‘I hope you’re not a lesbian.’ With these words Ian Fleming introduced himself to his future girlfriend, Blanche Blackwell, in 1956. He then kissed her passionately before she had a chance to reply. I’d have liked to see him try this approach on Naomie Harris.
The latest Bond girl certainly has the beauty, glamour and hint of danger that Fleming so loved in a woman. But she has something else, too: an iron will. Reclining on a cream sofa in a suite in Claridge’s, a silver tea tray on the table before her, she’s recounting her negotiations with Michael Mann (the director of Heat and Public Enemies) after he cast her in Miami Vice six years ago. The script called for a sex scene, which he’d got word Harris objected to.
‘He called me for a meeting in his office and he was sort of embarrassed. He just said, “So how do you feel about this nudity thing?” And I said…’ she drops her voice to a low, menacing tone, ‘“Well, I don’t really want to do it, Michael.”’ She sounds terrifying. ‘And he went, “Yeah. OK.”’ I bet he did.
‘We wanted someone who could really match up to Bond – and she’s got it,’ Barbara Broccoli, the long-time producer of the Bond films, tells me. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film franchise and, to quote Harris’s character, Eve, it’s a case of ‘old dog, new tricks’. Skyfall’s publicity materials, for the first time in Bond history, talk not of the film’s ‘Bond girls’ but of ‘Bond women’. Guess whose idea that was?
When Harris presented an award at this year’s Baftas she was given a few words to say that contained a reference to herself as a ‘Bond girl’. ‘I just said, “Well, I’m going to change that to Bond woman.”
Broccoli agreed with her. ‘It’s outdated,’ she says. It’s been a long time since Bond girls wiggled around in barely there outfits sighing, ‘Oh, James!’ every five minutes. And Eve is another significant evolution away from that. She’s a field agent taking the same risks and making the same sacrifices as 007.
‘I think the women in the film have evolved like women have evolved in society – and about time, too,’ says Broccoli. Given that 40 per cent of senior leadership positions in the CIA are currently held by women, she’s not being fanciful.
I should add that there is a second, almost comically sexy female character, played by the actress Bérénice Marlohe, who goes around making breathy statements about fear in a French accent and plunging neckline. And then there is Javier Bardem sporting a peroxide-blond bouffant as the baddie, Raoul Silva. It is still Bond, after all.
Harris, 36, has performed in so many accents – as a gypsy queen in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and the Jamaican immigrant, Hortense, in the BBC adaptation of Small Island – that I’m not sure what to expect on meeting her. It turns out she has an exceedingly smart voice, a little gravelly on account of a sore throat, and the kind of elaborate good manners that could put you on edge if she weren’t so straight-talking.
‘I have to say that I much prefer regular acting to all this action stuff,’ she says, tugging primly at the hem of her white broderie anglaise dress. ‘Normally, I’d do a scene in a room talking – rather than this, which is me smashing through a window, firing a shot, the scenery collapsing. And if a piece of scenery falls on your head you can’t be like, “Ouch!” Because if you mess up they have to start all over again.’
Harris has been acting for 25 years. She first appeared on television when she was nine years old, but it was taking the lead role in Channel 4’s White Teeth in 2002 that really got her noticed.
She and Zadie Smith, on whose novel the series was based, were in the same year at Cambridge University. ‘She was cool. I was nerdy,’ Harris has said in the past. ‘She was beautiful and clever and knew everyone. I’d have my head down and go home to my mum every weekend.’
Cambridge was not a happy time for Harris. ‘I thought I’d be talking about my subjects until three o’clock in the morning, having these passionate debates,’ she says, stirring her tea and laughing gently. Instead, she met lots of binge-drinking Old Etonians who ‘threw up all over the college grounds and went skiing in the holidays. It was a real culture shock.’
Contrary to appearances, Harris is not the product of an expensive education. Her Jamaican mother, Carmen, was just 18 when she became pregnant. Her Trinidadian father left before Harris was born. But Carmen had ambition. She took a degree in sociology and became a successful screenwriter, working on EastEnders for 13 years.
‘I grew up with EastEnders just constantly on,’ says Harris, whose mother told her, ‘You can achieve anything you want.’ But when Harris won a place at Cambridge, Carmen responded with anxiety. ‘She said, “You won’t fit in. It’s not the kind of background that you’re from.” She was right. But I’m so grateful I went.’
