'BlacKkKlansman' Star Laura Harrier on Auditioning for Spike Lee, Black Representation & Beyoncé (Exclusive)
By Angelique Jackson
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Get to know the name Laura Harrier -- though you probably already know her face.
Harrier began her career at age 17 as a fashion model, gracing magazine covers and quickly becoming the face of brands like Louis Vuitton and an ambassador for Bvlgari. Then, she started acting in soap operas, starring as Destiny Evans on One Life to Live, before breaking through in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Peter Parker’s love interest, Liz Allan.
With a standout performance in BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee's joint about how a Black police officer successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, Harrier is making a name for herself in what is set to be one of the year's most talked-about movies. In the film, the 28-year-old plays Patrice Dumas, the president of the local university's Black Student Union, who strikes up a romance with the officer, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington). While the story of Stallworth and the KKK is true, Harrier’s character in the film is not based a real person, but instead serves as an important representation of the female voices of the time.
"[Patrice] is an amalgamation of the different women of the Black Power movement," Harrier said of drawing inspiration from the likes of Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver. "I can't think of any instances where you see the female side of that, or at least very few. But these women were so important."
When ET phoned Harrier ahead of the film hitting theaters, the actress reflected on the message the movie sends to young people, Black representation in Hollywood, Beyoncé's historic Vogue cover and setting her sights on even bigger career moves: "Working with Spike was an honor and such a huge learning experience, [so] that the bar's pretty high."
ET: I've gotten to see the film twice and I loved it, but I want to hear about the feedback you've gotten from audiences. Has the reception been what you imagined?
Laura Harrier: I tried to go into this not really having any preconceived notions. I mean, I knew that it was Spike. Of course, he's one of the greatest filmmakers ever, so that's obviously super exciting and the story that we were telling was very important, really relevant and timely. But I tried to not read too much into stuff because it just psyches me out and makes me nervous. Now at this point, it's just the reception the film's been getting is really exciting and really something I just really believe in and I'm so happy that people love it as much as we do because I think -- regardless of being in the film -- this is something I would've been really excited about.
What is one piece of feedback you've heard or a reaction that meant a lot to you?
Harry Belafonte [who has a cameo in the film] told me I was wonderful and then I cried.
Being in this film marks another breakout role for you, after Spider-Man: Homecoming. Have you already started to see changes in your career after starting out with this bang?
I'm really grateful to have been able to be a part of this and other projects that I've loved and believed in. It's really surreal. I definitely have moments where I'm pinching myself and kind of like, wow, this is my life. I'm just a normal girl from Chicago and this is not where I saw my life going. I'm just really grateful and it's still a bit surreal.
What was your dream before you got into the business, because you weren't acting from the time you were two years old.
No, I wasn't. I didn't start until relatively later. I wanted to be a bunch of things -- I wanted to be an archaeologist, I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to work in art. But I wasn't really sure. But [acting] just feels like what I'm supposed to be doing. I can pretend to be all of those things, so yeah, that's why I love it so much. It's so exciting to be able to portray all these different people and these different lives.
Let's talk about how you got here to BlacKkKlansman. It started when Spike called you while you were on vacation. Can you imagine if you'd missed that call?
A missed call from Spike Lee means nothing. He'll keep calling you and text you and probably show up. He knows -- he has a good intuition and he knows what he wants and what's going to work. It was nice that I answered the phone for sure. It made things a lot easier.
Did he say where he'd seen you before? What was it about your previous performances that made him think of you for Patrice?
I think he saw an audition that I did, like a completely separate audition tape for a separate movie that he wasn't doing, but somehow the tape found its way to him. Somehow he saw that and he wanted to meet me. It's funny how one thing leads to another. And it was a movie I didn't even want to tape for. I remember, I was like, "I don't wanna do this..." [Laughs] Thank goodness I did.
What was the audition like?
I did not go into the audition expecting to be actually doing my scenes with Spike; I figured there'd be another actor there that I was reading with so when Spike said, "No, no, I'm going to read with her," it was just a whole new level of terror. We started off doing the scene and that led into an improv that lasted for over an hour and it was just really one of those crazy, surreal experiences. It was just like, "Oh man, I'm improvising with Spike Lee right now, what is happening?!" And then the next day he called me and offered me the role.
With your performance, you're representing the Black Power movement and the women behind it. What does it mean to you that people see the work you did to bring this character to life?
[Patrice] is an amalgamation of the different women of the Black Power movement and I think we've seen such a male face on these movements -- the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement in general -- especially when it's been portrayed in film. I can't think of any instances where you see the female side of that, or at least very few. But these women were so important and made such an impact in their communities and through the whole country. So I just wanted to pay homage to them and give them the respect and acknowledgement that I think they deserve.
We're seeing a really powerful time right now for Black people in Hollywood, but also for Black women in Hollywood. I'm wondering, are you seeing those changes personally and that push for equalization in the industry?
I think that's definitely a subject matter that's at the front of people's minds: diversity and inclusion. A shift is beginning to happen and there are a lot more opportunities now than there were just a couple years ago. I don't think I would have the same career [now] as I would've five years ago. But I do think we still have a long way to go and we can't just sit down and let things go back to the way things were because a couple of shifts have been made already.
Right now, we have 10 Black women on magazine covers including Beyonce, Rihanna, Zendaya. What does it mean as someone who started out in fashion and has been on the cover of magazines to see that kind of representation?
It's amazing! It's so important. I remember being a young teenager and interested in fashion and I would cut out photos and make collages on my walls from magazines. And being like, "Oh," and I would look through magazines and I would look through Vogue, literally looking for girls that looked like me and it was really disheartening to be like, "Oh, I bought this Vogue and I love it, but at the same time, it doesn't feel like it's for me." And to be able to look at Beyonce, who was shot by a 23-year-old Black guy for the first time on the cover of Vogue, to see the beautiful array of women is really important. I just think of all the young girls who see that and feel like they are represented and have a space.
You very much wear your opinions and ideals on your sleeve. What empowered you to be so open and to be a part of movies like BlacKkKlansman and to not worry about what you post on social media?
I don't know what sparked it, I think it's just who I am as a person. I've always cared very deeply about things and I feel weird having to suppress my opinions about things that matter. Not that my opinion's the only one, but I feel like I've been so lucky to have been given some sort of platform, and I want to use it to help other people as well.
After there's a standing ovation like you guys had in Cannes [the movie got a six-minute ovation at the film festival], the "Oscar" word starts getting thrown around. Have you started to prepare yourself for being part of the awards show push?
No. [Laughs.] No, because I don't want to. You just never know and I don't want to get too excited. But I obviously love and believe in this movie and I hope that it goes as far as it can. And I hope for that for Spike too, he really deserves it!
What is one thing that you hope people take away from this film?
I just really hope that this film kind of sparks a conversation between people. I think everybody will take away something different because there are so many messages within the film and ways for it to affect people. I just hope that people start to look around them and question how we're treating each other and choose love over hate.