Naomie Harris has gotten good at playing the sleek, sophisticated, smart woman — in the James Bond franchise, she’s Moneypenny, the sly executive who’s loyal to the secret agent. The world of 007 is always a bit glamorous, which seems fitting for Harris, who is elegant beyond belief.
But her latest film, Moonlight — out in limited release October 21 — couldn’t be further from the lustre of Bond. As Paula, a crack-addicted mum who resides in one of Miami’s roughest housing projects, Harris turns in her best work to date.
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young Black man struggling to navigate his Black queer identity. Director Barry Jenkins reveals Chiron’s life in three chapters: First, as a wide-eyed kid who silently tries to processes everything around him. Then, as a teen tormented by class bullies; and finally, as a hardened adult. If there are words to describe the intimacy Chiron seeks, he never seems to find them. Part of the film’s power comes from how gruelling it is to watch him talk around his desires. But it also comes from the savage desperation with which Paula clings to her son — and how her love for him interplays with her addiction to drugs.
Oscar buzz is already starting to circle Harris for her work in Moonlight. Refinery29 spoke to her about getting into character as an addict, why she doesn’t drink or smoke, and — because we couldn’t help it — who she would like to see play James Bond next.
Just to get it out of the way: a Bond question. I’ve heard that you would like Daniel Craig to return to the franchise. But who else would you love to work with?
I don’t know! [laughs] I just think Daniel is perfect for the role. He’s the best modern Bond we’ve had. He’s spearheaded the way for that franchise to transform and modernise in a way that it hadn’t for many years. I think the massive success of each film has shown that people love him in this role.
But what about Idris Elba?
I’ve worked with him. I love him. I think he’s an amazing actor. But I think Daniel Craig is the Bond for me!
Okay, fair. Now, onto Moonlight: You’ve said you filmed all of your scenes in three days. What was that like?
I had some visa issues. There was something messed up on my form, so it wasn’t meant to be only three days, initially. But as time went on, the schedule just got condensed. I was prepping for a month beforehand, though, and made sure that I knew the character inside and out. When I did finally arrive, I could hit the ground running.
What did you do to prepare?
I watched a lot of YouTube. It’s an incredible mine of information. I was traveling around, promoting another movie, so I was in a different city every three or four days. I watched incredible documentaries on crack addiction, on Miami in the 1980s, and interviews with crack addicts. It was important to me to get a feel for what Miami in the 1980s was like, what it would be like growing up in a place like Liberty City, [FL]. I’m from Britain, so it was an alien environment that I had to find my way into.
I also had to build a narrative around my character, Paula. There are huge gaps in the story when it’s told in three parts, so I had to explain to myself what was happening to her in-between these moments we see her. I had to figure out why her drug addiction has gotten so bad at some points, how she ended up in rehab — all these points that we don’t really see in the film.
I read that you don’t drink or smoke. Is that true?
No, I don’t. I never have!
Did that affect how you thought about Paula and her substance abuse?
My first thought was, How can I play this? How can I understand how this works, when I don’t think I have any addictions myself? I’m ‘Miss Healthy,’ the person who’s saying, ‘Let’s keep everything under control here, guys.’ Whenever we went out on a Friday night, I was that girl to drive everyone home and make sure people get home okay. I thought, How do I go from being me to understanding her?
There were two things that really helped me. The first was an interview I watched with a woman who described her crack addiction as being similar to being in a relationship with a psychopath. Psychopaths in relationships mimic you — they try to be everything you want them to be. They give you the most attention, they make you feel euphoric. And then, once they’ve gotten their claws into you, they start to ravage and destroy you. That’s exactly what drugs do. That made me understand how you can be in a relationship with something that you hate, but you’re in love with it and you can’t actually leave.
The other thing I noticed from watching these interviews with women was that every single one of them had been raped or sexually abused. The reason they used drugs was to numb them against the vast emotional pain they had internally. That was key. Everyone has emotional pain and baggage, and a lot of us are running away from confronting it. Paula is doing the exact same thing that you and I do on a daily basis, she’s just doing it in this really self-destructive manner.
What was it like when you finally made it to Liberty City?
I had been told that Liberty City was one of the most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods in the United States. We had police escorts, so I was apprehensive. But, in fact, what I found was something truly extraordinary. The community wanted us there. They’re never represented on-screen in a way they’re comfortable with.
Also, our director is from Liberty City, and word got around that this movie was made by one of their guys done good. To have a huge crew plunked in the middle of your community is tough. I see it all the time when I work in different locations. You can tell when you’re not wanted. But this time, they were really behind the film.
What was the hardest scene for you to shoot?
Something that was really hard for me was when Paula just shouts at her son. I start welling up when I think about it, because I hate the idea of people being abusive to children. To think of me venting my rage at this little kid who is just a baby, basically…I just found that really difficult to wrap my head around and get into that space. I asked for him to not be on set. I didn’t think it was fair for him.
Speaking of that child actor, there were a lot of non-professional actors on this film. How was that, for you?
Oh, you would never know this was their first time. People who haven’t acted before are almost better actors, in a way. They’re more appreciative and open to learning. It’s easier to connect with them, because they’re so generous.
You’ve been getting some Oscar buzz for this role. How does that feel?
It feels amazing! I can’t deny that to hear people say that my performance could be worthy of this amazing acknowledgement feels great. But it’s not why any of us [made Moonlight]. This was a really small-budget movie. None of us expected it to be received so well critically. Everyone just wanted this story to be told. Everything else is just a bonus.
The awards talk feels amazing. But it also gives our movie another platform: It makes the film even more visible for people. I think Moonlight is a very rare movie that has the potential to change how we see our lives. Art always has the potential to do be transformative. Something about Moonlight connects so profoundly and deeply with people. And I’ve seen its effects firsthand! People will come to Q&As and end up sobbing in my arms. It really affects people.
So how do you think Moonlight fits into larger conversations about #OscarsSoWhite and how Hollywood funds and produces movies about Black people?
It’s more than diversity in terms of ethnicity. It’s about allowing room for different representation, room for different voices. It’s a very healing process to see yourself represented onscreen — your journey, your community, all of it.
I hope that Moonlight becomes a shining example of what’s possible. Lots of producers and studios make the excuse that they can’t make these kinds of movies because people won’t see them. I really hope that people stand behind this movie so it can be apart of a larger movement of change that lets movies with more voices and more identities get made.