Naomie Harris is quite simply one of the finest actors working today and certainly one of the most versatile. I can’t remember if I spotted her first in the PBS mini-series “White Teeth” or Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER… first, since they were both 2002 releases, but she was incredible and memorable in both. Most Americans first got a look at her work as Tia Dalma in the second and third PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. In between those, she also appeared in Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE feature. In the last 10 years, she has starred in works by David Ayer (STREET KINGS), James McTeigue (NINJA ASSASSIN), Justin Chadwick (THE FIRST GRADER, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM), and Antoine Fuqua (SOUTHPAW). And if you attend National Theatre Live theatrical presentations at all, then you have probably seen her in the two versions of the Danny Boyle-directed FRANKENSTEIN, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternating the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster.
But around the world, Harris is undoubtedly best known as Moneypenny in the most recent James Bond film SKYFALL and SPECTRE, and hopefully for many more to come, regardless of who is playing Bond. Earlier this year, Harris co-starred with Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård in OUR KIND OF TRAITOR and around Christmas you’ll have a chance to see her alongside Will Smith in COLLATERAL BEAUTY. But I am of a strong opinion that Harris is destined for her first Oscar nominee (likely in the Best Supporting Actress category) for her role of Paula in director Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT.
She’s the only actor to appear in all three segments of the film about Chiron, who is seen at three different times in his young life (and played by three different actors), but she’s a very different mother in each chapter. In the first, she’s an overworked single mother beginning to dabble in drugs to ease the stress and pain of her life; six or seven years later, she’s a full-blown drug addict, taking money from her song to buy drugs; and 10 years after that, she’s in recovery at a rehab facility trying to make amends to those she has wronged, especially Chiron. So in a sense, she’s playing three distinct characters trapped in the same body.
I had the chance to sit down with Harris recently in Chicago and talk about the decision to take this role, one that was unlike any she’d played before; her future in the world of James Bond; and one or two other things. She was particularly enjoyable to chat with, so please enjoy my conversation with Naomie Harris…
NH: Yeah, it really did. It was really nice. And the Q&A afterwards was great. There were great comments, and they seemed to really like it, so it was great.
Capone: The first thing I wrote down in my notes after I saw the film was to remind you to have fun at the Oscars [she laughs]. I’ve never seen you do anything like this before. Why was this the time to tackle something like this in your career?
NH: It wasn’t so much the timing, it was just literally responding to the material. I got the script and it moved me, and I just thought it was one of the most beautiful scripts I have ever read. I always look at the work of the filmmaker, and I knew he’d only created one film before, and so I looked at MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, and again I was just blown away. I feel like it was just such a beautiful movie, and it really touched me very deeply and I thought “This is a really accomplished filmmaker, and if he can make a film like MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY with $13,000, what is he going to create with a proper budget and an incredible script?” That’s what made me wanna be a part of it.
Capone: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are the only actor that appears in all three segments— that means something. That person is the most important person in this man’s life. This is a story about the people in our lives that influence us and alter the course of our lives, for better or worse. You’re the one who got to work with all three of these actors. That also is a responsibility. You’re taking us through this in a weird way.
NH: It wasn’t so much that I was working with these three actors; it was more that it was under such unusual circumstances. I only shot it during three days.
Capone: I heard that. During a break in the junket for, I assume, SPECTRE.
NH: Yes, it was. Yeah, exactly. Particularly when you’re working with people who haven’t acted before like Alex [Hibbert, who plays Chiron at age 9] and particularly when you’re working with children as well, what you do most of the time is you spend quite a bit of time building up the rapport and the trust before you worth with them, because you need to rely on that in order to get the best out of them. I didn’t have the luxury of that ,at all. So it was just a matter of meeting little Alex, this 11-year-old boy, and trusting that he would want to, be willing to open up to me and play with me during these scenes in a very short amount of time. And I really think that Yesi Ramirez, our casting director, and Barry they just did an incredible job, because all three actors—I don't think they look alike actually at all, but they have the same essence so that you buy it, and the transition is completely seamless.
Capone: In theory, this should have been a role that you passed on because of your schedule. So were they three consecutive days or three different days?
NH: They were three consecutive days, but I was shooting out of sequence.
Capone: A lot of actors would have said, “I can’t do it because I’m going to be busy right then.”
NH: I was actually excited to do it, I have to admit, because the SPECTRE tour was over two month, maybe three months long. So you’re going all over the world promoting this movie. Now promotion is great, especially when you believe in the movie, but it’s not what I went into the business to do. I went into the business to act. So to have an opportunity amongst that period to go away and do something that’s rewarding and fulfilling and is my greatest joy, which is to preform, was fantastic for me.
Capone: In reading this part and talking to Berry about it, what do you remember initially hooking you and responding to right off the bat?
NH: I don’t think it was the part. To be honest, it wasn’t the part that hooked me. It was the script itself. It was the fact that I just thought it was so tender.
Capone: The entire story, you mean?
NH: Yeah. I think ultimately it’s a love story. A love story about profound love, and we don’t normally get stories that are about profound love. We get stories that are about infatuation, “You’re hot; I’m hot; let’s get together.” You know what I mean? It’s not about “I love you to your core. I see through your facade and who you pretend to be, and I see the real you, and I love you for that. I see your faults and I love you because of your faults, not despite them.” It’s that kind of love we don’t really see very often. I just thought that was so beautiful that I wanted to be part of a project that is about that love, and also about a message of understanding and tolerance as well.
Capone: Although you’re in all three segments, you’re playing a different person in each.
NH: Basically. Yeah, pretty much.
Capone: The struggling single mother, exhausted with the beginnings of a drug problem. Then a full blown drug addict, and in the end, she’s a recovering addict. I can’t even imagine shooting out of sequence. Talk about that experience, because it’s a whirlwind of pain and energy and emotion just to watch.
