Naomie Harris is nothing if not versatile. You’ll have seen her as Tia Dalma, an eccentric and enigmatic voodoo witch in a couple of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Then she was the briskly efficient and loyal Moneypenny in the James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre, and the outspoken Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Despite her appearance in billion-dollar film franchises, she somehow manages to fly under the radar, keeping her home base as her native London instead of switching over to Los Angeles. She chooses her movies based on what her instincts tell her rather than what would look best on her IMDB page. It’s unlikely she’ll ever be caught stumbling inebriated out of a Hollywood bar because she doesn’t drink; even caffeine is verboten. She is an actor’s actor, bringing a depth and intelligence to all her parts, even the fun and free-spirited ones.
Still, Harris may be more in the spotlight than ever, owing to three very different movies she’s recently been involved in. In the poignant and powerful Moonlight, she plays Paula, a crack-addict single (and terribly neglectful) mother, living on the seedier side of Miami; in Collateral Beauty, with Will Smith and Helen Mirren, she’s a poised and beautiful grief counsellor; and then she is Nisha, a mother wolf, in 2018’s Jungle Book: Origins with Benedict Cumberbatch and Christian Bale.
On a recent afternoon at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, Harris was pretty in a pale pink dress, with gold and pearls in her ears. She says she’s still a little taken aback by how much she’s come into her own after she began acting; she grew up an only child, and always considered herself reserved and shy. “Just the process of sitting down with someone I don’t know, having to talk to them, being in a room alone, would have been hugely intimidating,” she says. “Seeing that growth and shift in myself is beautiful. It’s tough, but this business forces you to grow.”
Here, Harris talks about how she always knew she wanted to act, her pet causes, and why she considers herself lucky to have a best friend who is a fashion stylist.
You have a really varied body of work. What guides you in making those choices?
I don’t have an overarching vision for my career. What I do is look at material and see if it speaks to me. Does it move me? Am I passionate about it? Does it stoke that internal fire? Am I scared? I love a movie when I’m scared. When I played Winnie Mandela I was definitely scared. It’s always good to follow your fear because it will stretch you and help you grow as a performer.
Do you feel that even if it’s a big-budget mainstream film?
There’s an element of fear in everything. Every performer is always running scared. There’s always a part of you that thinks, “Can I do it? Am I good enough?” Sometimes it’s louder and sometimes it’s quieter. Those big-budget movies are really fun. Playing Tia Dalma was such a joy. It was one of my favourite roles I’ve ever done, and it’s because I had an opportunity to create a character from scratch. She wasn’t constrained by reality at all. She was totally free. How often do you get to play someone like that?
So you don’t really have much of a plan then?
I just follow my feelings. Sometimes I want to do a little independent movie with a tiny budget. It becomes all about the work, without all the big machinery that comes with making a big movie. I spend so much time working and being away from home that I just have to follow what makes me feel alive and passionate.
When did you know you wanted to act?
I’ve always known. At the age of four, I told everyone, “I’m going to be an actress,” and they said, “You don’t know what that is.” I didn’t care. I would spend hours in front of the mirror, talking in different accents, making myself cry, endless amounts of time creating imaginary worlds and talking to imaginary people. I’m surprised my mum didn’t cart me off to a mental institution. I was an only child for the first 20 years of my life and didn’t have anyone else to play with, so that might have been a part of it.
Did you get the support you needed, even early on?
The only person who supported me was my mum. Everybody else in my extended family was, “How are you going to make a living? Nobody makes money from acting.” They just wanted to pour water on to the fire of my dreams and extinguish it before it began! My mum is so amazing. She instilled in me this belief that you can achieve anything with hard work, that I was more than capable and talented. I had all that arsenal behind me so everyone else’s comments just bounced off me and didn’t penetrate at all.
There’s all this talk now about women in film, and more diversity. Do you think we’ve moved ahead much over the years?
There have been massive changes in terms of more roles for women of colour, and more roles for women in general. They aren’t just the arm candy in the movie, and that’s really exciting. There’s still a long way to go, but I’d like to celebrate the changes that have happened, and
“I’m a very private person, more an introvert than an extrovert”
I’m really excited by the landscape that we have at the moment. So much more is possible now than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Tell us about your role in Moonlight.
I’ve been in this business 30-plus years and it’s very rare that a movie comes along that touches people’s hearts so deeply, and that they love this passionately. I think it’s because this film breaks through all the labels we attach to ourselves and to others, and gets to the heart of our humanity. It says that fundamentally, underneath all the stereotypes and judgements that we put on ourselves and others, we are all the same. We are all universally searching for love and connection.
Did you instantly resonate with your character, Paula?
I didn’t want to be Paula, because as an actor, what happens with your work is you hand it over and someone else dissects it and hands it back and sometimes you think it doesn’t even resemble what you wanted it to. The only area you have power is in your choices. I always said I wanted my choices to be representing powerful and positive images of black women. So I always drew the line at playing the crackhead. Then here comes this script, which I read, and it has me crying. So while I don’t want any more negative images of black people to be put out into the world, this is a semi-autobiographical story. I’m actually able to have the opportunity to play her with all her complexity and suffering and pain and everything that makes up a human being, so she’s not just a crack addict, and it became a challenge I wanted to take on.
You’ve had some high-profile roles. How do you handle the fame?
It’s a tough world to navigate. I’m a very private person, more an introvert than an extrovert. Being in this world can be quite wearying for me because it requires me to be constantly visible and step out of my comfort zone. But I’ve seen huge shifts and changes in my personality and my ability to navigate this life as a whole, and I’m really grateful for that.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I live on the same street as my family. My brother and sister are 20 years younger, and I love spending time with them. I love dinner parties and having my friends round. I like big groups of people. Just before I came here, Warner Brothers (the studio behind Collateral Beauty) put on a screening of it and I was able to invite all my family and friends and then we went out to dinner. That’s my idea of heaven. And I volunteer at a local shelter that gives out food to the homeless, and I work with the Anne Frank Trust. Their mission is to decrease prejudice. I feel very passionately that if you start while people are young and educate them, then they grow up with less bigotry and more acceptance and understanding of each other.
Do you love dressing up?
I’m lucky that I have a best friend, Nola Singer, who’s a stylist. She helps me with all of that and makes it fun. We choose everything together, and that’s an amazing process. I think I’d be overwhelmed if I had to do it on my own.
PHOTOGRAPHY MIKE RUIZ
STYLING KRISTINE KILTY
MAKE-UP ALEX BABSKY USING JED ROOT USING LANCOME
HAIR PETER LUX USING PHYTOUK
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT LEON FERNANDO
FASHION ASSISTANTS GARRY HOWARD AND ERICKA REICH
NAILS MO QIN