Naomie Harris heads back to school

It’s lunchtime, and even next to the well-heeled patrons of London’s Soho House, Naomie Harris stands out from the crowd. She arrives for our interview dressed in funky black leather leggings and a shimmering Willow coat with severe padded shoulders. Not exactly daytime attire, but then Harris has just been to a photocall for her new film, The First Grader. I tell her it looks like something from Flash Gordon. “It’s quite jarring with the film,” she giggles. Given that it’s a true story about an 84-year-old Kenyan who decides to head back to school, she has a point.

The last time I saw her was on the Kenyan set of the film, almost a year earlier. Then, seated in a government building in Nairobi as the camera peered in through the window, she was dressed as her character, good-hearted teacher Jane Obinchu. “It feels like I was there yesterday,” she says, wistfully. “It was an amazing journey to go on. It’s just incredible, the response that the film has had.” Along with director Justin Chadwick (who made The Other Boleyn Girl) and a handful of others, Harris has shepherded the film through various festivals – Telluride, Toronto, Doha included. “I’d never been to a film festival before.”

On one level, this sounds rather strange for an actress in the business for over a decade. But Harris, 34, who came to prominence in the 2002 TV adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, was ushered over to Hollywood before she had a chance. After appearing in Danny Boyle’s zombie virus movie 28 Days Later, she went on to play voodoo priestess Tia Dalma in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Her co-stars since have included Pierce Brosnan (After the Sunset), Jamie Foxx (Miami Vice) and Keanu Reeves (Street Kings). But what she hasn’t managed so far is a leading role in a festival-friendly movie.

“I’d done the big Hollywood thing, and it was great, but it’s such a different experience working on a big movie,” she says. “You feel like a very small cog in a big wheel. Whereas when you do a small movie, you’re a small band. There were nine of us who came out of England to do The First Grader and went to Kenya. So you feel really included, you feel like a family. You feel like you can contribute on the script. On all areas, you’re hands on. It’s just a different experience. It’s just more rewarding. More creative.”

Having just completed a three-month run in Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, what will be interesting is whether she becomes a cog once more. Last week, it emerged that she is mulling over an offer to appear in the forthcoming James Bond film, to be directed by Sam Mendes and once again starring Daniel Craig as 007. Whereas once upon a time, being a Bond girl was considered the kiss of death for a career, recent appearances by Eva Green and Gemma Arterton have shown otherwise. And while Harris has so far remained diplomatically silent on the topic, you suspect she’s secretly ecstatic to be in the running.

For now, she just wants to talk about The First Grader. The experience of shooting in Kenya clearly affected her profoundly, in particular working with local children in the mountainous Rift Valley region, an hour-and-a-half from Nairobi. “It was really odd going back home. I was looking at the children [here] who are considered coming from poor backgrounds and poor neighbourhoods. They have shoes, coats and toys. And they’re considered poor. Go to Kenya and the children have literally nothing. Their shoes were falling apart.”

Harris was called to set two weeks early to be gradually introduced to the children, who’d never even seen a television, let alone a camera. “They were so different to any other children that I’d met. Really reserved and really shy. Really gentle. Really innocent. So it takes them a long time to warm up to you. It was actually frustrating and upsetting in the beginning. I kept thinking ‘What is wrong with me? Why won’t they talk to me? Why won’t they play with me?'” Harris wasn’t acting with them; as far as they were concerned, she was their teacher – meaning she even had to devise lesson plans (while the cameras discreetly shot footage).

Of course, the children form the backdrop to the story of Maruge (Oliver Litondo), the irrepressible octogenarian who becomes inspired by a government declaration of free education for all to seek out a place at his local primary school. Described in some quarters as “an African Slumdog Millionaire”, it was runner up in the Audience Award vote at Toronto last year – losing to The King’s Speech. “There’s so much cynicism and manipulation with films generally, and it’s not one of those films,” she says. “There’s something genuine about it, and that genuineness affects people.”

While she would never compare her own upbringing, in North London’s Finsbury Park, to the poverty she saw in Kenya, her childhood was hardly luxurious. Her mother, Lisselle Kayla, was pregnant with her when she was 18, and had to raise Harris as a single parent (after her father left). Jamaican-born, she was an inspiration to Harris. Gaining a sociology degree at the University of London, she became a journalist, then a playwright and successful screenwriter (including EastEnders). Harris was equally go-getting in her early years, attending classes at the Anna Scher Theatre, Islington before becoming a regular on children’s TV show Simon and the Witch aged 10.

Yet the education system proved her undoing. At secondary school, Harris was bullied. “I hated school,” she sighs. “I didn’t want to go to school.” What happened? “I don’t know. I don’t why I was bullied. I was quite shy and skinny. Very nerdy, very bookwormish. I think I was just a target.” She didn’t fare a lot better at Cambridge, where she read social and political sciences at Pembroke College. While her peers talked about Eton and skiing, she felt she didn’t fit in. “I felt so lonely. There was only one other black person in my year; I cried every day.”

Through all this, however, Harris had a strong family network to fall back on. Her mother found a new partner, a teacher, and had two more children, bringing Harris a step-brother (now 14) and a sister (11). “They come to everything I do, even on set,” she beams. The only time they didn’t make it was to Kenya for The First Grader. “I was having an argument with my mum at the time! But normally, they come to everything.” She recalls shooting Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, his low-budget spin on Tristam Shandy. “I was staying in a tiny little room, they drove up to the country with an air mattress.”

With such a tight-knit family, it’s no surprise to hear that Harris never went through a rebellious phase, despite her mother even urging her to “experiment” a little. “I never felt the need to. It’s funny. My brother and sister are the same. They’re like ‘Why would you do that?’ None of us, as a family, drink. None of us smoke. We’re not brought up with it. To us, it seems a bit strange, why people want to do those things.” She attributes this to her easy-going mother. “She was never like, ‘You have to be in at 9 o’clock.’ She’d be, ‘What time do you think you want to get in?'”

Harris lived at home into her late twenties – though for the past three years she’s been living out of two suitcases. When she finished The First Grader, she made a concerted effort to take some time off and finally settle down. “I needed a break to ground myself,” she says. She put an offer on five different places, and each fell through. “My journey of looking for this house was about wanting to do what my friends are doing, which is settle down, have a family. That kind of thing. I thought, ‘I need to be doing that.’ So I panicked and thought, ‘I need to be like them.'”

In the end, this extended house-hunt taught her why she loves acting. “I love doing a film with a new bunch of people. I love going away and not knowing anybody and by the end of it, having fifteen really good friends.” Now planning to move into a flat on the same street that her mother lives, between her real family and the makeshift ones she meets on film sets, Harris’s life seems full to bursting. It means she’s not yet ready for children, she says. “I realised I was trying to find what other people have, and actually I have something great that works for me.”