There was one thing Naomie Harris never wanted to do. Although the classically trained British actress’ resume is enviably varied, complete with a two-film turn as James Bond’s ever-reliable right-hand gal Moneypenny, a recurring role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and a lauded performance as Winnie Mandela in the 2013 biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” Harris had long made it plain that there were roles she just wouldn’t take.
“I set out my career thinking that there were enough stereotypes about black women, so I wanted to make a difference in this arena,” Harris recently told IndieWire. “The only area where I have power is in the roles I choose, so I want to portray progressive images of women.”
And that stance boiled down to one – very firm – no-go: “I drew the line at crack addiction. I’m not going to play a crack addict.” As she recounted the story, Harris couldn’t help but laugh when she got to the kicker. “Life is so amazing, because whenever you say ‘I’m not going to do that,’ or draw a line in the sand, life comes and tests you,” she said.
For Harris, that test came in the form of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” which offered Harris the chance to play the main character’s mother, a multi-faceted woman with troubles to spare, including a crack addiction. Although Harris was struck by Jenkins and Tarell McCraney’s script – based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” – she wasn’t sure that she could go back on her own personal pact.
Jenkins, however, soon put those fears at rest, contextualizing the part of Paula in ways that Harris found irresistible, both as a person and as an actress.
“He said to me, ‘Look, Naomie, I don’t want to ask you to play yet another crack addict,’” she said, recalling their first conversation. “‘But the reality is that this is my mom’s story. This is Tyrell’s mom’s story. Do we just pretend that this didn’t happen? Do we ignore huge swathes of society that are suffering from addiction? We have to tell their story and to tell it compassionately and truthfully.’”
Harris was hooked – and determined to find the reality and truth at the heart of the role.
“I think what happens too often when stories of addiction come up is that they are dismissed as the addiction and that’s all that you see is the addiction and that’s all that they are,” she said. “But we’re much more complex than that as human beings. I was excited by the opportunity to show the layers and complexity of someone with addiction.”
Still, the actress had to put aside her own judgment in order to play Paula effectively. Although Jenkins’ film, which follows a young gay man (played at various ages by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) during his fraught coming-of-age in Miami, is mostly centered on the journey of Chiron (aka “Little” and “Black”), Harris’ role was also pivotal. As the only actor to appear in each of the film’s three chapters, Harris was given her own unique journey to take as Paula, who slowly crumbles before our very eyes.
“What I found fascinating is that I had so much judgment for her when I read it,” Harris said. “I thought she was a bad mother. I thought, ‘How can she be a good mother, she’s a crackhead?’ But actually she is doing the very best that she can with the resources that she has.”
Although Harris didn’t read McCraney’s play – she calls it “fundamentally different,” thanks to Jenkins and McCraney’s copious rewrites, including an all-new third act – she dove into a month’s worth of research on the subject of addiction. That kind of dedication proved to be essential for the actress, who was only on set for about three days, managing to fit her work on the film in during downtime from “Spectre” promotion.
Playing Paula at three very different stages of her life opposite three entirely different actors in such a short amount of time might sound daunting to most, Harris relished the experience.
“I was really lucky because when I played Paula at these different stages, I’m very different,” she said. “In the beginning, I’m trying to hold down a job. I have this addiction but nobody really knows. I’m putting on a very good show of coping with my life. Then in the middle, I’ve completely lost it. I’m at the lowest point in intensive addiction. Then at the end with Black, she has found this rehab center.” By the film’s final chapter, Paula has seemingly moved past some of her biggest demons, eventually emerging with some hard-won hope.
“It’s brilliant, that there’s hope,” Harris said. “Yes, she’s doing the best with the resources that she has, but when she’s off of it, she can turn her life around. And that is something that we see, anyone who is suffering, with the right support can turn their life around. Change is possible.”
Harris hopes that such a universal message will speak to audiences who take a chance on “Moonlight,” a movie that could be easy to classify in overly specific terms.
“I love the fact that people come to this movie thinking, ‘It’s a black movie, it’s a gay movie,’ and then the power of the story reaches through and touches people’s hearts,” Harris said. “We are all struggling with identity. We are all struggling with this search for love and connection.”
Harris and the rest of the “Moonlight” team have already seen evidence of this in action, as the film is coming off a strong festival showing at venues as varied as Telluride, Toronto and New York, where audiences responded mightily to the material. Harris fondly recalled a moment at Telluride when an older man approached Jenkins after a screening, literally crying on his shoulder.
“The power of it is in the stripping back all this social artifice of identity that we all have,” Harris said. “And saying, fundamentally, we are all human, we all have a beating heart, we’re all suffering, we’re all dealing with the same issues, and let’s honor that. And it is a struggle for all of us, right? No one escapes that struggle.”
Harris is far more interested in that reaction than in the possibility of pulling in awards for her work on the film.
“Of course it’s really nice to have people say that you’re being considered, maybe considered, but no one knows what’s gonna happen tomorrow,” Harris said. “So, my thing is just what I want to do is enjoy this film. I think it’s an honor, a huge honor, that I am part of this film.”
That’s not an original sentiment to hear from an actor – that a role was an honor or that they were lucky to be cast in a certain film – but it’s one that Harris obviously believes whole-heartedly. And that has not always been the case for her.
“I’m so lucky to be part of this movie because there is such an amazing cast, every single person,” Harris said. “Genuinely, because, like we have to say this, ‘Oh, yeah, everyone’s so nice,’ when they’re really not, but in this movie everyone is so lovely. I just want to enjoy the moment and be present in the now and just having people come up to you and say, ‘Oh, I love your movie.’ That doesn’t happen all the time, you know?”
Awards or not, Harris is obviously grateful for a part that changed not only her career, but her mind. As for what’s next? More of that, please.
“What I’m really aiming to do is to play progressive roles that really help people to understand and have insight into each other and into life and into relationships and all of the stuff that we’re kind of grappling with,” Harris said. “But I’m not gonna put any labels or barriers on it anymore.”