NH: It is a whirlwind, but it all begins with the research you do before you get to set. Because I had a month to research all of that, I made sure that I knew my entire character’s arc, because I knew that I was going to have to jump backwards and forwards. I wanted to be ready for whatever Barry would throw at me. If he suddenly said, “Alright, I need you to be full-on addiction. Now you’re in rehab.” That’s literally how it was. I knew that I just had to plot her arc and fill in all the gaps in her story so it was a complete story in my mind, and I could jump backwards and forwards at will.
Capone: Did you have to overcome any judgmental feelings about her as a mother, as a person, to play her?
NH: Yeah, I did. Especially because, I come from a family where my mom was a single mother, and she did raise me on her own, and I was raised on welfare. My mom had me at 18, but she was a brilliant mother and she taught me anything was possible, and I could be anything I chose to be and instilled these incredibly empowering beliefs in me. So to have a mother who’s not only not instilling those beliefs in her child, but actually a destructive force in his life, I did have a lot of judgement about that.
So it was wonderful to have the opportunity that I did and to plot Paula’s journey, because in doing so I realized that she never received the love that she deserved as a child and desperately needed. So her love tank is almost empty when she then goes on to have a child, and how can you give someone something that you’ve never received? You don’t have it to give. So it’s not until Paula actually reaches rehab at the end of the movie, and she’s finally being given some support that she’s finally able to give something to her son that he needed throughout his entire life.
Capone: What was it like for you seeing the finished film, seeing everything that you did placed in its context, with all of the pieces around it. I can’t imagine just reading it would have really prepared you for how this thing turned out.
NH: Yeah, you know what? It’s really strange, because I just feel like what’s magical about the movie is that there’s so much silence. There are so many things. There’s so much that isn’t verbally handed to us on a plate, but actually we get the opportunity to feel it. It’s a visceral experience. So that’s what I felt when I was watching her. It’s a movie that gets under your skin and makes you feel all kinds of things, and by the end of it, you’re emotionally raw. It’s a difficult one, but it’s also got a really hopeful message as well, which is wonderful. I didn’t foresee the movie being as powerful as it really is. I thought it was going to be a beautiful movie, but it’s Barry’s brilliant direction and editing that tips it over the edge and makes it extraordinary.
Capone: Both Barry and Tarell have said that you’re essentially playing their mothers.
NH: That’s a lot of responsibility.
Capone: Does that add pressure? It’s not a biography, but you're essentially playing elements of real people. Did they tell you ahead of time?
NH: He did tell me. I did have reservations about taking on the role of an addict, and that was one of the main reasons I decided to say yes to doing it, because I just thought “Here’s somebody who’s had a mother who’s an addict, so he has a vested interest in ensuring that she’s not played as a cliche.” You get to explore her full emotional complexity and her humanity as well. So I did know that his mother was a crack addict, but I don’t think even Barry foresaw how difficult it was going to be for him to shoot some of the scenes for the movie. Particularly when Paula is in deep addiction. It was very tough for Barry, and the only way I could cope with that was by not really engaging with it, because I couldn’t think “Well, this is upsetting for my director, so I’ve got to pull back here.” You know what I mean? You’ve just got to go for it.
Capone: But if he’s upset, that means you’re doing it right.
NH: Yeah, yeah it does. It’s true. But I didn’t really think that hard about how it was going to affect the two of them. It just put pressure on me—I put pressure on myself, rather—to make sure it was as authentic as possible.
Capone: You mentioned that you were hesitant I’m guessing any drug addict in a film. Does fear to a certain degree steer you toward certain roles?
NH: Yes, yes. When you fear something, it’s because you think you can't do it, you can’t achieve it, you don’t know whether it’s within your grasp, and when you do active it, when you do find it, and even if you don’t, even if you just get very close to it, then you find something amazing in yourself and you grow as a person. I think for me, my motivation in life is growth. That’s what I’m here to do: to learn and grow as much as I possibly can. So to get a role that actually stretches me, because it terrifies me and I think “Oh my god, I’m never going to be able to reach it,” that for me is a blessing.
Capone: There hasn’t been much discussion about when the next James Bond film is happening, or who’s going to be in it exactly. I don’t know how it works in terms of, if Daniel Craig doesn’t return, does everybody else get to keep their jobs?
NH: [laughs] They wipe the slate clean!
Capone: Judi Dench certainly was able to work with multiple Bonds over the years, so I’m just wondering does everybody get to stay where they are if he doesn’t decide to go forward?
NH: I would imagine so. I can’t imagine that they’re going to get rid of all of us.
Capone: They’ve done such wonderful things, especially with your character compared to how she’s been portrayed in the past, and I’d hate for that to go away.
NH: Yeah, I know. And I’d hate to say goodbye to Moneypenny as well. I love playing her.
Capone: Yeah. You’re awesome at that.
NH: Thank you.
Capone: Do you know what you’re doing next at this point?
NH: Well, I have COLLATERAL BEAUTY coming out on the 18th of December.
Capone: That’s quite a cast in that one. And they keep brining it back to theaters, at least here they do, Danny Boyle’s staged version of FRANKENSTEIN that you were a part of. I saw both versions.
NH: In London?
Capone: No, they recorded both versions, so they’ve been alternating playing both when they bring it back.
NH: You know what? I’ve been trying to catch that for the longest time.
Capone: It’s literally playing somewhere in Chicago in the next couple of weeks.
NH: I need to hang out here and catch it.
Capone: The more popular Benedict Cumberbatch gets, the more they keep bringing it back.
NH: Right, right.
Capone: Thank you so much and best of luck with this. Again, have fun at the Oscars. No pressure.