On Thursday, September 19, director Anthony Mandler, producer Tonya Lewis Lee, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. joined the Urbanworld Film Festival red carpet premiere to talk about the release of the upcoming film, All Rise.
The Knockturnal: What excites you most about turning the book into a film?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: “The fans of the book and those kids that read it growing up. I remember my sisters read it when they were in middle school and they just loved that story and loved seeing that young artist go through that experience. They identified with being that introverted, free-thinking kid. So to see that the movie is finally coming out makes me so happy because for me, it’s for the kids.”
Anthony Mandler: “It’s a New York story and it’s the first time we’re showing the movie in New York. It’s the New York premiere. I’m just honored to bring Myers’ novel to life with this incredible cast in a 2019 way and hope that we can chip in this much larger story about how we fix a broken system criminally, judicially, and socially. The movie really looks at all three because it really is about taking responsibility for our actions on one side and it’s also about the system looking at people in a fair light rather than black or white.”
The Knockturnal: What major themes/ideas from the book were important to crossover into the production of the film?
Tonya Lewis Lee: “It’s an amazing story based on Walter Dean Myers’ legacy of his book Monster. And I just can’t wait for people to see the film and have the conversation afterwards. First and foremost, the book was about the over incarceration of our youth and so it was important to me that we tell the story in a way that sparks a conversation around how we are locking people up. What are we doing with young people because young people make mistakes. That’s a part of being young. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Hopefully you make most of your mistakes when you’re younger and you learn from them so that you can go on and be an adult who does things for the greater good of us all. So that was number one. Number two was about this idea of this gray area meaning, here’s a kid who lives in this community with really great parents, a great family life, but there’s other stuff out there that pulls him and they have to deal with. And how does society deal with that? How do we deal with a kid who is put in a tough situation whose consequences are real, either by the law or the law of the hood. So how do we help protect this kid in that way. The other thing for me too is the power of art. Our protagonist is a film student. And the way the book is written is his screenplay. And our story is through his film. The idea being that the power of art can heal and also make change. So I hope people come away from the film saying, oh yea, wow, art does matter. Art does make a difference. We need to make sure we are investing in art for our young people especially in this city, especially now. There’s so many places where young people can show their art, show they’re alive and show what happens. We need to leave our record, we need to let people know who we are, what our real experiences are and if we’re not telling those stories, who will?”
The Knockturnal: Can you talk about what it means for you to star in a movie centered on this subject?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: “I think at the time I had just moved from New Orleans to LA. I didn’t even get to LA yet. I [booked] this job in New Orleans. It was like me figuring out myself as an artist. Me figuring out myself as a young black man and what does that look like. My home is very conservative, so I didn’t have all of those level of experiences with race or with the judicial system or anything like that. So to kind of be put in this world and understand the ramifications of what my skin color can do and what it means to just be growing up and trying to figure out yourself and wrong place wrong time type things, it was mind boggling, eye opening to me and it honestly empowered me to do more of the roles that I wanted to do like Monsters and Men and Luce to start having those conversations. I’m just grateful. I can’t believe I had that opportunity.”
The Knockturnal: What has this production taught you about yourself?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: “Me as a person, I’m still learning and I’m still growing and I think sometimes everyone assumes that I’m the characters that have fully evolved. I’m so far from Luce, I’m so far from Steve, but I’ve learned from all of them because of the beautiful writing from Colen C. Wiley, and the beautiful writing from Julius Onah and J.C. Lee. Their words, their wisdom inspires me and helps me grow. So I’m learning through these characters as we are when we watch the movies.”
The Knockturnal: How did you land such an incredible cast for this film?
Tonya Lewis Lee: “I have to say, I feel so incredibly blessed. I called some of my friends. I called Jeffrey Wright, I said, ‘Jeffrey, we got this film, we got Monster the book we’re making.’ And Jeffrey knows the book, he knew it and it mattered to him. I called Nas, I said, ‘Nas, look this is what we’re doing.’ And we worked with Nas many years ago and he said, ‘I’m down.’ Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Mandler reached out to her. As soon as she understood what it was, boom. But we did audition for our main character and Kelvin Harrison Jr. showed up. And John David Washington. He was in our film before Blackkklansman. And I had seen him in Ballers. I was a fan, asked him to come play in our movie and Spike was like, ‘oh my God, he’s really good, I’m going to put him in Blackkklansman.’ And I was like let us get our movie out first. But [Spike Lee] doesn’t give me credit, but John David knows [laughter]. But the work itself is so good, the book is amazing. I was really happy with the script that we came up with and when we shared that with people. We have an amazing cast because the work is good.”
Anthony Mandler: “It’s a great story, you know, you make a movie and say: who are we going to cast and how do we get our first person? So I picked up the phone and called Jennifer Hudson, who is a very good friend of mine. She sang at my wedding. I love her to death; we’ve done multiple videos and she’s [an icon] in the music industry. And she said ‘Anthony, I’m in. Whatever you want to do.’ And then I picked up the phone and called ASAP Rocky who is an old friend. I said, ‘I’m doing this movie called Monster,’ he said, ‘let me stop you, that’s my favorite book I’ve ever read in my life.’ I mean, he’s from Harlem—he said ‘whatever you want.’ And then it was about who is our Steve, and it’s a process. It’s like building the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner. You have to take your time and it’s about putting that tapestry there. Kelvin was really not a movie star. He was not known but he was my guy. He was the one that I had to have because of his nuance and his gravitas and his caliber of acting. I think everybody’s seeing that now.”