American audiences probably recognize Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, the intelligence officer who enjoys a robust flirtation with Daniel Craig in the current James Bond movies. Or perhaps they’ve seen her in the later installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But blockbusters aside, the 40-year-old British actress has received fine notices for her work in smaller films like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in which she played Nelson Mandela’s fearsome wife Winnie Mandela, but none more glowing than for her intense, wide-ranging, at times brutally ugly turn as the drug-addicted mother of a gay son in the director Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-nominated Moonlight. The film plays out over three parts, and Paula, her character, ages decades, from a young mom to middle age. Yet Harris had only three days to film her scenes, making her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination all the more impressive. Here, she explains how she took on the part that might come to define her career.
What was the first thing you auditioned for professionally?
A show called Simon and the Witch. I was only nine years old and I got it. [The role] was a little girl in a school where a witch came and joined the classroom as another student, and all the students realized that she was a witch, but the teachers didn’t.
Were you dramatic as a child?
I think I was pretty dramatic as a kid, because I used to stand in front of the mirror and try to make myself cry. And I was always living in an imaginary world with Michael Jackson, because I was a big Michael Jackson fan.
What was Michael Jackson’s role in this world?
Michael Jackson was going to rescue me from school, because I was bullied at school. I would imagine that he was waiting at the school gates and he was going to come and collect me and whisk me away to a happier world.
Quite tragic, really.
Did you ever meet him?
I did a film with Brett Ratner, and Brett is friends with Michael Jackson. He was supposed to come on set, but he didn’t come that day, so I never got to meet him. I’ve always been gutted about that.
So how did Moonlight come to you?
Jeremy Kleiner, our producer, had wanted to work with me on another project and it didn’t worked out. So he came to me with this script. He actually told me a bit of a producer’s lie, because he told me that Barry [Jenkins, the writer-director] had written the role with me in mind, which I later discovered was not true. [Laughs.]
But it might as well be true because you’re so amazing in the part. Did you move to Miami?
Well, I only had three days to shoot the movie.
You shot the whole thing in three days? Unbelievable.
So every hour you were aging?
I wish. We shot the whole thing completely out of sequence. So I was going from older to younger middle age, all over the place.
That’s so intense.
It was never meant to be like that. I was supposed to shoot, I think, over three weeks. But they couldn’t get my visa sorted, so it ended up being condensed into just three days.
Were you a nervous wreck?
I wasn’t, actually. Barry was so calming and reassuring and he just made me feel like it was perfectly possible to do this. And also I had done my research beforehand so I knew the character. I felt like I knew her inside out. I felt like I knew her more than any other character that I’ve played because I knew I had such little time on set.
Truly, I am blown away. That is really impressive, especially because she goes through such dramatic changes.
Thank you very much. [Laughs.]
It’s pretty intense—it’s actually hateful—what you have to say to your son in the movie. Was it very difficult to do that scene?
Yeah, it was a really tough scene to shoot, and I actually asked because I was supposed to be shouting at my son, who was played by Alex Hibbert, who’s only 11 years old. And I just felt that that wasn’t fair, because he’s such a little boy, to shout at him that way. So I asked Barry to remove him from the set, so I was actually shouting at a wall, not Alex.
When did you first see the movie?
I don’t know how many months ago, but they set up a private screening with myself and my family.
What did you mother say?
I looked over at the end and my mom was in tears. It’s an incredible movie. I’m very, very proud of it.
You should be. So let’s ask some fun questions. What movie makes you cry?
E.T.—when it seems like he’s dead, I always believe, like, “Oh my gosh he died,” and then I start crying. And then I’m happy when he wakes up, but I’m still sad at the end, because it’s still a very happy/sad movie.
Who’s your cinematic crush?
You know, it was always Michael Jackson for me. I imagine myself as like this Peter Pan type of character, and that’s what Michael Jackson represented for me. He was always my guy. I used to draw pictures of me and Michael getting married, and then I would send them to his fan club. Really sad.
What was it like for you when he died?
Oh, don’t go there. Oh my gosh, I’m like welling up, this is supposed to be the happier questions. Stop, wow.
[Laughs.] Who’s your girl crush?
Gosh, I have so many. I love Dame Judi Dench. I love Maggie Smith. I love Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, there’s so many.
You acted with Dame Judi because of Bond, right?
Did you ever get any great advice from one of your girl crushes?
Not from one of my girl crushes, but I worked with Dawn French and she gave me the best advice ever: “Develop a thick skin to survive in this industry.”
What’s your irrational fear?
I am irrationally afraid of the dark. I feel like as soon as the lights are on, everything’s okay. And then when the lights go off I suddenly feel like anything could happen, which is really kind of ridiculous and I should have got over it at the age of 40, but I still am afraid of the dark.
Where was your first kiss?
At university, in my dorm room.
Oh, that’s so healthy.
[Laughs.] That’s a proper kiss, right?
Is kissing in a movie awkward for you?
I’ve never had a problem with that, because generally people don’t use tongues. So it doesn’t feel so intimate. Um, I had an actor last year who used tongues and I was like, “What is going on?” [Laughs.] “This is way too much.” I did have to say, “Please stop using tongue,” this is not normal, who does that?
[Laughs.] So he really liked you.
What’s your favorite love scene in a movie?
My favorite love scene would be the, you know, Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger, “You complete me.” That is the ultimate line, no? Isn’t everybody looking for that person that completes them, right?
But I for some reason didn’t buy it, but whatever. [Laughs.]
You didn’t buy it? Oh my gosh.
You’re more romantic than I am.
I’m very romantic, clearly.