Dress by Rodarte.
Laura Harrier Wants to Make Films She Never Saw Herself In
In the latest Pre-Fall lookbook for Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière sought to showcase the ‘eclecticism of the female identity’ using a diverse cast of actors and creatives; Michelle Williams, Ruth Negga, and Léa Seydoux were among the renowned talents chosen to sport the line. Alongside them was Laura Harrier, a less familiar face but one that seamlessly fit in with the campaign. That’s because, like her contemporaries, Harrier is beginning to see her name attached to some of the most alluring projects in Hollywood, though the path towards today was marked by contrasts. Now with a featured role in Spike Lee’s Best Picture-nominated film BlacKkKlansman, Harrier has finally found the platform to take on the projects she’s most passionate about.
“I’ve always loved fashion and clothes, so I was grateful to be working with amazing designers like Nicolas Ghesquière, wearing these beautiful clothes,” the twenty-eight-year-old Chicago native says about the Louis Vuitton project. Last year, she was part of a short film for Kenzo directed by Carrie Brownstein, another fashion highlight, but her current relationship with fashion is far different from when she first moved to New York and deferred her acceptance into NYU to model. “I enjoy the fashion part of my career now because it feels like it’s me doing it and I have a say in what I get to wear and what I want to present forward,” she explains. “I have my own agency and my own voice with it, instead of just being this mannequin that people put things on.” Still, she acknowledges that those modeling experiences paved her way into acting: “I think of the things it brought me in life because I was able to be financially independent from a really young age. I got to travel the world. I don’t know if I would be acting if that hadn’t happened as part of my path along my career.”
Eventually, Harrier found herself getting bored with modeling and her experiences acting in student films and being cast in commercials that “required personality” would inform her next move. She enrolled at William Esper to study acting and during her senior year opportunity struck. “When I was in my last year at drama school at William Esper, Steve McQueen cast me in his pilot that he was doing at the time for HBO,” she recalls. “So that was my first project and I was like, ‘I guess I should see where this goes from here,’ and I stuck with it.” Though the miniseries was eventually scrapped after the pilot was shot, the experience would be pivotal to Harrier, validating her decision to pursue acting. “Having someone like Steve, who I think is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, being really encouraging and believing in me and telling me that I was talented and that I was going to take this somewhere gave me the confidence to really pursue this as my career.”
Harrier’s next role brought her to an entirely different category: the soap opera. She describes her turn as Destiny Evans in the 2013 revival of One Life to Live as a “boot camp,” recalling the grueling daily schedule. “I think it instilled a really hard work ethic in me because you’re on set for over twelve hours a day and they would just throw thirty pages at you and say, ‘Memorize this and I’ll see you at six AM.’ It was honestly just so exhausting, but you have to do it. Nothing has been that demanding in that way since so I think it was really good to do that in the beginning, and I learned a lot for sure about memorizing and being on a set and showing up prepared.”
From the soap opera she jumped into one of the biggest blockbuster franchises in the world; 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was Harrier’s first movie, in which she portrayed Peter Parker’s classmate and love interest Liz Allan. Unlike with other Marvel Cinematic Universe films featuring renowned actors, the young cast, also featuring Tom Holland and Zendaya, would define the experience for Harrier. “We just had so much fun making it,” she recalls. “It was a great group of kids and we were all new. We were all making a giant film but it felt like this funny indie high school movie that we were making at the same time. It was really lovely.” Notably, her role went to a minority, a rarity despite the plethora of superhero films, which wasn’t lost on Harrier. For her, the value of playing Liz Allan was that race was never a focal point, it just reflected the real world. “Just seeing that cast of people on screen was in itself revolutionary, it’s never been done before,” she emphasizes. “I love films like that where it just looks like the world looks. It changes the way people are thinking and changes the way people see themselves on screen.”
Her biggest challenge came in last year’s Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmann, a film that brought more depth to a character than anything Harrier had been in before. “This definitely required more of me than what people have seen,” she recalls. “I think I just had the opportunity to go deeper into a character that I never had before, which is such a gift, and I loved being able to do that research beforehand.” For her character Patrice, a fictional woman who embodies elements of women central to the Black Power movement, Harrier delved into the Seventies, listening to the music, watching blaxploitation films, and even having conversations with pioneers of the movement like Kathleen Cleaver. “You can do all that prep before and when you have someone like Spike behind you, you can just go on the day and just play around with the other actors,” she says. “They are talented, so you’re just able to play and go and see where the scene takes you.”
The film centers around John David Washington’s character Ron Stallworth, a real-life black undercover cop who attempts to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan through a conduit in the form of white officer Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver. Stallworth begins dating student-activist Patrice, but doesn’t initially tell her he’s a cop. The film is marked by Lee’s signature tonal structure, balancing harrowing moments with levity, which became clearest to Harrier in the most difficult scene she had to shoot, in which Patrice and her friends get pulled over by the cops and harassed. “For me, that was really difficult just because of the wider implications that it had and thinking about how many people of color that have the same experiences,” she explains, “but it’s real and they don’t come out with their lives all the time.” Incidentally, the scene that follows was one of Harrier’s favorite to shoot: “Right after, John David and I are doing that dancing scene at the bar, which was so fun, and I think that really illustrates Spike as a filmmaker where he can talk about these very serious, very real subjects that affect our country but at the same time bring uplift and joy—not to the subjects, but around them.”
The film is only the first time Lee is being recognized as a Best Picture and Best Director contender. Given the social climate surrounding race, it makes sense that a film by an acclaimed director directly confronting that subject matter wouldn’t go overlooked, but Harrier sees BlacKkKlansman as an extension of everything Lee has already done in his career. “My interpretation was that we need to wake up as a country,” she says of the meaning of the film. “That’s what it keeps being throughout all of Spike’s films—literally, ‘Wake up!’ So I think this is just continuing that. I think for me it was seeing how these themes—racism and bigotry—are literally what our country was built on. He shows that by starting the movie with scenes from the Civil War and ending in the summer of 2017, so this has been a through line of our history. I think people need to keep it at the forefront of their consciousness or it’s definitely not going to go away.”
The issue is on the forefront of Harrier’s consciousness as well, and it’s guiding her outlook on acting. Though she’s ready and willing to take on more roles like BlacKkKlansman that don’t sugarcoat the reality of intolerance, she hopes to be part of a change in the film industry. After Spider-Man, she would get stopped on the street by mothers and their daughters excited to finally see themselves on screen, a feeling of visibility she’d like to bring to more people. “I want to make films where we can see black people just existing as humans and falling in love and being funny,” she insists. “I want to make a romantic comedy, but where the leads look like me. So I really want to continue increased representation in Hollywood and be able to make films that I didn’t get to see myself in growing up.”
BlacKkKlansman is now available in digital release.
Hair by Vernon Francois at The Visionaries. Makeup by Holly Silius at Lowe & Co. Photographer’s assistant: Tigran Tovmasyan.