Naomie Harris is no stranger to playing tough women. But none have been as strong as her latest part as political leader Winnie Mandela.
The London-born actress made a splash battling zombies in “28 Days Later.” Last year, she was 007’s Miss Moneypenny — reimagined as a sexy secret agent in her own right — opposite Daniel Craig in the James Bond blockbuster “Skyfall.”
Now, in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” opening Friday, Harris portrays Winnie, wife of South African leader Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba), who comes into her own as an anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African National Congress Women’s League during the 27 years of his imprisonment.
“I discovered that Winnie is probably the feistiest character I’ve ever played,” says Harris, who had to prepare for a role that required her to be a wife, mother, revolutionary and victim of government-sanctioned torture. “I thought she was just the woman who stood by Nelson’s side. I didn’t know about her huge contribution in her own right, and the fact that he might not have become [who he was] without her.
“So when I read the script, it was a massive shock and I realized that I had inadvertently said yes to this role that was the most challenging role of my life so far. Nearly killed me!”
The 37-year-old actress initially signed on at the request of director Justin Chadwick, who previously directed her in 2010’s Kenyan-set drama “The First Grader.”
Harris became, she says, “a researcher,” learning about South Africa in the apartheid era and the life — and reputation — of the woman she was to play.
“My job, I felt, was not to justify her actions, or make her less controversial or whitewash history, but just to find true understanding and find the emotional truth,” says Harris.
“Why was she motivated to behave in the way she behaved? What preceded those events? [I wanted to] dissect all of that, and understand her and really connect with her.”
Her research for the film, based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, included meeting Winnie Mandela herself.
“I said to her, ‘How do you want to be portrayed?’ And she said, ‘You’ve done your research. You’re the right person for this role, and I trust you to play me as you see fit,’ ” says Harris.
“She gave me ownership of the role, and then that empowered me. Because when you research Winnie, you find all these completely different ideas about who she is.”
Though Harris had been working onscreen and on stage since she was a child in England, it was her role as Selena in 2002’s “28 Days Later” that set her on her own path.
The postapocalyptic action-drama “set a tone for the fact that I was allowed to play a strong, intelligent woman, the kind of woman that I respect,” says Harris. “And after having played a role like that, I never wanted to play merely an insipid character who was just an adjunct of the story.”
She hasn’t had to worry. Harris made a memorable witch in the second and third “Pirates of the Caribbean” flicks, and toughed it out with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in “Miami Vice.” She has signed on for the next Bond film, and savors her groundbreaking casting in the 007 movies — which included giving Moneypenny a first name: Eve.
“The producers came to me and said, ‘Look, what we’re trying to do is to create a Moneypenny that represents the modern woman. We’re trying to reinvent and revamp this character,’ ” says Harris. “That was really exciting, because I wanted to make women think to themselves, ‘I can be like that.’”
Of course, being “like that” during filming was a bit tricky.
“I was nervous about all the stunts!” Harris admits. “I always think, ‘Oh, no,’ because I am the clumsiest person ever. So I always end up getting bruised, falling down, bashing my head.”