Looking back, Harris says, ‘I was too much of an innocent when I went to university.’ She had been ‘obsessed with the Bible’ as a child – something that inadvertently led to her becoming an actress.
The young Harris would insist on acting out the creation story when her mother’s friends came round. So Carmen enrolled her in theatre classes. She was so good she ended up spending all her school holidays filming episodes of ITV’s Runaway Bay and Simon and the Witch for the BBC, ‘while my friends were sneaking out to meet boys’.
She says she was ‘very religious from the age of about eight to 15’. Are her mother and stepfather religious (Carmen remarried when Naomie was 11)? ‘Not at all. But they sent me to a Church of England school and there was a service once a week, and I loved it. I still pray a lot. I still believe in God. I just don’t believe in any set religion. I like to believe that we all pray to the same god.’
Was religion the reason she objected to sex before marriage when she was a teenager? She laughs. ‘That was more to do with reading too many Jane Austen novels and being really naive. I don’t feel that way anymore.’
She won’t tell me if she’s in a relationship – ‘I never say’ – but she does say that her father’s absence has ‘almost certainly’ affected her attitude towards men. ‘I do think it’s made me wary of commitment.’
Her father lived near her family home in north London but she only saw him once, by chance, when, aged seven, she was walking home from school. She recognised him immediately from old photographs she’d seen, ‘and also he looks very much like me’.
Did he speak to her? ‘He just said, “I’m your father.” And I remember I had a little artwork that I’d made, which I was carrying home, and he wanted to give me his number but he didn’t have any paper – so he ripped off a corner of my artwork and wrote his number on that!’ She laughs, still a little dismayed.
She saw him again recently at a friend’s insistence. But, she says, ‘If you’ve never had a relationship, can you really manufacture it at 35? I’m not sure that you can.’
Harris is very close to her mother, who is now a reiki healer. ‘She does a lot of EFT – emotional freedom technique – as well. It was developed to cure people of phobias. You tap on your meridian points as you relive your fears and it kind of cleanses you of the experience. For me, it’s been incredible. Now I’m much calmer going in to auditions.’ If she weren’t an actress, Harris would like to be a healer herself. ‘I think there’s nothing more amazing than helping people every day.’
She recently bought a home on the same street as her mother, stepfather and two teenage step-siblings in Finsbury Park, where she grew up. ‘I loved it there. It was so multicultural, so I never had any sense of not belonging.’
Appearing in Small Island was an eye-opener, though. The story centres on Gilbert Joseph, one of the many thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who fought for Britain during the Second World War. Arriving in England to help with the postwar rebuilding effort, he doesn’t get quite the hero’s welcome he has envisaged.
‘It really made me think about my grandparents’ experience,’ says Harris. ‘They both died when I was quite young, so I never spoke to them about coming to England. I felt like I was retracing their footsteps, learning about what it must have been like for them. I had no idea about the level of racism people suffered when they came over to this country.’
Last year she appeared on stage opposite Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s rapturously received Frankenstein. She’d worked with Boyle before, in 28 Days Later, which was a huge hit in America and ‘transformed’ her career. Boyle said of her at the time, ‘She is phenomenally talented. She should be a star. She can bring anything you want to the table.’
That versatility will come in handy in her next project, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in which she plays Winnie Mandela from the age of 19 through to her seventies (Idris Elba plays the man himself). For now, though, it’s all about Skyfall – a film its director, Sam Mendes, is describing as ‘Bond with a capital B’.
The finished film is being jealously guarded but the footage released to the press reveals some classic Bond moments: 007 straightening his cuffs after leaping on to the back of a truck; Bond sending fruit stalls flying in a high-speed car chase through an Istanbul market. Not to mention some clever surprises: Q returns to the franchise as a fresh-out-of-college technological wunderkind (played by Ben Whishaw). And Eve is seen attempting to assassinate Bond – on M’s orders. ‘Yes!’ exclaims Harris before adding enigmatically: ‘M’s past comes back to haunt her in this film.’
Not so long ago, being a Bond girl was seen as the fastest way to end an actress’s film career. Eva Green (who starred in Casino Royale) and Gemma Arterton (in Quantum of Solace) have shown that the curse can be resisted. But I doubt Naomie Harris will even be giving it a thought. She is, after 50 years, the first Bond woman.