There is a scene in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom in which Winnie Mandela emerges from the courtroom where her husband Nelson has just been sentenced to life imprisonment. With a look of furious determination, she thrusts her fist in the air and leads the waiting crowd in a chant of his name.
This image is at the front of my mind when I go to meet Naomie Harris on an autumn afternoon in London, several weeks before Mandela’s death coincided with the film’s London premiere.
Harris is best known as fearsome sea goddess Tia Dalma in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, and the field agent who almost kills Bond in Skyfall. So, after seeing her as Winnie, I fully expect a woman who takes no prisoners.
And the London-born actress initially looks imposing, sitting up poker-straight on a sofa in The Soho Hotel, with that incredible body wrapped in a black Margiela top, J Brand jeans and spiky Louis Vuitton ankle boots. But, while she is certainly striking and eloquent, Harris is also giggly, her speech bubbling with exclamations and laughter. She seems younger than 37, telling me with a grin that she and Idris Elba, who plays Nelson Mandela, bonded because they are “both Virgos”.
It’s hard to reconcile this beautiful, breathless whirlwind with the often intense characters she plays. In the past 12 months, Harris has gone from being on the periphery of fame to worldwide recognition. The reason for that is Skyfall, which is not only the highest-grossing Bond film, but the highest-grossing film in the UK, ever. Harris plays Moneypenny, and reinvents the role from pencil-skirted receptionist to kick-ass agent, even insisting that the press materials for the film change the wording from ‘Bond girl’ to ‘Bond woman’. “Bérénice Marlohe, who played Severine, and I are both in our thirties,” she says. “We’re women. So I was like, come on guys! I just thought it was more appropriate.”
Now she has taken on one of the most controversial women in recent history. Winnie was a driving force behind the fall of apartheid in South Africa but, while her husband was in prison, she endured police brutality, including sexual abuse, being separated from her children and one horrific 18-month stretch in solitary confinement. In the end, she became more radicalised than her husband and, while Nelson Mandela advocated forgiveness, she chose revenge.
“It was only when I did my research that I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what the hell have I signed up to?'” admits Harris. “She is the most complex woman I have ever played. To many, she is a saint, she’s Mother Africa, you know? To others, she is completely vilified. The pressure of all those expectations, especially filming in South Africa, was a lot. I definitely understand why she became the woman she did. In the same situation, I don’t know how I would react.”
Harris gives an astonishing performance, reverberating with passion and anger. It was, she says, her most emotionally exhausting role yet. “It meant inhabiting places I try never to go, like revenge, hatred and rage,” she says. “I don’t hate anyone, and I’m really not a vengeful person, but I found it really difficult to switch off. Even after I stopped filming, it took me a while to shake her.”
Making the film had a profound effect on Harris. “I am deeply saddened by the loss of one of the greatest inspirational leaders of our time,” she told CNN as Red was going to press. “Too often violence and oppression lead to further violence and retribution. Mandela taught us to fight back with peace. I am very proud to be part of our tribute to this extraordinary man.”
Director Justin Chadwick confirms the intensity of what the actress went through for the role. “Naomie had to walk into real environments and speak from the heart in front of huge crowds,” he tells me over email. “These weren’t extras, but real people from Soweto and Kliptown who continue to live through the struggle. Those reactions from the crowds are real. It takes courage to do that. Although Naomie is gentle and has great subtlety to her performance, she also has huge determination and toughness. And I knew there would be a raw intensity and chemistry with Idris. Those two are electric. You dream of catching that as a director.”
Harris loved working with Elba, who she describes as “just too gorgeous”. I tell her I came to the film with no preconceptions, as one of what must be about three people in the world who has never seen The Wire or Luther. She gives a delighted laugh: “Okay, I’m the other person! I don’’t know if there’s another person who exists in the world who hasn’’t seen either of them!” Despite this, their chemistry is indeed palpable. “The first thing Idris said to me was, ‘Woah, what have we done? This is terrifying, isn’t it?’ It really put me at ease,” she says, with an audible sigh of relief. “We held each other’s hands through the whole process.”
