Incarcerated in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison, after two decades on Robben Island, the intended recipient of all that clamorous celebration – and demands for his release – was not among the viewers. This is a fact that, amid a lifetime of injustice, and to provide wider context, the forthcoming biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom makes light of.
A short distance across north London, a 12-year-old girl in Finsbury Park was then only dimly aware that all of this was going on. In fact, had it not been a Saturday, it’s more likely Naomie Harris would have been watching EastEnders (on which her mum was a scriptwriter: “Everything stopped for EastEnders in our house”).
“I don’t remember the first time I found out about Mandela,” Harris says. “But I do recall my mum telling me that in another part of the world there were people who, because of the colour of their skin, weren’t able to go to school, weren’t able to ride in the same bus as other people – it seemed so wrong. And also terrifying: I found myself wondering could it happen here?”
Today, Naomie Harris is a lot better informed about a great many things. She’s no longer a girl but a woman – a Bond woman, no less; the latest incarnation of Miss Moneypenny. She’s a Cambridge graduate. At university, she says she skirted around the periphery of author Zadie Smith’s “cool” King’s College clique (Harris would go on to star in 2002’s Channel 4 adaptation of Smith’s White Teeth).
Now playing Winnie to fellow Londoner Idris Elba’s Nelson in Mandela, it’s fair to say that Harris also knows a lot more about Madiba. But there’s still a long list of things she’s terrified of: performing on stage in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein (“I felt like I was going to throw up”); anticipating the carry-on that comes with Bond (“I thought it was going to be this intimidating, massive machine”); being cast in Mandela (“you really feel the weight of responsibility”). And she lived in fear of what Winnie Mandela would think of the film.
“She loved it.” Just days before Mandela’s South African premiere, Harris is clearly relieved. “I was over the moon – she was the one critic I was really scared of. But she’s seen it, she likes it, my job is done.”
If not detained for as long as Mandela himself, the film of his autobiography has been rattling around development hell pretty much since the book was published in 1994. “Lots of different actors and directors were involved over the years,” Harris says. “When it came to Justin [Chadwick, the director, who as happenstance would have it cut his teeth directing EastEnders], it was very much a political piece. Guys in a room hashing out how they were going to dismantle apartheid. He said no, the centre of this piece is a love story.”
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“What he and Bill [screenwriter William Nicholson] have done is show what is happening, on a macro level, in Winnie and Nelson’s relationship. And all of that ties in directly with the ongoing struggle in South Africa; between those that want revenge and those that want peace. This is ultimately what tears Winnie and Nelson apart – it’s because their ideologies are so diametrically opposed by the end.”
Mandela succeeds, Harris says, by humanising both parties. The great man, the greatest of men, is still just that – a man. He has his weaknesses, most notably women. This is something the opening segment of the film plays with, from his numerous dalliances with among others his first wife Evelyn Mase to ultimately picking up Winnie at a bus stop (an event the film treats with artistic licence).
“What is extraordinary about Mandela is what he signifies to the world,” Harris notes. “He says it is possible to overcome your more base urges and forgive those who brutalise you. But this message has less of an impact if you think that this man is a saint.”
Likewise, the film invites its audience to see Winnie, a far more controversial figure, in a different light. It touches on her perceived endorsement of necklacing – where supposed ANC traitors were hounded out, tethered with a rubber tyre filled with petrol, then brutally set alight. But it also attempts to reason why.
“Nelson always said that Winnie had it harder than he did,” Harris says. “He was in prison with his comrades; Winnie was out there with two children. Her home was constantly raided and she didn’t have an income. When she got a job, the police would terrorise [her employer] until they sacked her. She was taken and dumped in front of a house in Bloemfontein, five hours from her home, where they didn’t speak her dialect.
“She was in solitary confinement for 18 months – Nelson did a week and he said afterwards that it was the most horrific thing that you could do to anybody.”
Harris says that being aware of this is key to comprehending Winnie’s “journey and why she became this woman”.
“I think it’s almost easier to understand Winnie than Nelson because he does something that is so against human instinct.”
As for the next Bond, all Harris knows is that shooting is due to start some time in 2014. And of the ongoing rumour of her Mandela co-star Elba’s involvement in the franchise, Harris admits “that’s probably because of my big mouth”.
“A journalist once asked me, ‘Who do you think is going to be the next Bond?’ I said, ‘I’ve just finished working with Idris so, if I had the chance, I would vote for him’. The next thing there were [headlines] going: ‘Naomie Harris says Idris Elba to be the next Bond’. And Idris has had to live with that ever since. Now, nearly every time he does an interview, he gets asked about it.”
If only he had a glamorous, highly skilled secretary to field those calls…
Photography: Andrew Woffinden, Styling: Stephanie Wilson
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is out on 3 January