As the world mourns Nelson Mandela, Naomie Harris takes on her most significant role yet, playing the late South African leader’s wife Winnie in the timely Mandela biopic
Published: 13 December 2013
Updated: 14:37, 13 December 2013
'Age 20 I was so broody,’ says Naomie Harris. ‘I’d left home. I was studying at Cambridge. I wanted a child. I’m so glad I had a baby brother, because otherwise I’d have had a child at 20. He was the best form of contraception ever because I realised you’ve got to be seriously ready for a complete life overhaul.’ Today, Harris, 37, who found fame on the small screen in the Channel 4 adaptation of White Teeth in 2002, and in the cinema with 28 Days Later, Pirates of the Caribbean and Skyfall, still looks 20, curled up on a sofa in a white dressing gown and slippers. But there is a new gravitas. ‘Babies suck energy and time, and you’ve got to be ready to give all of that up. I wasn’t back then. I definitely feel ready now.’
She says she admires the way her friend Thandie Newton has ‘navigated family and career’. ‘She’s pregnant with her third child now and she’s really successful. From talking to people, having a baby actually makes you a better actor,’ she insists. ‘Because it’s all about life experience. You can only bring what you’ve experienced on to the screen. And this other huge life-changing event, it just makes you more whole, and more able to emote and give more.’
Harris won’t reveal whether she is in a relationship or if she is planning to have a baby alone. At last year’s BAFTAs and the Cannes Film Festival in May she was arm-in-arm with a man called Peter, but she won’t confirm whether today’s warm glow is down to him. ‘I was told very early on not to talk about relationships and I think it’s great advice because it’s all very well when things are going well. I’ve seen that with actresses, they’ve talked about how in love they are, how they’re getting married. And it’s so beautiful to read. But then it doesn’t work out and you've got to answer all those questions about your personal life when it’s still so raw for you.’
She has said that early abandonment by her father has left her wary of forming relationships. Growing up was a struggle for Harris and her Jamaican mother Lisselle Kayla, who was just 18 when she had her daughter.
Harris’ Trinidadian father left before she was born, and she only met him for the first time in 2009. ‘It’s at the root of a lot of my fear about settling down.’
As an adult, she lived for years out of two suitcases ‘like a gypsy’. ‘I’d come back to London and rent a place on a short-term let. But I realised that does your head in. You have to have a home. And doing what I do, you need it even more because you’re constantly uprooting yourself. You need to be really grounded when you get back home. One of my favourite things is cleaning my house. Getting down on my hands and knees is a way of connecting with your roots, putting your energy back into a space.’
Her new home is an Edwardian property in Finsbury Park, on the same street where she grew up and where her mother still lives. ‘I love community. I know pretty much all my neighbours, which is so rare in London.’ She ripped everything out, had a new kitchen and bathroom installed and repainted everywhere. ‘But then you realise you’ve completely taken the soul out of it,’ she laughs. ‘When I first visited, it had a lovely family living there, so it had their spirit and the kids’ dirty handprints on the wall. By doing all that renovation I’d ripped the heart out of it, so now I’m trying to put life back, have kids come round and mess it up.’
When Naomie was growing up, her mother was the anchor in her life. Kayla put herself through university, taking Naomie to lectures, where she’d sit colouring in. Later, her mother became a journalist and a scriptwriter for EastEnders. Today she works as a healer specialising in EFT (emotional freedom technique) to release childhood trauma, and helps her daughter overcome her acting nerves. When Harris was 11, her mother married a teacher, and Naomie has a teenage stepbrother and sister. They are close, and visit her on film sets.
Over the past month we’ve seen Harris walk the red carpet in a series of knockout dresses, including a spectacular Vionnet gown, slit at the sides to reveal her sculpted body, to promote her latest film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in which she plays Winnie Madikizela — ‘the role of a lifetime’ — opposite The Wire star and Oscar hopeful Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela. Since the death of Nelson Mandela last week the film has taken on even greater historical significance, with the actress at the centre of worldwide premieres that have turned into celebrations of the iconic leader’s life. Harris told CNN: ‘Long before we made this movie I was inspired by the leadership, grace and compassion of Nelson Mandela… I am very proud to be part of our tribute to this extraordinary man.’
Soon she’ll be shooting Bond 24, with Sam Mendes at the helm again. She loves the fact that this is the biggest year of her career, and that both films are partly British. ‘I feel really lucky because I’ve done it on my terms. I’ve done films in America, but I’ve never lived there. London has always been my home. I’ve always wanted to stay here close to my family. And I’ve managed to do it by going back and forth for auditions.’
It’s hard to believe Harris has been acting for 26 years, having become a child actor, aged nine, in BBC children’s shows Simon and the Witch and The Tomorrow People. She got the acting bug early and attended the Anna Scher Theatre School after normal school; by ten she was a regular on BBC children’s television. The money she earned went towards university — she won a place to study social and political sciences at Cambridge. It should have been a great time, but as a skinny Bible-reading teen, she found it hard to socialise. Expecting to sit up into the early hours with like-minded people talking about the meaning of life, she was horrified to encounter binge-drinking Etonians — ‘and there was me, a black girl from Finsbury Park’. She cried most days and went home every weekend.
