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Interview: Naomie Harris, from Moneypenny to ‘Moonlight’

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CHICAGO – The career of actress Naomie Harris has exploded, mostly due to a choice role of Moneypenny in the James Bond film series, beginning with 2012’s “Skyfall” and bookended in the recent “Spectre” (2015). But she also displays deep acting chops in the new film “Moonlight,” portraying a mother hopelessly lost in drug abuse.

The film features Harris as Paula, the mother of the main character Little/Chiron/Black – he has a different name in each of the three “chapters” of the film, and portrayed by different actors in each chapter as a child, teenager and adult. He is a unique soul from a desperately poor African American neighborhood in Miami, and knows that he is gay, but has that part of his life challenge at many levels, including his all-too-absent mother. The film also is the directorial debut of Barry Jenkins.

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Naomie Harris as Paula in ‘Moonlight’
Photo credit: A24

Naomie Harris started her career as a child actor in television and film, and she has done other substantial roles besides Moneypenny. Her breakthrough came as the lead character in a PBS miniseries, “White Teeth,” and a major part in “28 Days Later” (both in 2002). This was followed by a high profile role in two films of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series (2006 & ‘07), and a portrayal of Winnie Mandela in “Long Walk to Freedom” (2015). Coming in December, she will be seen in the upcoming fantasy film, “Collateral Beauty.”

HollywoodChicago.com spoke to Harris during her promotional appearance in Chicago for “Moonlight,” and yes, she does have an opinion for the character of Moneypenny.

HollywoodChicago.com: Since I assume you never had the experience of Paula in your own life, how did you shed judging her, and embracing her?

Naomie Harris: It was the matter of doing an incredible amount of research. I had a month, and I used as much as that time period as I could to get inside this world of addiction. When I started this process, the idea of drug addiction was alien to me, or so I thought. What was coming up again and again, as I watched the women who were crack addicts, is that they were raped or sexually abused as children, either one or both. And that allowed me to understand that addiction was actually about escaping – wanting to escape pain, wanting to escape themselves.

I realized whenever they experience this incredibly intimate violation, that they went into a physical and torment that was relived over and over. They all were looking for something to numb the pain. You can’t blame someone who is at that level of pain, and has no resources or support to go elsewhere to ease it. That’s when I began to think what had happened to Paula that caused her addiction, and that is where I found the empathy for portraying her.

HollywoodChicago.com: I heard this was a very short shooting period. How did director Barry Jenkins get you prepared for living in Paula’s soul in bringing her to life, in different life phases?

Harris: Well, we didn’t shoot in sequence, so I had to jump back and forth with Paula between those phases. It was based on location and lighting. I had to make sure I knew the character inside and out, so we could hit the ground running once I got there to work. How Barry helped me was in explaining how personal the story was for him, and he was actually asking me to portray his mother. That hit a chord with me, and gave me a special responsibility to get it right.

HollywoodChicago.com: Since you are British, what do you observe about the African American that was crucial for you to understand Paula?

Harris: I didn’t approach the role through a cultural experience, but a human experience – what was it about her that made up her circumstances, and what makes up her state of poverty, trauma and lack of support that creates her difficult life. I also looked at her environment, and presumed she grew up in a stressful situation where crime was rife, and she couldn’t provide the support and protection for her son that she wanted to.

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Naomie Harris as the New Age Moneypenny in ‘Spectre’
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

HollywoodChicago.com: What do you feel the lack of education or hope does for people in Paula’s situation, since you had opportunities that she never had?

Harris: The education gap is huge because education is the answer to everything, really, and on so many different levels. The minutiae of life require analytical skills that you learn in being educated, an ability to navigate the very systems that constitute life. They all require some degree of education, and if you don’t get it, you’re at a real disadvantage.

HollywoodChicago.com: You had some very splashy debut roles with ‘28 Days Later…’ and ‘White Teeth.’ How did those two early roles formulate a path for you in your career, and how have they served you to this point?

Harris: There wasn’t so much of a evolution with ‘White Teeth,’ which was much more of a niche miniseries. Most people haven’t seen that series, but most people have seen ’28 Days Later…’ When I’m auditioning, directors always reference it. It still has an impact on my career.

