British actress Naomie Harris, 37, has been acting since she was just 11-years-old. Her breakthrough role came in 2002 in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, she later went on to play roles in blockbuster movies like Pirates Of The Caribbean and Bond-girl Agent Eve in Skyfall, but her biggest role came just last year, playing the one and only Winnie Mandela in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.
Life+Times caught up with the Cambridge University graduate to discuss playing Winnie Mandela, the death of the iconic South African revolutionary leader Nelson Mandela and the Hollywood award season.
Life+Times: I loved your portrayal of Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. What was it like watching your performance back?
Naomie Harris: I think it’s never easy to watch yourself up on the screen at all. This is one of the rare times where I watched myself and I think the movie is such a great movie that I got swept up in the story and stopped criticizing and looking at myself apart from the movie. I just saw the film as a whole and I was really moved by it. I got very emotional and tearful when I watched it back, which I don’t normally with my own work because I’m normally so critical and I also know what’s coming and I know the story, but you can’t help but to watch and be affected by it.
L+T: Did you and the cast feel extra pressure with this movie? Not just because it’s such a historical and important story being told but also with reports of Nelson Mandela’s health rapidly declining?
NH: Well, we didn’t really know that he was so ill when we were filming so we weren’t really aware of that until production had finished and really during the promotional phase was when we became really aware. Irrespective of him not being well, we felt tremendous amounts of pressure because we’re playing icons, basically and you always feel a huge sense of pressure when you’re playing anybody who’s living, but when you’re playing someone that people respect and admire; millions and millions of people all around the world respect and admire the Mandela’s, particularly obviously Nelson. Winnie is a lot more controversial, but everyone has strong ideas about who should play them, how they should be played, who they are and so that always filled you with an extra sense of responsibility.
L+T: What has been the most touching feedback you have received regarding playing this role?
NH: I think when we had the South African premiere. Winnie Mandela was in the audience and she watched it and she said it was the first time she felt that she had been captured on film and that she felt that I wasn’t acting, but I was channelling her. That really gave me goosebumps. I just thought that’s the greatest honor I could ask for. For the person you’re playing to say you’ve completely captured them is amazing. Especially because I’m not South African!
L+T: Winnie Mandela is such a complex character. What similarities did you find between yourselves that you could draw from?
NH: That’s interesting! I think her warmth, her love for children and the fact that she is fundamentally a family person. I love my family, I don’t have children of my own, but I’m very close to my younger brother and sister and family is everything to me. I can understand her love for her daughters and how she was such a great mother to them despite everything they went though and their closeness still. Zindzi and Zenani are practically always with their mother even now, so I could really relate to that. I could relate to her desire to break traditional stereotypes for women as well and wanting to enter the political arena and be an activist. Obviously I’m not an activist or involved in politics, but I also feel very strongly about breaking traditional ideas about who woman are and what they’re capable of and I’m also very ambitious as well, so I think those kind of traits I drew on.
L+T: Was there anything you found hard to portray?
NH: Yeah, I did. I found it really difficult to portray her… she has a lot of rage and she’s not afraid of confrontation. She has a lot of anger and there’s a real desire for justice, which entails a lot of revenge in her mind. For me, I try never to hate anybody, I hate confrontation and I’m not a particularly angry person. I always avoid angry situations, so to have to inhabit that level of rage, volatility, anger and hatred was really difficult for me because I’ve spent so long in my own life trying to run away from those emotions.
L+T: Did you learn anything about yourself from this role?
NH: I think I learned that all emotions are within us. You may not think you’re a particularly angry, vengeful or violent person but actually, humanity is capable of so much good and so much bad as well. When you really start exploring who you are inside, in your inner truth you discover that actually, you’re not different from the person you’re portraying in terms of you are capable of those types of emotions. I discovered an immense amount of range and anger in myself, which was a real surprise to me. Obviously It was triggered by imagining myself in Winnie’s situation and the scenarios she went through, the daily injustices, the humiliation, the brutalization by the police, but given all of that, I found that rage in myself.
L+T: How was it working with Harvey Weinstein on this project?
NH: It’s great to work with Harvey! He really believes in independent film and he’s really passionate about it. I’ve never met anyone in this business I don’t think who works as hard as Harvey and is as passionate about film as he is. I mean, I don’t think the man sleeps! He’s just so incredibly hard working; always on a plane, jetting around here there and everywhere to promote his movies. He was so supportive of Mandela that it’s unbelievable that he had seven other films that he was promoting at the same time. You’d never be able to tell because he was so passionate and wholeheartedly with us, physically a lot of the time, I think what he manages to achieve is really extraordinary.
