British actress Naomie Harris is best-known for her role as Eve Moneypenny in Bond films Skyfall and the upcoming Spectre due out November 6th. Acting since the age of nine, her first starring film role came in the British post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, whom she credits with giving her a big break. “28 Days Later completely kick started my career, and then he did exactly the same thing for me ten years later [when] he asked me to come in and audition for Frankenstein at the National… he cast me in the role, and that’s how I ended up getting Bond, because Debbie McWilliams who casts for all the Bond movies came to see Frankenstein. So I feel like twice Danny came in kind of like my angel, my career angel.”
Notable roles such as her portrayal of Winnie Mandela in Nelson Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom and Tia Dalma in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies accentuated her career and versatility as an actress. She has been outspoken about her thoughts on the importance of working with female writers and directors, as well as the need for more strong female characters in film. Naomie’s role as Moneypenny marked a huge moment for the Bond franchise. She was the first black actress to be cast in the iconic role, and the very first Moneypenny to be given a first name, lending the character a more personal touch. You might say she is the first Bond woman, rather than Bond girl. “I always look back on Skyfall and think you know there was this overwhelming positive response to Moneypenny being out in the field and being, kind of ‘kickass’”. In Spectre, Harris continues with her role as agent Eve Moneypenny, working alongside Bond (Daniel Craig) in the latest edition of the franchise, also starring Monica Bellucci, that revolves around “a cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization.”
I understand that you started acting for TV and film when you were only nine years old. I love for you to tell me about your early work and just your first phase into film and TV. How did you get started that young? I believe your mother, worked as a screenwriter for EastEnders. Did she help you get into the business? How is it that such a young age you already knew what you wanted to do?
I literally just always knew what I wanted to do and I don’t really know how that is. I would tell people when I was really young that I was going to be an actress. My mum didn’t get into the business until I was about thirteen. It just kind of seemed like this crazy dream. I just always knew, I really can’t explain it. People say ‘Was there a movie that inspired you, was there a film that inspired you?’ There really wasn’t. It wasn’t like that. I just enjoyed standing in front of the mirror pretending to be different people, trying out different accents and imagining I was in a different world. I always loved using my imagination like that, and I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was very lucky because I had this incredible drama teacher. I went to a drama school called the Anna Scher Theatre School. Anna Scher was a great mentor of mine and then she put me on her young professional book, and so I started auditioning when I was nine, and then got a load of roles. I ended up doing children’s TV series non-stop when I was a kid. I worked until I went to university.
So I heard that you went to Pembroke College at The University of Cambridge and you didn’t really like it. Would you care to elaborate on that?
Yeah, I found it just a real massive culture shock. I come from a very working class background; my mom was the first person ever in her family to go to a University, so I was the second person, and I was going to Oxford. So I think it was just really a massive culture shock, and I didn’t really understand the background that my fellow students were from and I just kind of found it incredibly isolating.
I can imagine just being thrown into that mix particularity with your creative film and TV background, must have been tough. And later you had your breakthrough role with Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later. How do you feel in the long run, looking back that film impacted your career?
I feel it’s very difficult in this country to get a first break because everyone has done this before. You need someone that is willing to take a risk on you and give you the opportunity to kind of shine. And Danny was that person for me and by casting me in 28 Days Later. It just completely changed everything for me because I had a co-lead in a very big film and so many other people wanting to work with me as a result of that. So it completely kick started my career and then he did exactly the same thing for me ten years later because ten years later he asked me to come in and audition forFrankenstein at the National and I hadn’t done any theatre since leaving drama school. It was a massive leap of faith for him to believe in me and that I could do that role. He cast me in the role and that’s how I ended up getting Bond because Dan Mendez and Debbie McWilliams casts for all the Bondmovies came to see Frankenstein. So I feel like twice Danny came in kind of like my angel, my career angel, he kind of transformed things for me.
That’s amazing. Well I guess he had faith in your work and trusted his instincts! You also started off with Johnny Depp in several of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. What did you like most about playing Tia Dalma in those films?
I think Tia Dalma was probably my favorite role to date. I absolutely loved playing her because she is such a fantastical character, so it means that you can totally use your imagination to create the character because you’re completely not constrained by reality at all. Well you know, nobody can say “Tia Dalma wouldn’t do that…” Because she’s a fantasy character she can do anything. She can say anything; she can act exactly the way she wants. And I loved the fact she’s this dark mysterious character, really playful. She’s kind of dangerous as well; you can’t completely trust her. I think she’s so multifaceted and I just loved her. I had a real ball exploring that and playing with that.
Yeah I can imagine, those are such brilliant films. They’re so fun. And obviously Nelson Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom was an incredible film and you were nominated for several awards for your depiction of Winnie Mandela. How did it feel to portray such a notable character, a living person in the film that had such an impact? That story is such an incredible one to work on. Can you just give me a little bit of insight into that?
