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“I think anybody who sees this movie cannot fail to be deeply affected by it,” says actress Naomie Harris in reference to Moonlight — the new film, in theaters Oct. 21, for which she is a frontrunner to win the best supporting actress Oscar — as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. In Barry Jenkins‘ low-budget indie drama, the stunning 40-year-old Brit, heretofore best known for her work in two Pirates of the Caribbean and two James Bond blockbusters, plays the crack-addicted mother of a young gay boy over the course of 20 tumultuous years. She continues, “It’s one of these movies that is so subtle it just manages to get under your skin and to affect your heart. You come with all these judgments about what is right and what is wrong and morally correct and so on — and then it actually just connects with you on such a deep, profound level that you can’t help but to be moved, and you can’t help but to grow from the experience.”
(Click above to listen to this episode now or here to access all of our 90+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Harris, who is black, was raised by a single mother in a working-class and multi-racial community. “When I was growing up I didn’t even realize I was black,” she says. A talent for drama led to her getting an agent and landing a TV show while still in primary school, and also resulted in her being bullied by classmates. Even years later, after she earned a spot at Cambridge University, she still felt isolated. “I was the only black person in my entire year,” she explains. “I just found it such an alienating experience, I found it incredibly hard to make friends and to fit in, and it was not a happy time.”
Things turned around for Harris, though, after she landed a spot at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and began pursuing a drama degree. “I was finally doing something that I really, really loved,” she says. “I never doubted that acting was what I was born to do.” Nine months after graduating, she landed the lead in Danny Boyle‘s 28 Days Later. “I didn’t even know, when I was auditioning, that it was actually for the lead role,” she notes with a laugh, “so it was all a bit of a shock, really.” That same year, she starred in the four-part British miniseries White Teeth — “one of my favorite roles” — as a woman becoming sexually liberated. And the one-two combo of her work in those projects put her on the map to stay.
Before long, Harris was appearing in giant blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) and Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015). Even she was surprised by these developments. She didn’t think she’d get the Pirates films because director Gore Verbinski acknowledged to her before her audition for the part of Tia Dalma that “he always imagined that she was a very voluptuous character, which I’m not,” adding, “That was an amazing experience because I managed to change his mind there and then in the room. And Tia Dalma is one of my favorite roles that I’ve ever played.”
As for the part of Moneypenny in the Bond films, Harris says, “I never dreamed of being in a Bond movie because I never thought it was a possibility. The Bond girls, up until that point, had been usually in their twenties and also they’d have certain assets — that voluptuous figure that I just don’t have; I’m more like a stick-figure. So I just thought I’ll never be offered that kind of role. So it was really weird to me when I got asked to come in and meet Sam Mendes.” She was thrilled to get to play the part, though, because unlike some Bond girls, she says, “She’s not arm candy. She’s going toe-to-toe with him and she’s grappling with the same issues that he’s grappling with. And I loved that.”
In the meantime, Harris continued to star in important low and mid-range budget movies, including two for director Justin Chadwick. In 2010’s The First Grader, she played the teacher of 80 Kenyan children, which she says, “was really one of the most heartwarming experiences for me, and one of those experiences where you really get an insight into a community that you would never normally, in every day life, get access to.” Then, in 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), she was cast as Winnie Mandela, who was married to South African leader Nelson Mandela from 1958 to 1996. “I was really terrified when I got offered the role,” she confesses — but when all was said and done, Mrs. Mandela had nothing but praise for her performance. “She said it was almost like I had somehow found a way of channeling her life and channeling her onscreen,” Harris reluctantly reports, “and she said no one had ever depicted her better. So I was like, ‘Job done.'”
Harris never has been better, though, than she is in Moonlight, which was made for less than $5 million, and for which she shot her scenes in just three days during a break from the Spectre press junket. The stunning beauty is virtually unrecognizable and utterly heartbreaking as Paula, the only performer who appears in each of the film’s three chapters. However, she almost turned down the part. When she first was sent the script by Plan B, she says, “I read it and I cried my eyes out. I thought, ‘This is such a beautiful script.'” But she had “quite a bit of hesitation” about saying yes because, she says, she’d always “drawn a line at playing a crack addict,” not wanting to reinforce stereotypes about black women. But when she shared these concerns with Jenkins, Jenkins told her understood her concerns but that the character she was being asked to play actually existed — it is an amalgamation of playwright Tarell McCraney and his own mother — and that he felt their stories deserved to be told, too.
And so, with no time for rehearsal (or “getting to know my sons,” she says in reference to the three actors who play her son), but having done immense independent preparation (working with an accent coach, watching documentaries about crack addicts and generally readying herself “to hit the ground running”), this model of clean living (“I don’t smoke, I don’t drink any alcohol, I don’t even drink coffee”) “managed to find a level of connection with Paula that I didn’t think it was possible to find,” and gave the performance of her life.
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