As much as I can in interviews, I want to thank Danny Boyle [director of ’28 Days Later…’], because he took a risk by casting me, nine months out of drama school. I had few credits that anyone remembered, but he was willing to put me in the film. He definitely wanted me for the film, and I think the producers were hesitant, preferring to have a more name actor. He actually called me at home, and coached me for the call back audition. So I owe him a lot.

HollywoodChicago.com: Winnie Mandela once said she felt that your portrayal of her in ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ was the first time anyone had captured who she was on film. What did you think you brought to that role, to honor her as you did?

Harris: Again I think it was about the research, and gaining as much information as possible. The difficulty in portraying Winnie is that I discovered there are polar opposite views as to who she is. A large number of people paint her as a saint who led a movement, and there is an equally large number who see her as a fraud, and the devil, even a murderer and drug addict. The challenge for me was marrying those two completely opposite opinions of who she was.

Winnie herself did me a great service, because I sat down with her, and asked her how she wanted me to portray her. I figured she’d say something symbolic as her role in the movement or some other lofty ideal, but she surprised me. She simply told me that I was hired to do the part because I was right for it, and gave me permission to do the role as I saw fit. She handed back all the power to me, and it was a beautiful and liberating thing for her to do for me. I owned the role after that, because I wasn’t trying to perform it for any other opinion.

HollywoodChicago.com: You bring a sensuality to Moneypenny – and a first name! – in the James Bond series that hadn’t been explored before. How do you think women are evolving in that series, and what did you get from the former Moneypennys that you tipped in your portrayal?

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Naomie Harris in Chicago
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

Harris: I was allowed to evolve the character. When [director] Sam Mendes and the producers offered me the role, they said they wanted to reinvent the character, to make her someone that the women of today could up to, and want to identify with here. She’s still a fantasy figure, but that’s what they allowed me to do, so I didn’t feel constrained by the Moneypenny-in-legend. I felt I could be a departure from that, and do with her what I felt was right.

It was a lot of responsibility to step into the shoes of a role that has been in the culture for over 50 years, and I was very lucky when I got the role. While we were filming, I had to tell everyone I was portraying a ‘Bond girl,’ so there was no expectation when I appeared as her. That was wonderfully liberating.

HollywoodChicago.com: After reaching those heights, I applaud you for doing an independent film like ‘Moonlight.’

Harris: That’s the joy of it. I want to keep my career as varied as possible. I want to keep challenging myself, that is what keeps it exciting.

HollywoodChicago.com: As an actor who has blurred the line between roles of a person of color in the iconic movie series, and have distinguished herself beyond looks and even gender, what is advantageous to you about being an actor in the now?

Harris: What is advantageous is that we’re in a time of flux, in which people are realizing that old models of doing business aren’t working. Before you’d just create a blockbuster script, add the right names in the mix, get a fancy director, and ‘bob’s your uncle,’ we have a hit. It simply doesn’t work like that anymore.

And here we have ‘Moonlight,’ a small film made for a tiny budget, with little known and unknown actors, and there is something that appeals to so many people, it starts to build and has a really high per-screen gross on just four screens. When there is no formula, you can explore different voices, and allow for different ethnic faces to take lead roles in films. That’s exciting to me.

HollywoodChicago.com: At what point in your career did you turn around, and just think, ‘how the hell did I get here.’

Harris: All the time. Because acting is a career without a safety net, because it’s not like a professional job where every year you hope to be promoted, and get a sense of career stability. There is never any stability in this business.

Which brings me back to Danny Boyle. I was having a real slump in my career, and he chose me to play Elizabeth in the play ‘Frankenstein’ at the National Theater, and that re-invigorated everything, and that’s what got me the part in the James Bond series. It was thanks to Danny again. That is acting…sometimes you’re hot, and sometimes you’re not.

For the 4.5/5 star review of “Moonlight,” by Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com, CLICK HERE.

For an interview of director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell McCraney of “Moonlight,” by Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com, CLICK HERE.

For an interview of actor André Holland of “Moonlight,” by Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com, CLICK HERE.

”Moonlight” continues its release in theaters nationwide. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring André Holland, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Screenplay by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell McCraney. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Writer, Editorial Coordinator
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2016 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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