L+T: It must have been so surreal having the London premiere, not knowing that the world had lost the man the film was about. How emotional was that night as a whole?
NH: It was hugely emotional because it was a real shock to us. As far as we were aware, Mandela was in good health, doing well and in a stable condition, so it was a total shock. We really didn’t expect it. Both Idris [Elba] and I were watching the moving with Kate and Prince William and it was a huge night for us because we had all our friends and family there, since we’re both from London. Someone then came up to us and said, “Come out of the screening,” and it was around three quarters of the way through the movie. We went outside and we were told by the producers and director that Mandela had died and everyone was in complete shock. Anant [Singh], one of the producers who had a very close relationship with Mandela, was hugely distressed, as was his wife, and obviously our director who spent a lot of time with Mandela before the movie was made. So everybody was very distraught. We had to get permission from Zindzi and Zenani to whether or not to allow the film to continue and the decision was made to continue the screening of the film and that was really harrowing; hearing the speeches and seeing Idris playing Mandela and knowing this great man had just died, it was incredibly moving.
L+T: It must have been even more surreal with his daughters being there?
NH: Well his daughters weren’t there actually as they’d already left. They introduced the film with us, but then they went back to their hotel and apparently it was because they discovered much earlier than we did that he had died. As soon as they introduced the film, they got text messages once they’d left the cinema to say that he’d died so they went back to deal with the situation and speak to relatives.
L+T: How was the feedback from the Mandela family? It seems they’re very happy with the portrayal?
NH: A lot of them were there at the South African premiere and they were in tears by the end. Everyone thought it was a really comprehensive and accurate portrayal of the struggle of the Mandela’s. From the very beginning they’ve been incredibly supportive, because this is the only film about the Mandela’s that’s been supported by them, so we had access to all kinds of materials that other people who have made films about Mandela wouldn’t have access to. The Nelson Mandela Foundation opened its doors to us and gave us letters and things that would help us in our research.
L+T: Ultimately, would you agree that it’s a wonderfully timely and fitting tribute to Mandela?
NH: Yes, that’s exactly what I feel. I feel extremely honored and proud at the time it happened and now, still to be part of a move that celebrates his life because it really is a celebration of all of his achievements and his legacy and of the man, the man behind the political icon. It feels like a privilege to be a part of a movie like that at this particular time.
L+T: You seem to have a great relationship with Idris Elba and he recently spoke out on Twitter about your BAFTA snub. Were you disappointed at all not to be nominated?
NH: I don’t think it’s a “BAFTA snub.” There are great performances every year and there are only what… five people who can be nominated? So there’s not room for every performance that is considered good to be nominated. You win some; you lose some, that’s just the way it is.
L+T: Were you surprised or disappointed?
NH: When we did the film, we were never thinking about nominations. That’s not why we made the movie. Certainly when we initially showed the movie, it was about as I said before, a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life, then everybody kind of said, “Wow, this movie’s going to get so many awards, it’s going to be so amazing.” Then I thought, “Wow that would be really great!” Not just for myself, but for the movie as a whole to be recognized in that way, so you can’t help to be disappointed if you don’t get that recognition. But there are so many great films that came out this year and so many fantastic performances, not everybody is going to get a nomination, it’s totally understandable.
L+T: Did you watch the Golden Globes?
NH: I didn’t, no! I was traveling back from Los Angeles and I’ve only just got back to London. Unfortunately I missed it so I’ll have to catch up.
L+T: Are there any films or performances apart from Mandela that really moved you this year that you hope does well during award season?
NH: I loved 12 Years A Slave. I loved Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance was fantastic. Alfre Woodard was amazing. Sandra Bullock, I always love, I think she’s a phenomenal actress. I loved Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County as well as Benedict Cumberbatch, I thought he was great. I haven’t seen Dallas Buyers Club but everybody’s saying Jared Leto puts on a phenomenal performance. so I can’t wait to see that. I’ve got all my BAFTA screeners since I’m a member of BAFTA so I’m going to watch all of them. I’m really excited to see all their great work. Obviously with all the travelling and promoting I’ve been doing it’s been very difficult to keep up with all the amazing films that have come out recently. It’s been a very strong year which is fantastic because that’s what it’s all about. You want movies that inspire people, make people think and that make a difference. That’s what these films are doing this year, which is fantastic and not just light fluffy movies.
L+T: It has been an amazing year for women in movies… You mentioned some amazing actresses there. Have you had a chance to meet any of them during this current award season?
