Monday 23 October 2017

How 'Bond' girl moved Winnie to tears with warts-and-all role

'She's so hugely complex -- this mixture of warmth, anger and rage'

‘Mandela’ star Naomie Harris as Winnie with co-star Idris Elba as Nelson. Photo: Keith Bernstein
‘Mandela’ star Naomie Harris as Winnie with co-star Idris Elba as Nelson. Photo: Keith Bernstein

Julia Llewellyn Smith

Naomie Harris was in Turkey filming the last James Bond film 'Skyfall' when the call came asking 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.

"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 understand how years of intimidation made Winnie mutate from 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 pronounced herself delighted with the performance. "She made a speech at the South African premiere (the film has been South Africa's biggest 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 the '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. 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 mother is a screenwriter turned therapist, her father left before she was born. She attended stage school at weekends and always wanted to act, but first studied social and political sciences at Cambridge. She 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 has had far more bearing on her career choices than any racism, which she claims never to have experienced.

In 2014, shooting begins on the 24th 'Bond' 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," she grins.

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 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 'she used to be a Bond girl and now she's got cats'. 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. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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