Barry Jenkins has drawn tremendous reviews (and the top spot on a number of year’s best lists) for his tender film “Moonlight,” about a young black boy, Chiron, who is gay, growing up in the impoverished Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. One of the performers singled out for extra praise is Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, Paula.
Nominated for Golden Globe and SAG awards this week, Ms. Harris, who is British, has been promoting “Moonlight” for months, even though, because of visa issues, she spent just three days shooting the part (while on break from promoting the Bond film “Spectre,” in which she played Moneypenny).
Last month in downtown Manhattan, Ms. Harris spoke with the Bagger about crack-addict stereotypes and the unexpected freedom she found in playing Paula. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve said before you had concerns about your role being that of a stereotypical crack mother.
It was an amalgamation of Barry’s mother and the mother of Tarell Alvin McCraney [who wrote the play the film was adapted from]. I said to Barry, “I have fears about taking on this role.” He said to me, “I understand your fears, but the reality is I want to tell my story, and my story necessarily involves that of my mother.” And I thought, “Here, for the first time, is someone who has a vested interest in ensuring that she doesn’t become stereotyped, and that she is given her full humanity.” And what I felt in doing it and reading it was that she has a complete arc. So I thought I could understand where she starts off in trying to be a good mother, trying to hold down a job, doing this on her own, the pressures of all of that, how she gets into crack addiction and how she ultimately comes out of it. I didn’t think it was stereotypical.
Paula’s movements as a crack addict are instantly recognizable — so herky jerky. How did you research them?
YouTube. There are these amazing people who just go into crack dens with their phones and interview crack addicts. It was almost like the drugs remove your social filter. The crack addicts have such extremes. They’ll be perfectly normal, and then the next they’re shouting and they’ll throw something, and suddenly become super aggressive. And I love that. Obviously I didn’t love it for them. But for me as an actress, that’s so exciting because playing someone like that means you can go on a roller coaster; there are no limits.
Did you have to think about where Paula’s anger came from?
Basically every single one of the women crack addicts I researched, they had all been sexually abused or raped, and so for me it felt like the drugs were a way of numbing them against that vast well of emotional pain. That was the biggest insight and biggest help to creating Paula, because I realized that’s where her anger comes from, that’s where her frustration comes from, that’s where her inability to cope comes.
Liberty City is very poor and violent. Were you nervous shooting there?
It really is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States. We had to have police escorts, and it felt like it was going to be really unsafe. But it wasn’t anything that I expected. Barry is from Liberty City, and the word had gotten around that he was from there, and they were so proud. They embraced us and it was a magical experience. This is the first time on a film set I felt appreciated and welcomed. It was really touching.