Saturday 26 May 2018

A touch of class... Naomie Harris on Bond, working with The Rock, and avoiding racial stereotypes

Oscar-nominated actress Naomie Harris talks to our film critic

Blockbuster: Naomie Harris plays a genetic scientist in Rampage
Blockbuster: Naomie Harris plays a genetic scientist in Rampage

Paul Whitington

'Well you won't get anything negative from me," Naomie Harris says with a laugh. We are discussing Dwayne Johnson, action hero, former WWF wrestler, and Naomie's co-star in her latest film, Rampage, a witty monster movie about giant genetically-modified animals that run amok. I've mentioned that Johnson, also known as his wrestling moniker The Rock, is a hard man not to like, and she heartily concurs.

"He was a huge help to me at the start of this shoot," she says, "because I'd never done anything quite like this before and he showed me the ropes. One of the main reasons why I wanted to get involved in Rampage was that although it's this big blockbuster movie, it also has heart, soul and a lot of humour, and a lot of that comes from Dwayne."

In Brad Peyton's film, Harris plays Kate Caldwell, a genetic scientist whose work has the unintended consequence of infecting a silverback gorilla, a wolf and a crocodile with a virus that transforms them into giant, furious beasts.

Working on a big-budget blockbuster was "great fun", she tells me, but well outside her comfort zone.

"I kind of thought I'd be okay with it because, you know, I'd done Bond and I'd also done Pirates, so I thought yeah I'm used to this. But it's nothing like any of that, it's on a completely different scale, and so I was really out of my depth and I'm so grateful that Dwayne was there.

"I mean this is what he does every day, so he was able to offer me guidance, and then also Brad was very kind to us: because he knew that acting with a tennis ball or a green screen wasn't going to give us much, so he got actors to play the roles, which was an enormous help.

"But there were still those moments where we'd have to be in a helicopter, flying, and Brad would be shouting 'look to your left!', 'look scared!', 'look to your right - there's a building falling down!' And at those moments you just have to realise, well, okay, acting is like being a big kid, so you try to relax, and play."

Rampage must have come as a welcome relief for Naomie after a run of heavyweight dramatic roles in films like Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, Southpaw, Our Kind of Traitor and most recently Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning coming-of-age drama set in a tough Florida project. In it, she played Paula, the protagonist's heroin-addicted mother, whose oscillation between fierce loving and cruel indifference has a disastrous effect on her growing son.

Harris's harrowing performance won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, but she admits she thought twice before taking it on.

"I had real reservations about it," she explains. "When I started my career, I always said I wouldn't portray black stereotypes, in fact I set out to play the complete opposite to those, and with Moonlight I initially felt I might be slipping backwards into portraying precisely what I'd set out to avoid.

"But when I spoke to Barry and he explained how this was based on his life, and how he was basically asking me to play his mother, I thought if anybody is going to see that this character is portrayed with the depth and humanity and complexity she deserves, it's Barry. So if I'm gonna do it, I'd rather it be with him than anyone else.

"And it really was the right decision," she says. "I absolutely loved playing that person, well maybe loved is the wrong word, but you know as a performer you just want to be stretched in different ways, and I really didn't realise that Paula was in me. Finding her was a challenge, but then I just felt a huge sense of accomplishment once I'd done it."

But for Harris, Paula isn't the most demanding role she's ever tackled: she says that playing Winnie Mandela, who died last week, in Justin Chadwick's 2013 film Mandela: The Long Road to Freedom was even harder.

"It was the most demanding because there was so much pressure - she was a real person, a living legend for many, and so to live up to their expectations was tough. But also, I felt like the main motivation for Winnie at that time in her life was rage, that's what was really fuelling her actions. And that's one thing I personally find difficult - I don't like anger and I don't like rage so I try and disassociate from that, and that role really forced me to connect with that side of myself.

"We're all a rainbow of emotions, you know, and it's all within you, but I had to explore a part of myself which I'd kind of abandoned, so it was really not a fun journey. I found it very difficult after I stopped playing Winnie to let that part of me go."

There's a quiet, collected elegance to Naomie Harris that's in stark contrast to most celebrities. She shuns the limelight when she's not working, enjoys retreating to the countryside, and keeps her private life resolutely private.

She was a child actress, and trained for the stage at the Bristol Old Vic. It was Danny Boyle who gave Naomie her big-screen break when he cast her opposite Cillian Murphy in his zombie thriller 28 Days Later. She caught the eye, and by the mid-2000s was popping up in everything from the Pirates of the Caribbean films to Hollywood cop thrillers like Street Kings. When possible, she seems to have chosen parts in which her race is incidental. Was that deliberate?

"That's what I always set out to do," she says. "I'm very determined to play human beings, and the colour of your skin has nothing to do with that. I want to play people in all their forms and complexities, I don't want to be limited or shunted into playing any form of stereotype.

"So from the very start I was determined about that, it was my guiding principle really, and I remember my mother very wisely said to me, well if that's what you want to do, make sure you have lots of savings and that you always live within your means."

Born in 1976, Naomie was raised by her single mother, Lisselle, in Finsbury Park, north London, which at the time was a tough enough neighbourhood.

"It's very different now," she says, "all chi-chi, very expensive is Finsbury Park now. It's got this lovely theatre, it's a really nice area, it's not like when I was growing up at all."

She was, she says, a shy child, but loved make-believe.

"I would spend hours in front of the mirror, pretending to be someone else, making myself cry, trying out accents - I just loved it, and would literally spend the whole day doing that. I was really lucky, because some mothers would have thought 'oh my God my child is just crazy', but my mum actually said 'ah, she has a talent, she has an interest'. She enrolled me at the Anna Scher Theatre School, and everything started from there, because they had an agency attached to the school and I started auditioning and got jobs."

It was, she says, "such a weird profession for me to have chosen because I was such a shy child, very introverted, didn't like being watched, but what I really enjoyed was losing myself in character, finding out what it was like to be someone else, and getting inside that and disappearing, that's what I really loved as a child.

"I'm not shy anymore, but I'm not comfortable being in the spotlight, I'm not someone that enjoys being observed, I'm more of an observer, but I do still love that thing of where you find a character to such an extent that you actually feel like someone else, there's a freedom in that which I really enjoy."

She's had success on stage, most memorably in Danny Boyle's West End adaptation of Frankenstein, but doesn't like theatre one bit.

"I hate it. I have debilitating stage fright, so I really don't enjoy it all. I love the fact that in film you can mess up and just 'oh I messed up, so sorry, can we go again?' Whereas in theatre you can't really say 'hi guys, don't really think that was going so well - can we start again?' Being in front of the camera is definitely where I'm comfortable."

Finally, I ask her about her most famous role: Eve Moneypenny opposite Daniel Craig's 007. Will she do another Bond? "He is," she says, "so hopefully!"

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