You recently starred in the BBC’s Small Island. And you were in Pirates of the Caribbean as a voodoo princess. You are often described as a chameleon. Is this how you see yourself?
I do, completely. It is disconcerting. I have many different sides; I can be the life and soul of the party – or a wallflower. But what I love about being an actor is the leap into being someone else. I think my roles have been wonderfully varied. Not one has been racially stereotypical, and I have purposely chosen them like that.
Your latest role is in the BBC2 thriller Blood and Oil, by Guy Hibbert, set in the Niger Delta. Tell us about the character you play. Is she like you?
Alice Omuka is young, gung-ho and naive – a PR with an international oil company. She goes on a journey that shakes the foundations of her world and everything she believes in. I identify with her integrity – I like to think of myself as a person of high moral standards. I relate to her naivety too. But the main difference between us is that she had a privileged upbringing and I didn’t. It was just me and my mother, growing up in Finsbury Park, north London. I didn’t have a father figure [Naomie’s parents are both Jamaican – her father was absent].
Alice makes an adoring tribute to her father in the film. How did that make you feel?
I loved making that speech. It was beautiful. I had only known Bankole Omotoso (playing my father) a short while but he was wonderful – intelligent, charming, generous – the kind of father I would like to have had. When I made that speech, it was for him. And for my granddad too – an amazing man – no longer alive, but once a big part of my life. He would come by my primary school and pass me sweets through the gate. And when I was only three he took me to Jamaica on his own. I can’t imagine how that must have been. I was the most clingy child. I must have given the poor man sleepless nights. He’d feed me condensed milk which must explain my sweet tooth now.
Did you visit Nigeria to make the film?
It was shot in South Africa. But after the film I was interested in going to Nigeria. I seem to have an affinity with Nigerians. I went to stay with a Nigerian friend – from a similar background to Alice. And we had the incredibly privileged experience of being driven around Lagos by chauffeurs and VIP entrance everywhere. We’d come home at four in the morning and people would serve us food. It was one of the best holidays of my life.
Did you get any sense of the corrupt Nigeria of the film?
Corruption is a daily part of life there. As soon as we arrived we had to bribe people to let us out of the airport’s car park. But it is important to point out, as my Nigerian friends did, that at least corruption in Nigeria is out in the open. In a way, it is almost more honest. In other societies – perhaps even our own – it is underhand. We are only now discovering how our MPs cheated on expenses. But how many years has that been going on?
What was your childhood like in Finsbury Park?
I had a great time but I was upset I didn’t live on a council estate. My best friend did. We used to jump off roofs. We had so much fun. Finsbury Park was warm and multicultural. I never experienced racism. We had wonderful Stroud Green Road with its Jamaican food: yams and jerk this, jerk that. For Jamaicans it is a home from home. And it still holds a special place in my heart.
When you visit Jamaica do you feel British?
No – I feel a deep connection with Jamaica. It is reassuring to see people who remind me of my aunts and uncles – even their mannerisms are the same.
Who has influenced you most in life?
My mum. She is my inspiration. She had me when she was 18. She had a job in the Post Office but made a commitment to herself that, once I was old enough to go to school, she’d go to university. I’d sit in on her lectures and colour in, in the corner. We used to do our homework together. She got a degree in sociology but what she had always wanted was to become a writer. She was the first writer to have a black sitcom, Us Girls on BBC1. Mum always said that you can achieve absolutely anything. There may be obstacles but only see them as challenges – they can be overcome with hard work. And that is an amazing, empowering belief to instil in your child.
Speaking of challenges, you have talked about being bullied at school. How did you retaliate?
The best revenge is to make a success of your life, to show people that are trying to teach you that you are worthless that you are worth a lot more. That was my retaliation.
And you succeeded. You got into Cambridge and left with a 2.1 in political and social science.
I did not enjoy Cambridge. But I shouldn’t blame Cambridge alone. I wasn’t ready for university or for the wrench of leaving home. It was a big cultural shock. But I recently saw a guy from university who said: “Naomie, you have been bashing Cambridge, saying it was awful and that you felt like an oddball. And you know what? We were all struggling.” I realised that was true. I’d somehow thought I was unique.
What did going to Bristol Old Vic theatre school teach you?
The wonderful thing about drama school is that it stretches you in a way the industry doesn’t. I played a Swedish tulip and the Virgin Mary.
What unlikely role do you dream of playing?
I wrote a dissertation about black people in 18th-century Britain. I have always been a huge fan of Jane Austen novels – the romance of it. My dream is to be in a period drama.
And if you were to be a Jane Austen heroine?
I’d be Elizabeth Bennet.