Thursday 19 October 2017

"You're a Bond girl, woman! How could you be a minger?"

Naomie Harris talks to Stephen Milton about portraying the formidable former Mrs Mandela, and accepting herself in the iconic role of Moneypenny

Naomie Harris pictured with Idris Elba:
Naomie Harris pictured with Idris Elba: "While no single film can replicate a person’s life, I am very proud to be part of our tribute to this extraordinary man."
Close: Naomie Harris and Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Naomie Harris

Stephen Milto

Naomie Harris grew up fearing apartheid from a distance. Aged ten, four years before Nelson Mandela's release from prison, her mother explained the racist regime in South Africa. The truth horrified the young black girl from North London.

"I grew up in Finsbury Park, which is such a mixed area. I didn't even know I was part of an ethnic minority," she tells Day & Night.

"But I remember my mum saying to me, 'This is the situation in a country not too far away from here', and I just found it absolutely terrifying.

"She would say, 'Don't buy those oranges or don't bank with that particular bank because they support apartheid'.

"I often thought, 'Wow, if it happened there, could it really happen here?' It was a horrible, frightening thought. It really scared me.

"However, it also encouraged me to learn about Nelson Mandela, whom I knew little about at the time. And ultimately, it gave me the opportunity to discover that he is a man who inspires us all."

Mandela passed away December on 5, 2013. I interview Harris the day before, for the long-mooted biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. She plays Winnie to Idris Elba's Madiba.

Even 24 hours prior, there's an over- whelming awe combined with a poignancy in her voice when the Skyfall star speaks about him. Asked if she got the chance to meet the former South African President, her response quietly trembles.

"No, he was too ill, no. Neither did Idris. And he didn't see the film either, just some clips that he really enjoyed. It would have been wonderful for Nelson to see it in its entirety."

Days after his death, and too saddened to speak with the press again, she releases a touching, regal statement.

"Long before we made this movie, I was inspired, as so many have been, by the leadership, grace and compassion of Nelson Mandela.

"While no single film can replicate a person's life, I am very proud to be part of our tribute to this extraordinary man. His accomplishments and approach to peace are lessons that will live on for generations."

Had Nelson met Naomie in person, I believe he would have been enchanted.

The athletic poise and refined intelligence, the structured beauty; it's easy to understand why Justin Chadwick -- who previously directed her in education drama, The First Grader -- called on Harris once again to portray Nelson's second wife, the redoubtable Winnie Madikizela Mandela opposite a career-defining performance from Elba.

The Wire icon has already secured a Best Actor Golden Globe nomination for a staggering, ultimately showier role.

But the actress, who helped revitalise the staid Bond franchise with her incarnation of Moneypenny in Skyfall, is equally astounding as Winnie, portraying her transition from idealistic social worker and mother of his daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, to ruthless activist and political warrior, the antithesis of Nelson's peaceful ideals.

The 37-year-old was granted three meetings with the divisive character, who emerged as a leading opponent of the white minority rule government during the latter years of her husband's imprisonment and whose hard-line endorsement of 'necklacing' -- burning people alive using tyres and petrol -- fettered to convictions of kidnapping and fraud for the militant cause.

Understandably, Harris approached their first encounter with much trepidation.

"Of course I was scared. I knew she would be formidable," she says.

"There's this split opinion where some see her as Mother Africa, while others say she's a fraudster. So I really didn't know.

"I see a very warm, very open woman who was a warrior, who led a movement and ultimately, I found her incredibly articulate and intelligent."

Fortunately the admiration was mutual and Naomie was granted carte blanche for her performance. "I expected this long laundry list of ideas but instead she just said, 'Be free and do your research. You decide'."

Recreating the scenes of racial brutality during an 81-day shooting round the townships of Soweto and Johannesburg proved an upsetting experience for the actress.

"Putting yourself into the shoes of a black person living under the apartheid regime and not being allowed to get a proper education, not being allowed to travel, or get a bus without sitting in the third-class section.

"Just that sense of rage and frustration, to live with that on a daily basis; I found it very overwhelming."

It's little wonder the former child actress, who appeared in cult TV series, Runaway Bay and The Tomorrow People, is itching for a return to the hyper-fantastical world of 007 in Bond 24.

Craig's back; Sam Mendes has thankfully signed on after initially voicing his desire to exit the franchise and Ralph Fiennes takes over the reins from our dearly departed Judi Dench.

And mere weeks ago, Harris was given the official green light to return as Eve Moneypenny.

At present, these are the few classified details we're privy to. Surely some light can be shed on further developments?

"Happily, I don't know anything at all, which is good because I'm terrible at keeping secrets.

"It was awful that I had to hide the fact that I was Moneypenny for so long with Skyfall. But for the new film, I haven't seen a script, haven't heard anything about a plot. All I know is we shoot next year." That, and the fact she's hankering for a crack as the Bond villain.

"Naturally I'd be well up for that," she says, clasping her hands together in glee. "I mean, that is the ultimate twist, isn't it?"

In a culture of absolute solemnity within the film industry, Harris -- who got her break in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and tautly balanced Hollywood blockbustery, Pirates of the Caribbean and Miami Vice, with low-budget fare like Zadie Smith's TV adaptation of White Teeth -- has a periodic, refreshing case of foot in mouth.

She accidentally let slip her Skyfall casting while conducting a press interview for The First Grader and during promo for Bond last year cited Mandela co-star Elba as her ideal 007.

"That comment got me into a lot of trouble," she grins. "Let me just state, Daniel Craig is our Bond, he's an amazing Bond and he'll be there for another three Bonds, I believe. What I was saying, if there was to be another Bond, Idris would be an amazing choice."

I wonder has the Cambridge-educated tee-totaller, loved up with a long-term boyfriend called Peter (his surname is top secret), felt the tag of Moneypenny overshadow her career?

"It's funny you ask that because up until recently, I never realised that association had such a big impact.

"But then I did another interview for Mandela a little while ago and the title was 'Something, something, look how you've changed Miss Moneypenny'.

"And that's when it hit me. That's a tag that people will associate me with from now on.

"But it doesn't seem like a bad thing, I'm proud of it. I'm proud of Skyfall."

Enjoying relative anonymity, despite starry roles in Pirates of the Caribbean as sea witch Tia Dalma, and the ridiculously flawed Miami Vice, Skyfall must surely have thrust her into the spotlight?

"There's actually been zero difference," she says. "It's so funny, after I did Pirates, I had people saying to me, 'your life is going to change now, you'll never be able to walk down the street.' And then... nothing.

"And after Skyfall, it was the same thing. I was hearing, 'this time, it's really going to change, you're going to be mobbed everywhere you go'.

"And again... nothing. I think it was the short wig with Skyfall that gave me a veil of disguise. But hey, I'm not complaining."

Maybe she poses an intimidating figure for Joe Public? Certainly meeting Harris for the second time, she really is a stunning human being, especially today in a black v-neck sweater and asymmetric mini. The legs go for days, the smile is blinding and mesmerising.

For some inexplicable reason, however, she was recently quoted describing herself as a "minger".

Possibly the stupidest remark I've read in a long time, but one is entitled to their opinion, I guess...

"Hey, look, we all see ourselves differently and yeah, I've always felt like a 'minger'. I was never the most popular with guys when I was growing up," she adds.

"Mum would say it was because they were intimidated by me, which is such a mum thing to say.

"But Skyfall has definitely helped with my confidence.

"Some days, yeah, I think 'I'm unattractive today', and then others, I think, 'You're a Bond woman, how can you be a minger?'"

  • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is in cinemas now.

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