Two days after being Oscar-nominated for Moonlight, Naomie Harris picks the place for us to meet – a large brasserie near her North London home. It’s teatime and the staff are exceptionally attentive: one waiter seats us, a different one takes the tea order, another one brings it, and a fourth the bill. She smiles a little more blushingly on each pass, and when we leave an hour later, doesn’t notice the entire workforce drawing into a semicircle for a gossip.
Harris, who turned 40 last year, is clearly used to being recognised by now, and may even have learned to quite enjoy it. While her name was well-known before Skyfall and Spectre, taking on the iconic role of Miss Moneypenny has raised her to a new stratosphere of celebrity. But it’s Moonlight that has brought her, for the first time, into the flashbulb fever of awards season.
Nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, for the stunningly talented Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is one of those small-scale success stories any actor feels lucky to be a part of. You can tell Harris feels this way, even if her own contribution is invaluable.
Moving consecutively through three time-frames, it’s the story of Chiron, a gay, black kid in Miami, who grows up to be a gay, black teenager, and on into adulthood, struggling at each stage with accepting his identity and living an open life. Three different, unknown actors – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and former sprinting champ Trevante Rhodes – play this part, and Harris is the only actor who appears in all three sections, as Chiron’s single mother, a crack-addict and some-time prostitute called Paula.
Ever since it premiered in September, the critical acclaim for the $5 million film has been overwhelming – yes, even exceeding this year’s Oscar front-runner, La La Land. Along with her fellow nominee, Mahershala Ali, Harris has stood out in the awards conversation, shortlisted by almost every group going.
Despite all this, she didn’t consider the Oscar nomination a done deal at all. In fact, she was so nervous about not getting one, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the announcement live.
“I was with my mum, and was following it initially,” she says. “And then I couldn’t do it. I was like, ‘Let’s just switch it off, let’s pretend this isn’t happening!’’ I knew either way that my agents would call me and let me know. And then there was this phone call. It was my brother, and he was like, “YOU’VE BEEN NOMINATED!!!”. And then mum – who’s always as cool as a cucumber – she started screaming, my brother was screaming. It was really amazing.”
Harris talks a lot about her mother, Lisselle Kayla, who raised her alone in a Finsbury Park council flat, having separated from her Trinidadian father before she was born. Kayla, who now works as a faith healer, was a TV scriptwriter on EastEnders for many years, and it was under her aegis that Harris made her screen debut, aged nine, on the BBC children’s series Simon and the Witch.
After this, it took more than two decades for her to seek more roles: she says she was “very very shy” when she was starting out, and admits that “naturally, I wouldn’t choose to be in front of a camera, weirdly enough”.
In the meantime, she used the income from her child acting to put herself through university – Pembroke College, Cambridge, where she read Social and Political Sciences – and then got support from “20-odd charities” to pave her way into the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She credits the “incredibly generous” Dawn French with stumping up for her first Equity card, while warning her she’d need a thick skin to survive in the industry. “It’s the best advice anyone’s ever given me.”
In the past – and this has a lot to do with her mother’s influence – Harris had ruled out ever playing a particular kind of role. “I didn’t want to play a crack addict,” she confides. “I feel that there are enough negative portrayals of women in general, and black women in particular. I grew up with this really strong mother – really intelligent, powerful, independent – and I’ve always admired her.
“She was part of a group of strong, powerful women as well. I very rarely saw those women represented on screen. When I started my career, I set out to represent them. So I initially said no to the role.”
When she saw the director’s first film – a lovely microbudget indie called Medicine for Melancholy (2009), made for just $13,000 – it made her reconsider. The script for Moonlight, adapted from an unstaged, semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, then moved her enough to give it serious heed.
“I just thought – look, here is someone who wants to show the full complexity and humanity of this woman. They’re not gonna reduce her to just her addiction. That’s what I had an issue with. It’s not the fact that someone’s a crack addict. It’s this black-and-white, very one-dimensional portrayal: this woman’s a prostitute, bad, this woman’s a crack addict, baaaad. This other person’s a drug dealer, bad. It’s rarely an exploration of all the circumstances that lead someone there.”
The original shooting schedule, which coincided with Harris’s Spectre publicity tour, involved three weeks of back and forth between Miami and London. But this was squeezed down to a mere three days by an unforeseen visa crisis.