Today she’s more generous about her fellow students. London is far ahead in terms of race issues, in contrast to America, which can be hugely segregated, she suggests, but it’s class that is our stumbling block. ‘Because you can be wealthy and just go to wealthy schools, and only hang around with wealthy children. And likewise if you’re working class and go to comprehensive school, you never really meet anyone from those kinds of background. The Etonians I went to Cambridge with, it wasn’t their fault. We were just as ignorant of each other, so in a way we’re both to blame. But society is to blame for that as well, because we never got an opportunity to mix until then, and it was too much of a culture shock.’
After Cambridge, she applied to the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Her first job after graduating was Danny Boyle’s futuristic thriller 28 Days Later in 2002, in which she played Selena, a machete-wielding survivor of a virus that has wiped out civilisation. The film’s casting director suggested her for the role of Clara in Channel 4’s adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. She’d been in the same year as Smith at Cambridge. ‘She was cool. I was nerdy with glasses.’
There’s an old-fashioned innocence about Harris. She doesn’t smoke or drink and she never does naked on screen. ‘I’m not into the sex scenes. I don’t want to go into people’s bedrooms. I think it can be shown without all of that.’ But at 37, she’s grateful that there are more role models and female leads such as 49-year-old Sandra Bullock, currently starring in the chart-topping Gravity. ‘Our real movie stars are actually women past 40 now!’
For Bond, Harris went through nine months of fitness training and learned to stunt-drive and fire machine guns. But Skyfall ended with Eve Moneypenny becoming Bond’s secretary. Surely she’s not going to just be doing the filing in Bond 24? ‘I’ve heard rumours that I’m going to be out in the field,’ she teases, ‘but I haven’t seen a script. Knowing Barbara [Broccoli, the producer], she’s all for women’s lib, isn’t she? She’s extraordinary; she’s completely reinvented the brand, yet kept so true to the essence of what people love about Bond. So I’m sure I won’t be just behind a desk. Or even if I’m behind the desk, there’ll be some twist.’
Harris says she owes her career to Danny Boyle. ‘He really took a risk by giving me the role of Selena in 28 Days Later. That changed everything for me. And ten years later he did it again with Frankenstein at the National Theatre, when he gave me the role of Elizabeth. And that is the reason why I went on to getBond because Sam [Mendes] came to see the play.’ She loves Boyle’s creative fire. ‘He constantly seems to scare and challenge himself — just look at the Olympics.’
Harris likes a challenge, too. She was terrified when she accepted the role of Winnie in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. ‘She is a living icon. For some people she’s the devil, for others she’s a complete saint.’ But she succeeds brilliantly in charting Winnie’s transition from the age of 21 to 58, and from passionate young woman to something far darker, without turning her into Lady Macbeth.
When Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, aged 46, Winnie was only 28. Her home was raided daily, she was arrested, and she endured solitary confinement for 18 months. ‘Mandela always says it was worse for Winnie than it was for him. While he was incarcerated the eyes of the world were on him and he did have his comrades with him. Winnie was alone, raising two children with no money.’
In preparation for the role, Harris even got to meet Winnie. ‘Idris managed to set up a meeting for us with her and her daughters. I said to her: “How do you want to be represented?” And she said, “You’ve done your research. You’ve been given this role because you can play it, so I trust you to portray me as you see fit. The most important thing is you play me truthfully.” And that was really liberating.’ At the Johannesburg premiere, Winnie gave the performance her blessing. ‘It’s the greatest accolade,’ she says.
Back home in London, Harris is catching up on normal life. Close friends include Newton and David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson, her co-stars from the BBC’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island. ‘I switched on the TV and saw Ruth is directing a play. What’s going on?’ she laughs.
Would Harris like to do more theatre? ‘No!’ she squeaks. ‘In front of the camera is definitely where I’m most comfortable. I love the fact that in film I get to mess up and then I can do it 20 different ways… With theatre, some nights you hit it and other nights you can’t get in the zone at all. And I feel so sad because the audience didn’t see me at my best.’
This year she’s hosting her first ever family Christmas. ‘It’s going to be terrifying because my mum and my stepdad are amazing cooks, and they normally do a five-course meal. They really go for it. Our family love Christmas.’ She will have to rustle up a very Jamaican menu. ‘We have weird stuff like ackee and saltfish as starters, then mackerel salad as one of the courses. We don’t like turkey but we have chicken and then beef and a pork course, followed by dessert. So it’s mammoth. My mum actually soaks all the Jamaican fruits in rum a year before.’
A teetotaller, Harris avoids the rum cake. ‘People are always urging me to give it a try but I’m 37, I’ve got this far without drinking, so I think I’m OK. I’m playful so when other people get drunk, it’s almost like I get drunk on their high. I love a dance. But,’ she boasts, ‘I don’t have the hangovers and throwing up afterwards.’ ES
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is in cinemas from 3 January
Photographs by Kate Davis-Maclead
Styled by Orsolya Szabo
Hair by Sharon Miller using Paul Mitchell.
Make-up by Kenneth Soh at Frank using Givenchy Le Rouge.
Fashion assistant: Jenny Kennedy.
Shot on location at The Soho Hotel, W1 (firmdalehotels.com)