Nominee Q&A

Oscars: Naomie Harris Wants to Introduce Oprah to Her Biggest Fan, Her Mom

Austin Hargrave
Naomie Harris

The 'Moonlight' Oscar nominee also praises those who make political acceptance speeches: "I would definitely use the opportunity to speak from my heart."

Naomie Harris swore she'd never play a drug addict.

And yet the stage-trained British actress felt compelled to do just that in Moonlight after hearing about director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins' personal connection to Paula, a single mother hooked on crack cocaine (the director's own mother is a recovering addict).

Harris shot all of her scenes during a three-day break from her Spectre press tour in 2015 and earned her first Oscar nomination for the performance. She spoke with THR about political speeches, the volatility of addicts and getting to watch her mom on the red carpet.

What were your first conversations with Barry Jenkins like?

I had hesitation because I thought Paula was a stereotypical drug addict. But then Barry explained that Paula is an amalgamation of his mother and [playwright] Tarell McCraney's. I realized he was emotionally invested in ensuring that Paula did not become a stereotype and that she's given humanity and complexity. That alleviated my fear and made me want to get involved.

What was the hardest part to nail down?

Her emotional eccentricity. Watching YouTube and a documentary about drug addiction, I was fascinated by crack addicts' emotional roller coasters: happy one minute and sad the next and then angry. The total unpredictability of that behavior, I found fascinating, and I wanted to risk it all.

What was the toughest scene to shoot?

That moment in the middle section, when Paula is at her deepest dependency on her drug addiction. That’s the first scene that I shot — Barry never checked up on me or asked me to audition or rehearsed with me, anything like that; he just trusted that I would be able to deliver on the day. I was absolutely terrified because I have no personal experience of drug addiction, but I knew it was incredibly personal to Barry. I wasn’t sure whether I nailed it.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

There’s a beautiful scene at the end of the movie when I’m apologizing to my son. That reconciliation and forgiveness is so beautiful. I loved seeing Paula’s journey: that she comes to this great acceptance of herself and also the damage she has inflicted on her son.

What excites you most about attending this year's Oscars?

I'm excited because I'm going with my mom. I know how incredibly proud she is of me and how it's going to be so special for her to walk the red carpet and be around all these people she loves or looks up to. My mom is the hugest Oprah fan ever, and it’s her dream to meet Oprah. I met her a year ago at an event in London, and I was thinking about calling my mom and saying, “Just get in the car and get over here!” She is so calm and collected, but I know she will lose it while meeting Oprah. I want to see that moment!

What’s another film you’ve enjoyed this awards season?

I loved Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are extraordinary.

What’s your opinion on politically charged acceptance speeches at the Oscars?

Our role, as artists, is to reflect what's going on in society and offer perspective and insights. And we have more access than anybody else. The fortunate thing about being at the Oscars is that we have a platform in which we can potentially reach millions of people. And I believe that if you believe strongly about something, it's an incredibly important opportunity to get your message across. If I were to win — which I think is highly unlikely — I would definitely use the opportunity to speak from my heart.

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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