“I think someone ticked the wrong box on an application,” she remembers, “and I got stuck in the system. It meant that the clock was ticking constantly, and it was getting closer and closer to the wire for filming. They were having to condense the shooting schedule, as much as possible, until the very last minute. I got a call just after midnight, one night, and had to get out of bed and sign a release form right then, or I would never have got to do it.”
In contrast to last year’s Oscars, which was criticised for neglecting non-white talent, Harris is part of a groundswell of black artists nominated for Academy Awards this year. In Best Supporting Actress alone, Harris is pitted against Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures and Viola Davis for Fences, both of which, with their predominantly black casts, are up against Moonlight for Best Picture. Davis is hotly tipped to win, which Harris says is a relief: it’ll lessen her nerves on the night, and let her enjoy the moment.
Harris is quite bullish on the subject of diversity, verging on done with it – she wishes it was a debate we didn’t even need to have any more. “The award shouldn’t have anything to do with race, at all,” she sighs. “It should be just about a recognition of talent. And sheer bloody hard work. It’s so outdated that we still have to have these conversations. I know the Academy has taken steps, to make the playing field fairer, in terms of voting, adding women and people from ethnic backgrounds into the membership.
“I don’t know if that’s really what made the difference this year. I hope it’s not – that people aren’t choosing on the basis that, this person’s black, this person’s white. It’s just about what resonates with you.”
The talk about casting a black Bond, too – or whoever might replace Daniel Craig in the role – can’t have passed her by. Without sounding anything less than good-humoured, she admits she’s “constantly asked” all these questions.
“My feeling is, Daniel is a brilliant Bond. Both Skyfall and Spectre have been the highest-grossing Bonds of all time, and I think that’s testament to him. People love seeing him as Bond. So I hope he stays, comes back, whatever. I genuinely do not know what’s going on in that department! Because I’m not privy to those conversations.”
“I turned up at an event once, and someone said, ‘Are you excited, because Sam Smith is doing the Bond theme tune?’. And I was like, ‘Is he?!’. They knew before me! That’s how little we’re told.”
Harris is currently rumoured to be single, but doesn’t like to talk about her love life. She describes herself as a “real family person” and clearly has a deep and robust sense of her roots, continuing to live on the same street as her mother, younger sister (18) and brother (21). Between films, there’s nothing she wants to do more than unwind with her nearest and dearest.
“After doing a job, you’re satiated,” she puts it. “You want to soak up real life again, chill out with your friends, do nothing. And then I get an inner calling, which says, ‘OK, it’s time to get back now.’ And then you look at what’s around.”
Does she still get a lot of advice from her mum? “When you’re choosing a role, it has to be your own gut reaction,” she ponders. “So I don’t generally ask her about that. But every role challenges you. Even the roles that superficially, you think, ‘Oh, I’ve got this’ – those are the trickiest. There’s always a point where you think, ‘Oh, I haven’t got her. I can’t find her. Mum, please help!’”
She picks Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (2006) as the toughest part she’s ever had to play, though now singles out wild-eyed voodoo priestess Tia Dalma as one of her favourites. “Finding her was really difficult. My mum helped by saying, you’ve got to go bigger, much bigger. She obviously really understands me, so she knows what triggers me, she knows what my limitations are, and she knows how to push me. So she’s like the best acting coach that you could possibly have. And I have her as my mum! So I always work with her, on pretty much every role.”
It’s a long time since Danny Boyle told Harris to stop sounding so posh. Her first casting call, for Boyle’s cult smash of a zombie thriller 28 Days Later (2002), was a case of going in blind, fresh out of drama school, with no adult movie credits on her résumé. “I genuinely did not believe I had a chance in hell. He’s this huge director, and it’s a big role, as well. But then he called me at home, after my first audition. And he said, ‘Look, you did really well, but I need you to come in, and I need you to scare us. And I need you to drop the Princess Anne accent’, as he called it.”
Especially after hearing the ravaged, sandpapery vocal work she delivers in Moonlight, it’s true that Harris’s diction in real life tends towards the cut-glass. She laughs high and hummingly with her mouth closed. She’s almost always transformed her voice for films, and says she’s most comfortable doing that anyway.
“I prefer to act with an accent. The more layers I have to hide under as a character, the happier I am. So with Paula in Moonlight, despite the torturous journey to get *to* her, once I found her, I was incredibly comfortable on set. Because she is sooooo far removed, she is like the polar opposite to me.
“It was wonderful to be able to jump in her skin. Because there was so little Naomie left. And that’s where I’m happiest.”