Serious actress though she may be — as she amply demonstrates anew in portraying the poignant and historic figure Winnie Mandela in the current “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” — there’s an air of mischief that reverberates from Naomie Harris much of the time.
An audience of UCLA students glimpsed it recently at a special screening even as the film’s earnest and voluble director, Justin Chadwick, was describing how Harris and Idris Elba (as the title figure) made such a good creative match that they voluntarily turned up early on the set to work with each other. As he elaborated, Harris showed the audience a covert smile that slowly widened until, eyes alight, she made the universal gesture of deletion, feathering a cross-cutting right hand across her throat. Early is for suckers, the gesture seemed to say.
Elba, for his part, was quick to bolster Chadwick’s theme. He had described Chadwick’s style of meticulous “360-degree filmmaking” — meaning that amid the shoot that took place in great part on the actual South African locations from decades prior, if you opened a desk drawer it would have authentically time-appropriate documents inside — and in Harris he said he found “a 360-degree actor — no matter where I turned, whatever I threw out, she would be right there to carry the scene.”
In portraying a couple who lived as young marrieds for only a matter of months in a South Africa under apartheid rule before Nelson Mandela was hauled off to 27 years in prison, then uncomfortably reunited in the aftermath of violent repression and revolution, the pair have only about 10 minutes of shared screen time. Even as the once-buoyant love story gutters out with impressively subtle work from Elba and Harris, the film does not shrink from linking scenes of raw internecine violence in the freedom movement with Winnie Mandela’s denunciation of “traitors” to the cause.
When she had the chance to confer with Winnie Mandela — whose only dictum was that Harris do her homework and portray her truthfully — the actress found that “Winnie’s someone who wants to fight on the front lines. And she did in Soweto. She was right there when all those youth uprisings were happening. When you really understand what was happening during apartheid, it really was warfare; there wasn’t much room for her to reflect. When you’re getting firebombs through your window, you react in much more visceral fashion, rather than take time to sit back and reflect about peace and love and what does this mean.”
Chadwick was thrilled to discover a trove of nine rolls of uncut 16-millimeter interviews that had been done on the sly by documentarians in 1970 just after Winnie emerged from 17 months in solitary confinement: “You see a real woman that’s been broken but also full of anger and full of hatred of what’s happened to her. And you see the radical that she became in that footage. So I was able to show that to Naomie right in the early days.”
The 37-year-old actress fit the indie, locally produced film in between her acting jobs as Miss Moneypenny in 2010’s “Skyfall” and the next iteration of the franchise, known as “Bond 24” for now. As the fright-wigged Tia Dalma in the 2006 and 2007 editions of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Harris sidestepped the exploitative clichés that lesser mainstream pictures might have shackled to her, and she was glad to take on a role as the first feisty Miss Moneypenny: “That was Sam Mendes, the director, and Barbara Broccoli, the producer — they wanted to keep the essence of the franchise but have a Moneypenny who was much more identifiable to women today, someone that they could aspire to and look up to and respect.”
And she didn’t blink when she recently had the chance (along with Mandela daughters Zindzi and Zenani) to meet the “charismatic and really charming” President Obama at a special White House screening of “Mandela.”
“He said, ‘The last time that I saw you, you were kicking some serious butt in “Skyfall.” ‘ And I said, ‘Well, I kicked some serious butt in this movie too.'”
If there’s a touch of mischievousness in that reply, there’s also undeniable veracity.