Naomie Harris Goes Back to School in ‘The First Grader’

Considering her last role was the apocalyptically powerful sea goddess Calypso in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” it’s indicative of Naomie Harris’ range that she portrays the most compassionate of elementary school teachers in her current film, “The First Grader.” Harris plays Jane Obinchu in the heartwarming true story of Maruge, an elderly ex-revolutionary who, in post-imperialist Kenya, seeks the basic education denied him in his youth. Harris’ Jane is one of the few figures advocating Maruge’s right to learn to read as opposition to his presence in the local children’s school, his only viable option, is rampant. Harris brings valiant grace and charm to her character—and to the film—but she has had a lifetime in front of the camera to achieve such compelling ease.

“I’ve never done anything else other than act,” she explains, describing her work as a young actor in children’s programs in Britain. Her performing work was not continuous, however. “My only break from it was when I got my degree. I’ve always known that acting is what I wanted to do, and I never wanted to do anything else.” Harris’ mind was so bent on acting, she at first resented her mother’s insistence on higher education. “I really wanted to keep going with acting; I did not want to go to university,” she notes. “But my mom really wanted me to have another string to my boat. She said, ‘Just get an education. It means that if you ever change your mind, you’ve got something to fall back on.’ And I am so glad that she did say that, because although I did not go on to do an alternative profession, having the degree really helps me. It helps me in terms of my self-confidence, and it also just gives me a different perspective. Education is so important for widening your horizons, basically, and even if you do not go on to do something that necessitates you having to have a degree, it still helps you in life enormously.”

It undoubtedly helped that Harris selected social and political sciences as her field of choice, with a particular interest in psychology. She notes, “[The] nature/nurture debate, what forms the individual, that was kind of what fascinated me. And that’s been brilliant for me in terms of acting, because exactly the same kind of questions that I was answering in my exams were exactly the same sorts of question I apply to each character I play. It is all about the individual characters, and how they are formed, and what makes the individual who they are. I just find that endlessly fascinating.”

An interest in psychology is evident in the way Harris explains how she understands her characters. “For me,” she says, “it’s all about creating a backstory for the character. So what I tend to do, I like to sit in my room alone and just talk as if I was the character being interviewed. I just find that through talking it out, talking out my past, I find the voice of the character, the rhythm of the character. Where the character is kind of centered in me.” She credits this technique to not only her studies in psychology but also her mother, who is a writer, and uses similar tactics to unearth the complexities of her own characters.

The degree did not prove an immediate success for Harris, however, and neither did her post-university studies at London’s Royal Vic Theater, where she received a formal education in acting. Upon completing her education, Harris reveals, she experienced a disheartening limbo. “I spent nine months unemployed,” she admits. “And I remember that being quite a shock to me, because I had been a child actress, and I had worked—every summer holiday, every holiday that I had. So I was used to going to auditions and getting them, and I had never experienced what it was to be unemployed. So it was a huge shock to me to go to auditions and you don’t get them as an adult. And also all this time that I had on my hands—I never saw that coming, so it was a very difficult time for me, actually. But then nine months after leaving drama school, I had the audition with Danny Boyle and got ’28 Days Later.’ I always credit the start of my career and everything that has followed since really to Danny Boyle; everything really followed from there.”

Hollywood to Kenya

What followed included several roles in big Hollywood projects, including “Pirates” 2 and 3, and eventually she was approached by Justin Chadwick, a fan of her work and director of “The First Grader.” Harris notes happily of her casting and subsequent experience, “It all happened in kind of the perfect way, really, because I’d just done a Hollywood movie, and it was a big movie, and I just felt like I wanted to go back to something really small, really intimate. I also wanted to go abroad to do something. There were only nine of us that flew from London, and flew to Kenya; the rest were local hires. So you really got immersed in the culture and immersed in the local community. I think that is a beautiful way to make films, especially if you’re going to make a film about that community. Because it allows them to have an input, rather than you dictated exactly how the tone and feel of a film is going to be, and I think you end up with a more authentic film at the end of the day.”

The filming of “The First Grader” was definitely an immersive experience in many ways, including how Harris tackled the role of Jane, in a real rural Kenyan school. “I was introduced as a new teacher in this school and for two weeks there were no cameras or anything. I just went in and taught the children,” Harris says. “And then later on, the cameras were introduced, and everything was played for the kids as if it was for real. And that’s why you get the incredible reactions from the kids; it’s so natural, because they really believed it was for real.” Working with the kids, as it turns out, proved the most challenging aspect of filming for Harris, who admits that while she is “used to being around kids, and [she loves] children,” the children were so well-behaved it was difficult for her to develop the kind of relationship with them that the film required. “It was hard to break through their shells of obedience and respectfulness to find the individual characters.” She did eventually manage to befriend her pupils, however, creating a dynamic that rings truly genuine in the film and serves a pivotal role in forming a key emotional thread in the story.

Far from Kenya, Harris just finished “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre in London with Boyle directing. She currently considers promoting “The First Grader” her primary employment, as her love for and faith in the film inspire her to ensure it reaches audiences. Harris considers herself very fortunate to find her livelihood in acting, for, as she admits, “There were about 23 of us in my year who graduated, and two of us are continuing it and able to make a living out of it. So I feel incredibly grateful to do what I do.”

There are some things actors can do, Harris notes, to help them create the kind of career she has made for herself. She emphasizes, “The most important thing is to, first of all, have self-belief. It is a profession where you are going to get a lot of knocks along the way. The most important thing is to be totally prepared at all times; there is always so much you can do to make sure you are up on your accents, up on your skills. Go to classes; always be prepared.” If her successes so far are anything to go by, it seems that whether facing zombies, being on a pirate ship, or teaching in a remote classroom, Harris is always, and admirably, very much prepared.