and believes the rock star comparison gives the film a contemporary feel.
“He was such a celebrated figure in his time,” he explains. “He was almost as famous for his romantic exploits as he was for fencing and his musical prowess. He really was the talk of the town.
"That felt how a rock star would have been in those days and that was all part of our attempt to render the story — albeit set in a particular period of time in pre-revolutionary France — as if it was unfolding with a contemporary energy and vibe.”
And Lucy Boynton, who plays Marie Antoinette, believes Harrison Jnr’s performance added to this. “The second you walked on set and you were around Kelvin in character, you totally understood why everybody wanted to be around Joseph Bologne.
"He really has the aura of a rock star and he has the skill. He just excelled at everything and anything he put his mind to.”
Watch a trailer for Chevalier
Bologne was a contemporary of Mozart and, while it’s never been established whether they actually met, the film starts with a stunning duelling violins sequence between the two.
It’s led to comparisons between Chevalier and Amadeus (1984) and Harrison Jnr sees his film as “a sister movie” to the multi-Oscar winner, while screenwriter Stefani Robinson hopes their movie reflects its energy.
“There’s one particular image in Amadeus, where he wears a pink wig – that energy is the thing I hope will translate, the feeling of bringing what is old and stale into the forefront.”
No stranger to playing real people, Harrison Jnr’s recent roles have included BB King in last year’s Elvis and Fred Hampton in The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (2020). He plays Dr Martin Luther King in forthcoming TV series Genius: MLK/X and in 2024 is the voice of Taka (the young Scar) in Barry Jenkins’ Mufasa: The Lion King.
Co-star Lucy Boynton was seen last year alongside Christian Bale in The Pale Blue Eye, and the cast also includes Scream VI’s Samara Weaving and Minnie Driver.
For director Stephen Williams and writer Stefani Robinson, Chevalier is their first feature film after extensive careers on high profile TV shows.
Williams won a Prime Time Emmy for Watchmen, after directing duties on Ray Donovan and Westworld, while Robinson worked on What We Do In The Shadows and Atlanta.
Chevalier is released in UK cinemas on 9 June, 2023.
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