this is the story of laura harrier, who is going to make hollywood her town
The supremely talented, politically passionate actress is starring in one of the most important films of 2018.
Laura wears Top Kenzo. Ring Bvlgari.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The New Fashion Rebels Issue, no. 352, Summer 2018.
“The story we’re telling is really crazy and nobody knows it’s true,” says Laura Harrier down the phone from her new home of LA -- she relocated from New York recently -- where she’s sitting outside in the sunshine. The story Laura is talking about is Black Klansman, one of the most anticipated movies of the year, on which filming just wrapped. For Laura’s second only film she was directed by none other than Mr Spike Lee.
Black Klansman is based on the autobiography of Ron Stallworth, a detective who managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the late 70s. His little-known story is mind-blowing. As a young African-American -- one of very few on the force then -- Ron went undercover and won the trust of secretive, dangerous, hateful racists hiding behind white pointy hoods. Soon the KKK asked him to lead a local chapter, and the information he gathered helped prevent acts of terror the KKK were planning.
In Black Klansman Laura plays an activist based on revolutionary women like Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver, and scholar and activist Angela Davis. “It was awesome and empowering to play a strong woman like that,” Laura says, keenly aware of the importance of her part. “You don’t see the women of the Black Power and Black Panther movement depicted very often. It’s usually the men who’re the focus, but the women were a really big part of those movements, so I’m very happy to start to tell that.”
Laura’s Hollywood story started in big blockbuster style with Spider-Man: Homecoming just last year. To say the 27-year-old has cannonballed to fame is not to overstate things. She became interested in drama while modelling, and studied at The William Esper Studio, but Laura didn’t imagine that a career starring in major movies was in her future.
“I definitely have those what the fuck moments, but for the most part I was much more nervous going into acting -- and not really knowing what my life was going to be like on the other side of Spider-Man -- than the actual reality of it.” She’s understated about her natural talent. “I’m figuring it out and making it up as I go along, trying to trust my instincts and do what I love.” Her instincts are clearly sharp.
For Spider-Man Laura couldn’t crack open her character until the cameras were about to roll -- Marvel put the script on such tight lockdown to avoid leaks, that she couldn’t read it until she was on set. But with Black Klansman came an opportunity to dig deep and really find her own way into the story. Being able to do justice not just to Ron Stallworth’s experience, but also to women of the Black Power movement meant unearthing the history and listening to the voices that have not yet received the audience they deserve. “I got to meet Kathleen Cleaver, to talk to her and hear her stories was amazing. And I read a lot -- read Angela Davis’s autobiography and Elaine Brown’s -- and watched a lot of documentaries.” But Laura wanted to hear more first-hand accounts, so she got in touch with the Alumni association of Colorado College -- Stallworth worked in Colorado Springs -- and listened to some of those who were in the black student union at that time. “Getting to hear about their experiences -- even talking to my parents and my aunts and uncles about their experiences back then was really eye-opening. I learned so much about the movement but also about people close to me.”
“I feel grateful to have come along as young actress at a time when all these incredible, powerful, brilliant women are fighting for our rights.”
The education continued on set, with Laura soaking up as much of the genius that pours out of Spike Lee as possible. “Working with Spike was surreal, he’s such a legend and has done so much and has such an incredible body of work.” There wasn’t one particular piece of advice from the filmmaker that stuck with her. The most valuable lessons often come more subtly, only able to be gleaned from quiet and focused observation -- by those hungry to learn. “I was watching how hard he works, how he carries himself, how he inspires everyone around him to work so hard. He achieves on such a high level, and you see that the people who work for him are just as passionate. They’re all behind his vision, and that’s because he’s so confident in what he’s doing that it’s easy to be like, fuck yeah we’re doing this, this is amazing. To make everyone else as enthusiastic as you are -- I’m trying to learn how to do that.”
Laura is a compelling mix -- she’s studious and composed but forthright and vocal about what matters to her. Down the phone she’s friendly, not yet media-jaded, and genuinely grateful for the opportunities she’s being given. The actress is cognizant of the power her job brings and how inextricably linked with certain responsibility it is -- how much her own story can resonate beyond her. A supportive family helps keep things in perspective, as do her best friends, the ones she made back in high school. But developing solid friendships within the business has given Laura a different kind of support. “Zendaya gives me good advice, and Rowan Blanchard. I’m really fortunate to have intelligent young women who are doing this at the same time as I am. Going through this experience with them makes it more comfortable and also just more fun.”
Laura’s Instagram is a chronicle of her looking supremely star-like (she can’t help it, the camera loves her) in front of far-flung, expensive-looking backdrops, but also hanging out with old friends, or dealing with the same shit every young female has to. One post is captioned, “roses are red, violets are blue, if you fuckboys dm me another dick pic, i’ll cut you”. Apparently a universal hazard of existing as a woman and using social media. “So many girls said thank you for that. It happens to everyone, 14-year-olds were writing to me like, ‘Oh my god thank you so much, I hate it when that happens.’ What world are we living in that that’s ok. It’s so horrible.”
A vocal supporter of Time’s Up, Laura is ardent about the importance of supporting women across all industries. “The big thing is that it’s not just for women who work in film, this is really something that affects everyone. I feel grateful to come along at a time, as a young actress, when all these incredible, powerful, brilliant women have been fighting for our rights. It’s an interesting time and I really hope that things just move further in the right direction. The ball is starting to roll, we’re having the conversations.”
Part of a brilliant cohort of young women of colour -- Sasha Lane, Letitia Wright, Yara Shahidi, Zendaya and Chanté Adams -- who are making a serious mark on Hollywood, Laura will help keep that ball rolling. The stories that are getting a mainstream audience are finally starting to be everyone’s stories, not just white, male stories. “Growing up, there weren’t many people on TV or in movies that looked like me. You look at the success of Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time and Spider-Man, that’s what the world looks like and that’s what people want to see. A Wrinkle In Time -- when I was a kid I was obsessed with that book -- if I could have seen that film when I was a kid, with a girl who looked like me… it’s so powerful. So many little girls come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god it’s so crazy that you were the love interest in Spider-Man, we never thought we would see that.’ That’s just the coolest thing to hear.” We might just be on the precipice of real change. One that results in long-marginalised stories finally being told. One in which the faces portraying those stories will increasingly be diverse. Until one day it will just be the norm, and Laura’s own legacy will be a part of that change.
Photography Daria Kobayashi Ritch
Styling Britt McCamey
Hair Christian Marc at Forward Artists using Unite and IGK
Make-up Lottie at Lowe&Co using Dior
Set design Kelly Fondry
Photography assistance Derec Patrick