Yeah, it felt like a huge responsibility because not only is Winnie Mandela an icon, she’s a living icon. And I knew that she was going to see the film, with her daughters and I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to say; yes, that’s how it was, you faithfully portrayed me. There was a lot of backlash against me being cast because we have British accents and they are South African. A lot of South Africans were like “why haven’t we got South Africans playing our national icons” and so it added to that sense of really wanting to get it right and wanting to honor not just Winnie, but also South Africans generally and their history. So it felt to me like it was the role that I felt most pressured when doing and also because when you are playing someone whose living, its not that same as when you are playing a fantasy character, because you are totally unconstrained when you are playing someone you create but when you are playing someone whose living people will say, “oh, she didn’t walk like that or she didn’t look like that.” You really have to do an incredible amount of work in order to capture that person’s essence and to bring it to life on screen and to make her totally believable, as well as completely authentic to make them believe it’s the living person. So you know, I did so much work. I watched so many documentaries, read so much about her and interviewed people who knew Winnie and also lots of acts of coaching. So a great deal of work went into it, it’s one of my greatest senses of achievements when it came to the screening. And you know she actually cried at the end of the screening and said, “You know, I think that was the first time I’ve been faithfully portrayed on screen.” And she said “You know, you make it seem so real, I don’t know how you did that because it’s like you lived my life.” And that for me has been one of the greatest compliments of my life that I will never ever forget.
Yeah, that’s incredible. It’s a brilliant film. You can see the sensitivity in it as well. So moving forward with your Eve Moneypenny role which I imagine has been a very exiting one play, and it has been very noted that you are the first black actress to Moneypenny in Skyfall, which was a big step forward for diversity in the franchise. So how did you feel when you were cast for the film?
I was absolutely over the moon because I grew up watching Bond movies. I’ve always loved Bond movies and I just never thought in a million years that I would actually be a part of one. And I just felt really, really privileged and I knew what a tremendous boost it would be for my career, to be part of a huge franchise like that and the doors it would open in terms of doing other films, and the opportunities that would result. I was absolutely thrilled and still am. I just feel like it’s such an honor to be part of a franchise that is so loved and for so many years. It’s the oldest, longest thriving franchise in history. It’s extraordinary. And of course, Skyfall being the highest grossing movie of all time in the U.K. It’s an incredible privilege to be a part of.
What was your most memorable moment on the set?
It wasn’t actually on set; it was meeting Daniel for the first time. I was walking down the corridor and Daniel was walking the other way. We had never met and I was kind of intimidated because I thought a lot of my scenes were actually with Daniel and what is he going to be like and how are we going to get on? If you don’t have a fellow actor who is generous, then it makes your life a complete nightmare and already I was feeling intimidated because it was so huge. It was a tremendous franchise so I was feeling a little nervous. And I thought I saw him and I thought, he’s probably busy and I won’t disturb him. I actually tiptoed away from him. He actually hit me on the back of the head and goes, “Oy, where are you going?!”, and gave me this massive hug. And I just felt such a sense of relief because I knew that we we’re going to get on, that he was a good hearted person, generous soul and I knew he’s going to make my life easy and we were going to have a great journey together. So, I am so thankful to Daniel.
I imagine working with Judy Dench has also been inspiring; she has such a strong female role in the movies. What were your experiences working with her?
I really didn’t have any scenes with Judy so I didn’t really get the privilege of working with her but you know just from meeting her generally in hair and makeup or off set, I found her to be just so fun, that’s what I love about her. She has a really naughty sense of humor and is incredibly playful. One of the most important things as an actor is to keep their sense of the child alive within them. Because you need that playfulness and that inquiring mind that children have and Judy totally has that. She’s completely ageless. Whatever age she is, she’s always, ultimately this playful, fun loving person and I found that incredibly inspiring. And well of course she’s an extraordinary actress!
How did you train for your role? Obviously there’s a lot of incredible gun shooting and all kinds of action shots, which I assume you are doing the majority of that yourself for the role of Moneypenny?
Well, I was really lucky because I did a film, quite a few years ago called Miami Vice and I was able to go out with undercover agents. We did an undercover raid, we hung out and staked a drug lord’s house and we surrounded him with our cars and got him out of his car. I actually had a lot of training for that. And I had to go into safe houses and work out who to shoot, who not to shoot. I did an incredible amount of training for that movie which was completely applicable to Bond. I already had all that in my back pocket and then on top of that I got a trainer who would take me out five days a week for two to three hours and we would do circuit training, and yoga and running. With another training we’d do guns and another training we’d do stunt fighting. I was completely and utterly looked after and then coached to be ready for the role, which it was really wonderful.
