The first thing you need to know about Chevalier, the movie opening at theaters all across the five boroughs on Friday, April 20, is that it has nothing at all to do with a 70-year-old Frenchman, who, in a less woke time, thanked heaven for little girls. Mais non. Chevalier in this case is the French word for “knight,” a member of certain orders of honor whose job in the kingdom is to guard and protect the castle. And the knight in Chevalier is the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born in 1745 as Joseph Bologne. His peerless skills at fencing and fiddling won him a place in the court, and the heart, of Marie Antoinette.
Almost wordlessly, the film begins with him testing his violin mettle in a concert duel with an imperious Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After that are ample opportunities to demonstrate his prowess at swordfights and composing music. There was none like him in 18th century France.
Bologne was born on the island of Guadeloupe, his father a wealthy French plantation owner and his mother a 16-year-old slave from Senegal. As a child, he was taken to Paris by his father and deposited in the famed La Boessiere Academy where he studied music, math, literature and fencing—and excelled in all. In his adventures among the doomed French aristocracy, he was something of a rock star as a fencer, dancer, equestrian and fashion-trendsetter.
Surprisingly little else is known of Bologne, for reasons fleetingly itemized in the closing credit-crawl: After Marie Antoinette and the monarchy were taken down in the French Revolution of 1789, he led the first all-Black regiment in the democratic rebellion. In 1802, Napoleon reinstated slavery in the French colonies and banned Bologne’s music, causing much of it to be forgotten or destroyed. The good news: thanks to diligent researchers and scholars, Bologne is now “one of the first known Black classical composers and regarded as a pre-eminent virtuoso violinist.”
What a story! And Kelvin Harrison, Jr., a 28-year-old actor from New Orleans comfortable amid the Old World bric-a-brac, makes a star-making turn as Bologne. Harrison started small in movies in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, as an unnamed and quickly executed “Victim 2.” But his roles and stature have grown steadily as he took a run of characters whose names are a matter of history: Black Panther deputy chairman Fred Hampton in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven; B.B. King in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis; Ahead are Martin Luther King, Jr. in the upcoming Disney+/Nat GEO series Genius: MLK/X; and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Julius Onah-directed biopic Samo Lives.
By far, Harrison says, Bologne has been the hardest part for him to pull off. The special skills required to do the role are so staggering very few actors would even consider auditioning for it.
“I think that the technical aspects of pretending to be a virtuoso of the violin while executing those wonderful compositions that Michael Abels, our composer, wrote for us was the most difficult part of the role for me,” Harrison admits. “And then, there was the language and the fencing and just understanding the history of the times. All that made it more of an acting exercise. You really have to put in your chops on this one instead of just bringing yourself to it.”
But prior training at fencing and previous violin lessons—surprise, surprise—gave him a leg up.
Fencing came a little easier. “I got in a little bit of training in 2021 when I played Christian and crossed swords with Peter Dinklage’s Cyrano,” Harrison explains. “Joe Wright, our director, had written a big fight scene for Christian and Cyrano, but he decided to cut it because he didn’t want me to show up Cyrano too much.”
As for the violin, Harrison took it up when he was seven and played for a couple of years in orchestras. He was first chair and got picked frequently. Then, in 2005, the upheaval of Hurricane Katrina left Harrison’s violin water-damaged, and he never went back to it. “I began playing piano and trumpet,” he recalls. “This is the first time in over a decade I’ve played the violin.”
It took four violin teachers to bring Harrison up to Bologne speed. He got hired while filming Elvis in Australia and began his lessons Down Under. When filming finished, he went back to New Orleans and worked with his dad, a classical musician and music teacher.
“Six days a week, six hours a day—that was the regiment my dad and I came to terms with,” he says. “It was intimidating, trying to play at Joseph’s level and listening to Abels’ wonderful concertos. I was just overwhelmed by the task. It was one of those things where you have to trust the process so I trusted my system was going to work. I got frustrated at times, but my dad told me to just take it slow. I would take every concerto and every cue in the movie at half speed, then I’d build it up at increments every week and keep practicing till I got the tempo.”
Next stop for Harrison was Los Angeles, and he began with yet another teacher out there. His final teacher was the one he used during the actual shooting in Prague. “I think I had about five months prep, total. When I started filming, I would shoot for 10 hours and then I would do fencing for an hour and violin for a couple of hours to keep it up and make sure I was still on it.”
Prague, one of the European cities that time forgot, has long been known (and exploited) by filmmakers as a period-piece playground. Here, it brings an elegant authenticity to Chevalier.
“It was so beautiful,” Harrison beams. “There were so many incredible locations—cathedrals that were already built and just waiting for us to enter. Our production designer, Donna Cameron, had worked on Elvis and worked comparable wonders with this film. She made Chevalier feel like France—the decadence, the fun, the playfulness, the colors. It all comes alive. You feel the party’s right in front of you and you just embrace it.”
A lot of Chevalier has rubbed off on Harrison, he’s happy to report. “I think what I love about Joseph and his story is how singular he was in his music,” he says. “He wasn’t trying to do what everyone was doing. What he was doing felt more like jazz to me—the way he dressed, the way he carried himself. Ultimately, I think the reason that we’re talking about him today was because he was so much himself. It just reminded me to do my thing, not try to be like the other actors—to do roles that I’m interested in, not try to play into the game too much.”
For a change of pace, Harrison’s next film assignment brings less rigorous preparation: voicing Scar in Disney’s animated Lion King prequel, Mufusa.