From the Bond 'woman' to African icon
She's transformed the role of Miss Moneypenny, but Naomie Harris tells Julia Llewellyn she was terrifyed of playing Winnie Mandela. She talks about meeting the formidable lady, a buffet at the Obamas and how she wasn't always so beautiful
Naomie Harris was in Turkey filming the last James Bond film, Skyfall, when the call came asking her to prepare for a completely different role.
"They said the Mandela movie's been green lit, you're going to be Winnie and we start filming two days after you finish Bond," she recalls. "I said ... " Harris's voice squeaks in shock ... "Really?"
The surprise was the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in which Harris co-stars alongside Idris Elba, was actually going into production. It had been 16 years in development, with various directors and actors attached at different points.
"When I came on board they were thinking of Denzel Washington for Nelson Mandela," says Harris, drinking hot water in a London hotel suite, the morning before Mandela's death was announced. "When they asked: 'Would you like to play Winnie?' I said: 'Great', because, firstly, I thought: 'I'm never going to hear from these guys.' And secondly, I just thought Winnie was Nelson's wife. I had no idea," -- Harris stresses these words -- "how controversial she is."
Controversial is an understatement. Now 77, Winnie Mandela is simultaneously an adored icon and a loathed figurehead, an initially apolitical innocent who became a defiant demagogue, crying for bloody revenge.
"While I was filming Bond I had to do all my Mandela research and I was terrified," says Harris. "I thought: 'What? This woman is like seven different women in one.' Everyone had such different ideas about who Winnie was. One biography painted her as a demon, another as a saint and I thought how can you create a cohesive character from all that?"
But then Elba arranged for Harris to meet Winnie. "It was nerve-racking. She's a formidable woman, so it was scary to sit down with her. But she was completely different to what I imagined her to be. She loves gardening and has found peace."
Harris expected to be given a "laundry list" of suggestions. "I would if someone was playing me. But Winnie was really cool. I said 'How do you want to be seen?' and she said: 'I trust you. Come up with the character as you see fit.'"
Their meeting -- combined with Harris's determination not to be hagiographical -- is remarkable. Harris's performance allows us to see how years of intimidation made an optimistic young woman into a furious leader.
"She's so hugely complex, this mixture of tremendous warmth and compassion as well as anger and rage," says Harris. "She's a warrior as well as a nurturer." Filming in South Africa, says Harris, was "really intense. There wasn't a place I could draw on from myself, I just had to imagine the sense of injustice I would have felt if I'd lived during apartheid. Not being able to have the same education as my contemporaries, not being able to sit in the same place on a bus. I'm a person who's all about justice and I felt the rage building up".
The work paid off: Winnie was delighted with the performance. "She made a speech at the South African premiere [the film has been South Africa's greatest ever box office hit] and was hugely complimentary, which was a relief because if Winnie didn't like something, she's not the sort to be polite. In person, she told me she was moved to tears, that it all felt too real and she wouldn't be watching it again."
Since then, Harris, 37, who made her name with roles in Pirates of the Caribbean films and 28 Days Later, has been consumed with promoting the film and attending a private screening at the White House. "Michelle and Barack are so down to earth. You expect them to be great but you don't expect them to be so personable. At the buffet, Obama came up to me and said: 'You need to eat more, come on, fill up your plate.'"
Dazzling in miniskirt and vertiginous heels, displaying her endless legs to full advantage, Harris would appear to be at ease in any surroundings. But she was, she insists, a socially awkward young woman. "I didn't look like this when I was younger," she hoots. "I wore glasses, hand-me-downs and was very shy. Most actors are -- we're hiding behind a character and finding a cathartic release from that."
She grew up in north London, where she still lives. Her Jamaican-born mother is a screenwriter turned therapist, her Trinidadian father left before she was born. She attended stage school and always wanted to act, but first studied social and political sciences at Cambridge. As a kid from a comprehensive school, she's said she felt out of place. "Mum never wanted me to go to Cambridge. I always put incredible pressure on myself in terms of achieving, so she wanted me to go somewhere less work-oriented, where I'd have more fun. But I said: 'I want the pressure.'" She laughs. "In hindsight, my mum was right. But going to Cambridge is one of the things I'm most proud of. In this industry, it's difficult to be taken seriously as a woman and that really helps."
A lack of decent women's roles have had far more bearing on her career choices than any racism, which she claims never to have experienced.
"Obviously there are roles that [as a black woman] I just haven't been put up for, like in Downton Abbey, but really the film industry's progress in terms of race has been extraordinary."
Harris has been a pioneer in changing women's roles, not least in transforming the traditional simpering Bond girl into a gun-toting "Bond woman", as she insists she's called. In 2014, shooting begins on the franchise's 24th film, where she'll play a 21st-Century Miss Moneypenny. "I don't know anything about the script, which is great, because I can't reveal anything."
Harris never discusses her personal life, but she's laying foundations for a more settled existence. "Recently, I rented a little cottage in Hertfordshire for six months; I could have stayed there for the rest of my life. My brother and sister are much younger than me, so I grew up an only child and I'm happy in my own company. But in the end, I came back to London. I was worried I'd end up as the crazy woman down the lane." The neighbours would whisper, I say: "She used to be a Bond girl." Harris guffaws. "'And now she's got cats.' That'd make it even worse! So I've decided when I go back, it'll be with a family." Judging by Harris's gently determined aura, I suspect this may happen sooner rather than later.
Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is now showing