Amazing. It definitely is a fun role I imagine to play. And I recently saw your film Southpaw, which is a really different type of character because you play a social worker. Can you tell me a little bit about this particular film and how you related to that character?
Yeah I’m always looking to find roles that I haven’t played before to find parts of myself that I can exercise and explore and find out what’s there. And I was really interested to play the role. But really it came about because I had just finished Mandela and promoting it with Harvey Weinstein. He is one of the producers on Southpaw and he said to me, “I really want you to go out for this movie and I really want you to be apart of it.” And I wasn’t really sure, I was kind of like, wow I need a break and then he said just put me on the phone with Antoine Fuqua. At that point I really wasn’t sure if I was going to do it. I spoke to Antoine and the phone kept dropping out. Actually for some reason, he had a really bad connection. But it was only fifteen minutes of speaking to him. He completely fired me up. And when I hung up I was like, ‘oh my God I’m getting on a plane, I’m going to Pittsburgh!’ And it was only five days of shooting as well, but I desperately wanted to do it and I just wanted to work with him. He just sounded like an amazing director. And he really didn’t disappoint me at all. He is a phenomenal director, one of the best directors I’ve worked with and I absolutely loved working with him. He’s so particular, and he so pushes you. He has such faith in you as an actor. He will not stop until it’s absolutely right. He is all about getting it completely believable, completely realistic and it was such a privilege to work with someone like that puts actors at the center of the movie. Sometimes it can feel like your are a bit rushed and it ends up that there is not enough time for the acting bit. It is kind of like everything is taking up so much time: the lighting, the setting up, the this and that. For him it’s all about performance and you really feel that. You really feel that you’re sort of safe to explore the characters and do your very best performance.
I read in a couple in interviews that you had spoken up about feeling alienated a bit about male dominated productions and how you had previously never worked with a female director?
I worked on Our Kind of Traitor, which is a film with Ewan McGregor which is coming out in February, it’s an adaptation of John le Carré that is directed by Susanna White.
Do you feel that made a difference working with a female director on that film?
Yeah I do think it made a difference. It was wonderful. Gail Eagan was our producer and she’s a woman and one of the most respected British female producers that we have and she was phenomenal. So it was really very special to have these two strong women at the helm and I felt really inspired by them and really protected by them. I might just quite have to say just to have Barbara Broccoli being at the helm on Bond made such a difference as well because she’s so inspirational, and as women you always know that someone’s got your back and that someone’s fighting and rooting for you. So, yeah it does make a difference.
I read that you don’t think females are properly represented in films because there’s a lack of female writers so to speak and often men depict women in a way that isn’t real. I would love if you could elaborate a little bit on your opinions in regards to how having female writers could have a different impact?
I think first of all, I think gender is such a divisive, huge issue in our society. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding between men and women. Interestingly enough my friend was pregnant with twins and she’d always expected that; she was fine with being pregnant with twins. She always expected that it would always be a boy and a girl and then she found out that it was two boys and she kind of had a meltdown because she was like I don’t know if I can cut it with two boys. And she ended up going to see a therapist about it and the therapist said you’re not alone. So many women really have a problem when they’re about to give birth to a boy or twins boys. She was saying because that there’s such a lack of understanding between the sexes that they find it really traumatic. And I found that really interesting because I thought, yeah, that’s so true that actually despite the fact that we speak the same language and part of the same culture, we’re raised so differently and the expectation for men and women are so completely different that it does make it very difficult to kind of cross that divide between the genders. It seems like it should be one of the simplest ones that we should be able to cross. And therefore when men are writing about women, it’s very difficult for them to put themselves in a woman’s shoes and understand what it truly means to be a woman and what the challenges and blessings of being a woman are about. You don’t get that represented in film generally. What I think is incredibly important is that you do have more women telling the story, putting woman at the center of films and speaking with a woman’s true voice and authentically portraying a women’s journey and a women’s life story. I think that’s incredibly important because I don’t think that men are capable of doing that.
It’s definitely a different point of view isn’t it?
Yeah. Yes, very much so.
You have commented previously that you think it’s also very hard for women to succeed in this type of industry because of the pressures with scheduling and time and the work hours makes it so difficult to actually have a balanced life and or to have children; etc. What changes do you think would have to be made in order for it to be a more balanced industry where women could actually succeed? At the moment the industry is tilted towards the schedules that a man could very easily navigate whereas for women, if you decide to take time off to have children for example, you’re like out of the game and you sort of loose the momentum you need to stay relevant in the industry. What sort of changes do you think need to be made in order for that to be more balanced?
