Naomie Harris interview: ‘What Sheridan Smith is going through is so hard’

‘You think this is too short for Buckingham Palace?” It’s late morning and the Langham hotel’s breakfast room has been thrown into a state of meltdown by the arrival of Naomie Harris, who’s popped in to chat to me before heading off to the Palace for a Bafta event. Businessmen are gawping, spoonfuls of bircher muesli are missing mouths, and in the midst of it all the 39-year-old actress is standing there frowning down at the striped Dior skater dress she’s chosen to wear for the occasion.

“Unspoilt” is the first word that comes to mind when you meet Harris, the star of Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and – as Eve Moneypenny – the last two Bond films.

There’s the sweetness of that face, of course, the supermodel limbs and the absolute lack of imperiousness (“Where would you like to sit?” she asks me, overruling the restaurant manager caught in a tailspin about where would be best for ‘the talent’).

But there’s also a refreshing refusal to toe the line on the female stigmas du jour (more of this later) – or indeed adapt to any accepted way of thinking. And it’s easy to be seduced by an actress who will blithely declare within minutes of sitting down: “I have no interest in the business at all. I’m not interested in talking about the business and I don’t have any friends in the business. My only interest is acting.”

“Well, it’s true,” laughs Harris – the daughter of a Jamaican-born TV scriptwriter-turned-healer who had her at 18. “From the very start I’ve always felt that whatever part is right for you, you get. And whatever isn’t, you don’t.”

What she finds tedious is chippiness in the face of failure – and the interminable questioning of the industry’s real motivations. “So you hear these actors saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t get it because they see me as such and such,’ and you think, ‘How do you know how they see you?’ I’ve just always done my best and if I don’t get a part it’s because I wasn’t good enough. Simple as that.”

Only most of the time Harris’s best is good enough. It was good enough to get her from a north London comprehensive to Cambridge University, from there to the Bristol Old Vic where she studied drama, and not long after cast by Danny Boyle in the dystopian zombie thriller 28 Days Later. Well before then – from the age of nine – it was good enough to get her roles in children’s TV dramas.

So while you could say that she doesn’t have much to complain about, I get the feeling she wouldn’t even if she did. In the 30 years she has been acting – both in low-budget television drama such as Small Island and Hollywood box-office hits – Harris says she has never once been a victim of either racism or sexism: “I really haven’t, although I suppose it can feel alienating as a woman on a set that’s 80 per cent male, but I don’t think that’s by design.”

Getting older hasn’t caused her any professional problems either, she insists, batting away that last “ism”. And it’s true that since turning “tombstone 30” Harris has been getting meatier roles than ever: Winnie Mandela in 2013’s Mandela biopic, Moneypenny in Skyfall and Spectre, Will Smith’s love interest in the forthcoming drama, Collateral Beauty – and now Ewan McGregor’s hard-nosed barrister wife, Gail Perkins, in a pacy new film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Our Kind of Traitor. “You just have to look at the actresses who are doing well now and almost all of them are older, whether it’s Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon or Naomi Watts,” she shrugs. “I think there has been a real shift: people have realised that it’s the age and the experience that makes someone a lot more interesting to watch. And how could you ever tire of watching Meryl, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy or Stellan Skarsgård?”

Skarsgård – who plays an aged Russian mobster in Our Kind of Traitor – is certainly mesmerising when he emerges naked and heavily tattooed from a sauna in the movie. But it was Le Carré himself who was the real rock star during filming, Harris tells me. “He was such a charmer – I really fell in love with him,” she laughs. “And the stories! We would all cluster around him at the end of the day and get him to tell us story after story.

“I didn’t know much about him until I read the script but I loved that he’d created this interesting marital dynamic between Gail and Perry [McGregor]. Because part of the reason they’re having problems is that she is this very successful barrister who earns a lot more money than him, and he feels very emasculated by this. I think that’s a real modern problem: I know a lot of couples for whom that’s an issue, and generally my friends have chosen to get out of those relationships because it has just become too much of an issue.”

Considering the fees Harris is able to command, it must have been an issue for her too? “It has been,” she says slowly, “but more the other person’s issue and more about their own insecurities than mine.” Harris is such an uncomplicated interviewee that it’s obvious when a question puts her ill at ease. The assumption is that she’s now single, given she and Peter Legler – whom she dated for two years – haven’t been photographed together since 2014. Either way, she’s not about to discuss her romantic life. And the only other topic to make her clam up so completely is Bond. “Honestly, it’s like being in MI6 for the actors, too,” she sighs when I ask whether she’s signed on to do a third turn as Moneypenny. “I’m not allowed to say a single thing.”

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