With awards season imminent, both Harris and Elba are the subject of buzz, and the film received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival in September. “It was so overwhelming that I was embarrassed,” she laughs nervously. “I sat down, but Harvey Weinstein was in the seat behind me and he was like (in booming Weinstein voice), ‘Stand up, Naomie!’ And no one says no to Weinstein. But she shrugs off speculation that she could soon have an Oscar or BAFTA on her mantelpiece and says she’s ‘trying not to get excited’. Indeed, it is a strong year, with extraordinary films in contention -– including several that, like Mandela, are based on true stories and deal with themes of race, oppression and resilience, like The Butler with Oprah Winfrey, and Steve McQueen’s devastating 12 Years A Slave. But, while the events in McQueen’s film took place over 150 years ago, Mandela’’s story is horribly recent. “That’s what was so extraordinary for me,” nods Harris, “because I remember my mum telling me about apartheid when I was a child and thinking it was incredible that this was happening in my lifetime, with all the freedoms that I was able to enjoy. It’s still mind-blowing that that was allowed to happen. Eventually there were sanctions, but big British companies were still doing business with South Africa during apartheid. It was disgraceful, actually.”
With her Caribbean heritage, Harris is all too aware of the racism that was rife in the UK as recently as the post-war years when her grandparents arrived from Jamaica. In 2009, she starred in the BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and explains that her grandparents were the reason she wanted to play that part “because it was their story”– and learning about it helped her feel closer to them. “My grandad was very private so we didn’t talk about things like that,”’ she says. “My research of that period helped me understand him. And, rather than being sad, I find it exciting that there has been so much progress since then. If my grandparents were alive, they’d be proud to see how far we’ve come.”
Harris’ strong social conscience informs almost every role she takes, and was the reason she studied social and political sciences at Cambridge University. While there, she toyed with the idea of going into politics but now laughingly admits it would have been “too political”. “I would find it frustrating,” she smiles, before adding tactfully, “I have watched debates in the House of Commons and it’s, er,… quite a performance.”
She says that she struggled to fit in with her predominantly white and well-off peers at Cambridge, but now feels that this sense of difference has made her more confident in her choices, because she doesn’t feel the need to conform. “I’ve always been an outsider and always been different, so I don’t feel like I have to toe the line and be like everybody else,”’ she nods. “‘I can’t be that anyway, I wasn’t born that way. Of course I’ve struggled with it at times but, as you get older, you learn to embrace those differences.”
Her days of being an outsider are well and truly over, but with the Bond juggernaut and awards chatter comes the inevitable spotlight on her personal life. If the scrutiny from nosy journalists is unwelcome, it’s not her style to show it. She politely but firmly declines to talk about romantic relationships. “When it’s going good you really want to talk about it,”’ she says, with an enormous smile. “So many times I’ve wanted to say, ‘Oh I love him, he’s so wonderful!’ But you have to think about when it is over, and you’ve still got to talk about it because you’ve opened up that can of worms.” She is very open about children, however. “I’m 37 and still don’t know if I’m ready,” she says, candidly. “My mum was 19 when she had me, which is insane. My friends with kids say that you never feel ready. The thing is not to think about it, and just get on with it.”
Harris cites her mother Lisselle,– a healer who works with alternative therapies like Emotional Freedom Technique,– as her inspiration. Her father wasn’t around so their bond was close. “Mum has always been fearless,” she says. “We didn’t grow up with much money at all, but she was always willing to make brave choices.” While some parents might have tried to dissuade their daughter from acting, Harris had her mother’s full support. “She instilled in me the belief that anything is possible. It makes for a very intense relationship when you have no other parent and you’re an only child,” she continues. “I always felt responsible for Mum, like it was up to me to make her happy, so I was glad when my stepdad came along. I could go to university and not worry about her being on her own.”
She now has a teenage half-brother and sister, to whom she is very close. They are lucky to have such an inspiring big sister, determined to pass on that sense of self-belief. “I find it upsetting when young people say, ‘I want to be this, but I’’ll never achieve it,'” she says. “You can be one of those people that makes it. You’ll have to work hard but, if you really want something, you can do it. If it has been instilled in you from a young age that anything is possible, you will ultimately come back to those beliefs, even when life knocks you down. I hope, if I’m ever lucky enough to become a mother, I am able to pass that on to my children.”
A few weeks after our conversation in London, Harris is throwing her head back and laughing in the California sunshine for our shoot at a Malibu beach house. She arrives on set with her mum in tow. The night before, she had been honoured at a Women in Hollywood event, and is still buzzing. What a year she’s had. As for her hopes for the next 12 months? “I hope to be even more appreciative of life: the challenges, as well as the good things, because they make you into a better person. And I hope to continue to create great material for women,” she says, with that big smile. And she’ll do it, because she can do anything.