As Naomie Harris glides into the Refuel restaurant in London’s chic Soho Hotel, heads turn at every table. She’s wearing skinny leather trousers, Louboutin boots and a black Margiela jumper, and her effortless elegance and the intelligent beauty of her face make her stand out. Nevertheless, an air of slight puzzle- ment pervades the room. This is clearly somebody, but nobody is quite sure who. And that’s exactly how this elusive actress likes it. “Being recognised everywhere would be horrific,’ she says. ‘I’ve seen what it’s like for Daniel Craig.”
Harris’ quest to remain anonymous, despite her fame and success, has seen her pursuing roles that are as different from one another as possible. As Winnie Mandela in the much-lauded Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, she brings tears to the eyes. Her next role will be a complete contrast, as she takes on the butt-kicking Miss Moneypenny in the new Bond movie. This versatility is a point of principle. “My American agents had real problems because they couldn’t understand that the girl in Pirates of the Caribbean was also the girl in Miami Vice, and in 28 Days Later,” she admits. But she’s not worried about the prospect of missing out on roles as a result. “I’ve never been material-istic – I just choose roles that interest me. That’s been an advantage because I’ve never been typecast.”
In other ways, too, Harris defies the expectations of the all-powerful film industry. As a strikingly beautiful woman, she has naturally been expected to disrobe on screen. And she has been steadfast in her refusal ever to do so. “No arse, no tits,” she says flatly. “It’s always a body double. I am a very strong person. I’ve always been different – and I’m wilful. You can’t persuade me to do something if I’ve decided against it. If something doesn’t work out, then the role isn’t mine, it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s never happened.”
Harris’ insistence on ploughing her own furrow is possibly an inherited characteristic: her mother, Carmen, who is of Jamaican descent, had her when she was just 18 and brought her up alone. Naomie recalls sitting in a corner and drawing as a small child, while her mother attended sociology lectures at university. Subsequently, Carmen became a scriptwriter for shows including EastEnders, and is now a healer. “She always instilled in me this belief that anything was possible and that challenges didn’t exist,” says Harris admiringly. “People talk about racism, but my mum would say, ‘It’s only in your head.’ Given that she was still a child herself really, it was quite extraordinary. I still believe I can fly – because anything is possible.”
The actress’ desire to act is similarly innate. Although Harris was a shy child, she was also a natural performer. “At five, I’d be acting in front of the mirror, making myself cry. I always knew I wanted to be an actress.” By the time she was 10, she was a regular on the BBC children’s TV series Simon and the Witch. After studying social and political science at Cambridge, she attended the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School; her first major role, in Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later, shot her to international fame. Appearances in big-budget blockbusters, including two Pirates of the Caribbean films, Miami Vice and Skyfall, have followed, interspersed with well-regarded indie films such as Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story. She also played Elizabeth Lavenza in Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre – a role that wasn’t originally envisaged for a black actress, but as we know, Harris enjoys confounding expecta- tions. However, she is not comfortable with being a spokesperson for equal opportunities. “I’m not sure whether it helps to get on my soapbox about it,” she says in her low, musical voice. “I think, do the best you can, try and create jobs for yourself where there weren’t any before, and just by doing that, you become a role model.”
Harris’ career is soaring, but she is happiest with her feet on the ground. She has just bought her first home, on the same north-London street as her mother’s, and spends as much time as she can there, reading and pottering around her kitchen. “My life has nothing to do with the film world at all,” she says. At 37, her face remains youthful, and Harris says she has no fear of ageing. “I love it. I love the way I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin. I remember being younger, trapped in my shyness, just wanting to disappear. It’s such a relief to feel I’m here and happy being me.” And the thought of cosmetic surgery makes her burst out laughing. “I definitely haven’t had any work done. Believe me! That strange, bloated, Botoxed face isn’t very attractive – and to have life written on your face is an important part of being an actress,” she says.
Having worked with children for the Mandela film, Harris says she would now love to start a family of her own. She’s not worried about the implications of taking a career break to do so – for, despite her success, her real ambitions lie elsewhere. “At 13, I wrote a novel,” she says. “In the long term, writing is definitely what I’m going to do.” And with that, this charmingly contrary star slips away and melts effortlessly into the crowd.