Naomie Harris: “I never saw strong, intelligent women on screen growing up”

Britain’s brightest Oscar hope, Naomie Harris, reveals how 007 nearly robbed her of her biggest movie moment yet – playing a crack addict mum

Naomie Harris is used to being in big films. She plays Eve Moneypenny in Daniel Craig-era Bond, and sea goddess Calypso in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But it is a role in writer-director Barry Jenkins’ independent film Moonlight, which she shot during a whistlestop, three-day trip to Miami squeezed between press junkets on a global promotion tour for Spectre, that is winning the 40-year-old north Londoner enormous critical acclaim.

Nominated for both a Golden Globe and Bafta, the smart money suggests a two-way battle with Viola Davis for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this weekend.

Naomie Harris as the goddess Calypso in Pirates of the Caribbean

“Hands down this was the best three days’ work I have ever done,” grins Harris. A combination of visa problems and the demands of global publicity for Spectre  almost prevented her taking the role.

“It was touch and go whether I could do the movie. But, ultimately, it ended up being great because you never get any downtime. You don’t get an opportunity to go into your head, which is dangerous as an actor. It is better that you stay free and allow yourself to deliver your performance.”

She compares the process to an athlete, trusting their training and able to be at peak performance level the moment the starter pistol sounds. “I love it. I’m asking my agent, ‘Any other three-day movies, I’m down!’.”

It was cathartic but also a traumatising experience for him to have his mother come to life on set

As a meditation on masculinity, sexuality, fate, identity, family, friendship and the difficulty of finding space to show vulnerability in a tough community, Moonlight – loosely based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney – is an extraordinary film, full of long silences, full of compassion. It is firmly rooted in its location, the housing projects of Liberty Square, Miami, telling the story of Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) through three distinct chapters in his life.

Harris plays Chiron’s mother Paula in each stage of the film, tracking the evolution of the relationship between son and a mother struggling with addiction to crack cocaine.

“We’d get the work done, quick hair and make-up change and back on to the next time frame. But I always felt I had all the time in the world to get it right,” Harris says. “There were quite a few people on set for whom it would not really have been appropriate for me to stay in character as Paula between takes. I’m basically playing [writer-director] Barry’s mother.

“It was cathartic but also a traumatising experience for him to have his mother come to life on set. He needed the respite, and another actor’s close relative was addicted, so for him it was traumatic as well. Because of that, it was really important that after we broke from filming I came out of character: ‘Hi everyone, I’m Naomie! I’m British! I couldn’t be further from Paula!’.”

It is true. The serene, softly spoken actor fighting off a winter cold in the most soulless of hotel suites could scarcely be further away from her latest alter ego. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I have no real experience of addiction whatsoever.”

Whenever you play a character, you have to fall in love with them on some level.

After trawling YouTube for candid interviews with crack addicts, Harris began to construct the character, determined, she says, to play the person not the addiction.

“I wanted to show her full humanity and her emotional complexity. I had to go on a journey to feel compassion for her. Whenever you play a character, you have to fall in love with them on some level. I needed to fall in love with Paula and I really did.

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“There are a few things I really wanted to bring out. I discovered that every single one of the female addicts I researched had been sexually abused or raped. That was a real eye opener. I realised they were using drugs as escapism. They would end up reliving the trauma of their experience over and over in their head. So, when living in your body and mind becomes a torment, it is understandable that someone would reach out to something to numb that level of pain.

“Another woman described her addiction as being like a relationship with a psychopath. How, at the start of the relationship, they make you feel like the most special person in the world, so attractive, so happy, so loved. It is not until you are deeply into the relationship that they start to reveal who they really are, the control, the manipulation, the brutality. It is the same with drugs.”

Naomie Harris as Moneypenny in Spectre

In the past Harris has studiously avoided roles that could reinforce negative stereotypes of women. It was while making Small Island, the BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s book, that Harris learned a lot about the lives of her grandparents, who came over to the UK in the Windrush era.

“I didn’t realise the levels of racism that they would have suffered,” she says. “It is such a shame they aren’t alive today because they would be so proud, given all the sacrifices they made for their children, to see how we are all doing.”

How important, then, is her stand against stereotypical roles, what are the lines in the sand, and how was she persuaded that this character and Moonlight were different?

“It is incredibly important to me because I have a wonderful, wonderful powerhouse of a mother,” she says. “I grew up around women who are strong, intelligent and capable. So there was this disconnect between my experience and what was reflected to me on screen.

naomie-harris-moonlight
Naomie Harris in Oscar favourite Moonlight

“Very early on in my career I made a decision that I wanted to portray the kind of women I grew up with. Because I just didn’t see them enough. I wanted them to be strong. I wanted them to be intelligent. I wanted them to be powerful. I wanted them to be part of driving the story forward. And I didn’t want negative portrayals of women, and that is what I feared about taking Paula on, that she would be reduced to her addiction. But when I spoke to Barry, he said, ‘look, I am basically asking you to play my mum’. I realised he was emotionally invested in ensuring there would never be any clichés. He wanted to tell his story, and that involves his mother, who was a crack addict.

So what can he do? He can’t write her out of the story. He just has to tell it in the best way he possibly can.

“Barry talks about how it is healing for people to see themselves reflected on screen. And if you ignore swathes of society, it is very damaging to them because they can feel like they don’t exist. That is the same with addicts. My decision to not portray them wasn’t that I didn’t want to play a crack addict, it was that I didn’t want to play a one-dimensional version of a crack addict.”

Moonlight is out now in cinemas