The strange thing about meeting Naomie Harris is that she is taller, more glamorous, more striking and more beautiful in real life than she is on screen. There, she is an actor, disappearing into roles: snappy, smart and sexy as the current Eve Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise; strong, implacable and complicated as Winnie Mandela in 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; and now as Angela Rivera, in the boxing movie Southpaw, a social worker on the sideline of the film’s main action, but crucial to its moral center.
In her work, Naomie Harris plays characters who are shaped by their flaws and circumstances. In life, 38-year-old Harris seems smooth and unflawed. Her posture is remarkable; she stands ramrod straight. She doesn’t drink, eats carefully and consciously, and exercises frequently. She is groomed to a Jackie Kennedy level, not a hair out of place, but it looks effortless. When I meet her, she is wearing a lilac mini dress and matching suede flats, and her makeup is almost invisible. She studied at Cambridge University then the revered Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and has been acting since she was nine, so she is also highly educated, well trained in her craft, and continues to “self-improve”. How did she know she wanted to act? “I just knew,” she says firmly. “I was born knowing.”
It’s no wonder Harris has never lacked work, then. You will have seen her on screen more than you probably realize, in films such as zombie-horror 28 Days Later or the blockbusting Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But the real turning point in her career came in 2011, when she played Elizabeth Lavenza in Danny Boyle’s acclaimed National Theatre Live production of Frankenstein, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. “The part scared me, so I thought, let’s do it!” says Harris. “It was an amazing experience. Everyone came to see that play. Sam Mendes came to see it. James Cameron came to see it. [The casting director for Skyfall] Debbie McWilliams came to see it, and [afterwards she] said, ‘I think Naomie should play Moneypenny.’”
Harris grew up in Finsbury Park, north London, the daughter of a Trinidadian father (who wasn’t around when she was growing up) and a Jamaican mother, and she experienced poverty as a child. Her mother, to whom she is extremely close, was unemployed for the first five years of Harris’ life – she has since had a successful career as a writer and playwright, and is now a healer. But you would never know any of this: Harris is all poise, polish and calm. For example: we have met to discuss Southpaw. Antoine Fuqua’s movie tells the story of Billy Hope, a light-heavyweight boxing champion played by a beefed-up – and very convincing – Jake Gyllenhaal, “[SOUTHPAW director Antoine Fuqua] makes actors feel valued. It means you CAN and WANT to take risks” whose perfect life – loving wife, adoring young daughter and beautiful mansion – is ricocheted off course by sudden tragedy. The climax of the film is his redemption fight, which Hope’s daughter and her social worker, Angela [Harris], watch on a video monitor in the changing room.
“The fight had been filmed before, so that’s what we were actually watching on the monitor,” Harris explains. Did she watch the filming of the fight itself? “No,” she says. “I’ve never been to a boxing match. But Antoine talked about how primal it is.” Would she like to see a real one? “No!” she says. “I’d never do that. You smell death in the air.” She pauses, incredulous at the idea of witnessing such a brutal spectacle. “That’s my worst possible nightmare,” she adds, entirely without side or irony. You see? Not primal. Not even tempted.
So if it wasn’t a love of boxing that attracted her to the movie, and the part, though good, wasn’t a Winnie Mandela-type challenge, what did draw her? “Antoine called me. He was so passionate, so persuasive, that by the end of the call, I was like, ‘I’m getting on the plane to Pittsburgh and working with this man,’” says Harris. “I’m so glad I did. He pushes you really hard, but he shows he has faith that you can do it. He makes actors feel valued and important, and creates an environment that is totally safe. All those things mean you can and want to take risks. I had the best time.”
You can understand why Fuqua was so keen for Harris to play the role of Angela: she is fair and firm; she is all about boundaries, and yet she also radiates warmth on screen. She is the Platonic ideal of a social worker. And yet, in Southpaw, the role isn’t as fleshed out as it could be; Angela surely has an interesting backstory, but you don’t see it. “Ah,” says Harris.
“I haven’t seen the finished film yet, but there’s a big scene, which sounds like it’s been cut, when Angela explains to Billy that she was once a crack addict and had her own child taken from her. So she’s passionate about helping children and parents get through the care system and get out of it.”
Harris has become animated and passionate, and not the least bit perturbed that her major scene in the film may have ended up on the cutting-room floor. Instead, she is much more interested in talking about parenting issues. “People like Billy don’t know how to parent. I did the Hoffman Process recently, which is all about learning re-parenting, because so many of us come from dysfunctional parents, and we get trapped in negative patterns that stem from that. To break those patterns you have to be in a space where you can recreate what you went through and deal with it.”
The Hoffman Process is an intensive, residential, week-long therapy course that combines several practices to help those with anxiety or depression, or those who need to become ‘unstuck’ and move on in their life. But Harris doesn’t seem stuck at all. She will reprise her role as Miss Moneypenny in the 24th installment of Bond, Spectre, in November, and has a new film project, which she can’t talk about yet, starting in the fall. She declines, politely, to talk about her personal life (and always has done, thanks to a publicist who, early in her career, advised her to keep that particular door firmly shut), but Harris seems extricated by any baggage. So why did she undergo the Hoffman Process? “Because I want to fully become an adult,” she says, looking almost astonished that I should ask. “Most of us operate as if we are adults, but we aren’t emotionally mature at all.”
She nods her head vigorously when I ask her if she enjoyed the experience and if she will stay in touch with others on the course (it is mainly group therapy).
“Absolutely,” she says. “We text each other all the time. I spoke at length last night on the phone to someone who had reached out to me, and in the same way I’ll be able to reach out to them when I need to.” She pauses. “I just want to be the best human being I can be.”
No wonder Harris doesn’t mind if one of her film parts is reduced: it turns out that this actor’s ultimate role is to play herself, perfectly.