For me the biggest thing are the hours. When you’re working in film, in particular and in TV you’re working from those twelve, fourteen hour days. And it’s interesting to me because I was hiring someone on day rate and I said “Yes, your days will be like ten-twelve hours,” and they were like, “What! No, my days won’t be like ten to twelve hours, they’ll be like eight hours!” I was like, “Really!” And I was speaking to friends and they were like, yeah that’s normal, I was like really? So I think that’s a big part of it. It would make a massive change not working six days a week, you know generally that’s what we work in the film and TV business. You know you’re doing crazy hours and you’re doing that six days a week on top of that. I think everybody kind of needs two days to kind of recover if you going to be working those hours at least. So I think that would really change the playing field because at the moment that is so intense and so demanding that it requires someone else to be the one whose providing the support within the family and that usually falls on the women. Whereas if time enabled both parties, like the men and the women to be able to keep working, if it was gentler in terms of scheduling I think that it would make a huge impact on women being able to be stay part of the film industry and also the TV industry once they have children.
Yeah absolutely. It makes sense; I have to say. It’s definitely difficult to take some of those breaks and have that free time in any type of intense media. You know, whether it’s film or media in general, magazines, photography; I’ve always found the same thing. What other female actresses do you really admire?
I really admire Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron. I just think they are brilliant actresses and I love their choices because they’re really unexpected and I love the fact that they play such strong powerful women and I love the fact that they are generally part of films, which have a message as well. I think that’s incredibly important as well and they take risks, they take on a lot of independent films as well and step out of the kind of Hollywood machinery as well, in order to be able to be part of films that are really meaningful to them. And I think they seem to have, from watching their careers, have a heart-centered journey. And I really admire that, in terms of heart centered, just following your passion and being true to yourself, following your own path. I think that’s really admirable.
And what do you feel so far has been your most challenging performance to date?
Definitely without a doubt playing Winnie Mandela, 100%. It took a lot out of me. It was very harrowing. I don’t know how one person managed to live that life and still survive and still be alive today and still be coherent. She’s such a strong woman, as she is. I find it absolutely extraordinary. Having to play such a horrifying journey that is her life, it’s like a Greek tragedy; its extraordinary. It was really tough to portray that and it stayed with me for a long time afterwards as well. It is really hard to get out of that, you know get out of her.
So looking forward to the new Bond movie, Spectre, which is coming out in November, I’m assuming that you’re getting back into the action, which I’m looking forward to seeing. Is there anything you can kind of relay with regards to the new Bond movie, what can we look forward to?
Well, what I really like from my perspective of my character, I feel as though the characters really mature in this film and there’s more inspiration in the subtle dynamics between the relationships. In particular, the relationship between Moneypenny and Bond. I really like the fact that they are seen much more in this film as equals and rely on each other much more and trust each other and work alongside each other much more then you saw in Skyfall. I really love that.
It’s quite an intense role as well for a woman to be playing a character as an agent. There’s quite a few very strong female characters in the Bondseries. How do you feel that sort of translates with regards an impact in general in films? I think that Bond has always sort of led the way in many respects to being such a long, well-known and respected production, and in many ways has been a trend leader.
Yes exactly I think it really does inspire many filmmakers that we can have strong females characters and people will respond to that very positively. I always look back from Skyfall and think you know there was this overwhelming positive response to Moneypenny being out in the field and being, kind of “kickass”, and people were saying, “Yes this is what we want from our female character, this is what we want to see and to really enjoy it!” And I think that filmmakers listen to that. It’s a really empowering and inspiring message for them to take forward, to them making films of their own and that’s actually what that audience wants to see, and enjoys to see. Both men and women really loved it. And they’re trend leaders in that respect and it’s much harder than it may seem to do that because you’ve really got to take a risk and that’s why I think the franchise has survived so long. It constantly does that, it constantly pushes boundaries and reinvents itself in order to stay relevant and that is why people love it.
Are there any particular words of wisdom that you live by that sort of inspire you on a day-to-day basis or give you hope on your journey?
I was always brought up with the belief that anything is possible, and my mom added, “with hard work.” I’ve always lived that way but now I’m trying to take away the adage of, with hard work. I think also trusting life more and allowing yourself to flow on the journey of life and understand that you’re held and looked after and that you’re loved much more then you possibly know. And that is a really important change in my way of living now. I think a big part of this came from when I was in Thailand for two months, well I went for two weeks and I ended up staying two months. I went on my own, I decided I just wanted to get out of London. It was getting too grey at Christmas. So I just put myself on a plane and just turned up there and it was such an incredible lesson on how life looks after you, how you are always guided and protected and if you trust life it all works out in the end in this magically way. And I just had such a medicinal time in Thailand and that’s the biggest message I came away with and that’s how I’m trying to live my life more. Its kind of just being much more open to life, being much more trusting and saying yes to new experiences as well.
Okay well I feel like we covered so much and its been so brilliant talking to you. Is there anything you want to add or that you are looking forward to?
I just want to say thank you actually, I absolutely loved the photos that you shot, they looked absolutely stunning and it was a really beautiful experience.