NH: I met Alfre Woodard which was amazing. I’ve always admired her work. I think she’s just fantastic and so versatile. She’s a real actor and it was great to meet her and she loved Mandela which was fantastic.
L+T: You’ve had some amazing roles. Do you feel that it’s harder for black women in movies? Have you ever felt type-casted?
NH: I’ve never felt type-cast. I’ve always done completely different roles. From playing a Bronx undercover agent in Miami Vice to Tia Dalma, the voodoo witch in Pirates Of The Caribbean, to Hortense in Small Island to Eve in Skyfall and now Winnie Mandela; they’re all completely different and I’ve always been allowed to do that. Directors have been really responsive to that versatility and as an actor you’re a chameleon, you inhabit different people and souls and that’s what being an actor is all about. I’ve always been allowed that versatility. I definitely don’t feel type-cast and I also think there have been tremendous advances in terms of colour blind casting which was the way I was cast for Elizabeth Lavenza in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre. There’s a lot more of that happening which I think is exciting and there’s such fantastic, strong black women that are doing phenomenal work like Kerry Washington, Zoe Saldana, Gabrielle Union; these woman are exceptionally talented and really trail blazing.
L+T: Have you got any roles or projects in the pipeline?
NH: Obviously I’ve got James Bond this year. I’ll be filming that this year. I do have another project I’m working but I can’t talk about that yet.
L+T: So moving away from movies. I love your fashion sense. How would you describe your style and what fashion brands do you like?
NH: I’m very very eclectic and playful with clothes. I don’t have one particular style or brand that I love, I just love to play and create completely different looks and that’s what I find really fun about fashion. It’s almost like taking on different characters in a way that you can completely change your style form day to day. I love a lot of color, simple, fitted cuts, really graphic clothes and I love that mix of a classic shape with something very modern or a modern print or embellishment. The main thing for me is to have fun with clothes. I’m styled by two people; in the UK Treyona Sing, and in the US, Nola Singer and they’re both really good friends. I couldn’t manage to do as many outfits as I’ve done for this tour by myself. We all work as a team and we’re three girls who love fashion so we just play around.
L+T: Do you have your BAFTA outfit yet? Or do you know what you’d like to wear?
NH: I don’t have my BAFTA yet, no!
L+T: The OSCAR nominations are coming out this Thursday. Are you nervous about that?
NH: I’m certain I will not get an OSCAR nomination [Laughs]. I’m not at all nervous!
L+T: Are there any other interests or projects outside of acting that you’re looking to get involved with?
NH: I really love property and I love interior design and architecture. Those are my main passions outside of acting. I’m hopefully going to build a house this year, which I’m very excited about. I’ve renovated property before but it’s always been my dream to build an eco-house and that’s what I’ll hopefully be doing!
L+T: What would your dream role, producer and cast be, if you could choose the whole project?
NH: I love playing strong, independent, feisty, intelligent women so any role like that I’m down for it pretty much. In terms of directors and producers I just absolutely loved working with the team from Mandela. We worked together on The First Grader as well; another little independent film. I had such a great time with them and such a great time with them again on Mandela that I would give anything to work with them again.
L+T: Is there a role that you wished you could have done?
NH: Randomly, if I could sing and dance which I can do neither, I would do The Sound Of Music. I’m obsessed with The Sound Of Music.
L+T: What’s on your iPod?
NH: It’s so eclectic. It’s largely R&B. I’m obsessed with Beyoncé. I love all of her songs; I couldn’t even name one above the other because I think she’s so phenomenally talented and she’s such a great role model as well. I think she’s amazing. But I also love slightly more old school stuff like Whitney Houston. I love her and I listen to her all the time. I listen to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. I used to draw pictures of us getting married! I was a complete and utter weird fan.
L+T: Do you have any weird fans?
NH: I have a fan in Germany who writes to me every single day, which is incredible! But he’s very sweet, there’s nothing weird about him. He’s very sweet.
L+T: What is the biggest misconception about you?
NH: I think the biggest misconception is that everyone thinks I hated my time at Cambridge, how I cried every day and actually it’s so not true. I did have a difficult time at Cambridge but I’m also incredibly proud of the time I spent at Cambridge, there were some great moments and I certainly didn’t cry every day!
L+T: Can you tell us something that people don’t know about you? Or would be surprised to hear?
NH: I do Gyrotonic, which is a form of yoga/ Pilates. I’m very into that. Most people haven’t heard of it but I love it.
L+T: Finally what does the future hold for you? What should we look out for?
NH: In the future, I don’t know when, but my dream is to write a book. I’ve always wanted to write a book; a fiction book or a book about architecture, interior design or renovation.