Saturday, 4 January 2014

Naomie Harris: 'Winnie Mandela Is A Very Complex Woman'

POWERFUL PORTRAYAL: Harris puts in a wonderful performance as Winnie Mandela
FROM THE moment it got the green light, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedombecame one of the hotly-tipped movies of 2014. But the film was to garner added poignancy last year on December 5, when the world learned of the sad passing of Nelson Mandela.
Indeed, the film, which is released this week, now serves as a beautiful tribute, as British star Idris Elbs puts in a wholly impressive portrayal of the former South African president.
But not to be overshadowed is British actress Naomie Harris who delivers an equally stunning performance as Winnie Mandela. Getting to grips with a South African Xhosa accent in order to undertake the role, Harris gives a powerful portrayal of Nelson Mandela’s most well-known wife; a woman who has been described as both a saint and sinner, depending on who was offering the account.
A forceful freedom fighter, Winnie, who was married to Mandela for 38 years, fought alongside her husband for the end of apartheid in South Africa, and continued that fight in the 27 years that Mandela languished in prison.
Some history books have since hailed her as a hero; a Mother Africa-type figure, whose struggle was as significant as that of her husband. Others have condemned her as a tyrant for the violent tactics she employed in her fight for racial equality.
Harris believes that Winnie is a combination of all those things.
“She [Winnie] is a combination of all of that and that’s what makes her so fascinating,” says Harris.
“She is capable of immense rage and violence and she is a warrior. But she’s also a mother with heart and compassion. She’s caring; she’s kind of a Robin Hood character.
"She’s been accused of embezzling funds, but one of the things the judges discovered was that she was taking those funds and using them to feed her local community. So she is incredibly complex, but that’s what’s so fascinating about her.
“We try to paint people as black or white, but we really live in the grey. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things, and Winnie is right up there with the most complex of those type of people.”
Asked if she felt a sense of pressure to portray such a controversial figure, Harris admits that she did – until she met the woman herself.
“Our producer Anant Singh is very good friends with the Mandelas and our director Justin Chadwick spent a lot of time with Winnie in particular. So I did feel a sense of pressure because they had a very specific view about who she was; that she was warm and cuddly, very much like Mother Africa.
“But from doing my own research, I discovered there was a whole other side to Winne and that side had to be portrayed in order to really capture who she is. So I felt pressure from them to do the warm and cuddly Winnie. But Winnie herself was the one person who alleviated that pressure.
“I had the privilege of sitting down with her; we had dinner together and I was able to ask her about her life. She said to me: ‘All I want is for you to portray me truthfully, so go and do your research and then tell the truth.’ She told me, ‘I don’t have any direction for you about how I should be played.’ And she was the only person I spoke to who didn’t have any direction about how she should be played.

DYNAMIC DUO: Idris Elba and Naomie Harris
“That really made me feel liberated to explore some of the dark sides – like I know she had a problem with alcohol addiction. That was never written in the script, but I made sure that whenever I could, I’d have a glass of alcohol in my hand to indicate that she was slightly intoxicated at some points! But Winnie was very gracious and very generous in the way that she allowed me to go about it.”
Is Winnie happy with the film?
“Yeah, she was at the premiere in South Africa and she is really, really pleased. She called both myself and Idris ‘honorary South Africans’ and she said that this portrayal really, truthfully portrayed her.
“She also said it was too real and too harrowing and that she didn’t want to see it again! But she was over the moon; she thinks it’s a faithful representation of her life. For me, that was a great honour.”
But Harris admits that the downside to playing such a widely known individual is the danger of people mixing her up with the character she’s playing. (We journalists present during the interview chuckled shamefully as we realised we had in fact been quizzing Harris as if she was Winnie!)
“There’s a huge sense of responsibility with this type of film that you don’t get with fictional roles,” Harris confirms. “People tend to mix you up with the character you’re playing and if that character is a real, living person that they have strong ideas about, they can mix you up with that as well.
“Also, you become asked to be a spokesperson for the person you’re playing and I can’t do that. I can’t justify Winnie’s actions. I’m not a spokesperson for Winnie; that’s not what I signed up to do. I signed up to be an actor and do my very best portraying her life. It’s up to other people to debate the politics.”
Politics aside, Harris’s performance will surely go down as one of her best to date. Famed for her roles in 28 Days LaterPirates of the Caribbean and the hit James Bond flick Skyfall – which saw her become the first black actress to play Ms. Moneypenny – Harris describes her latest outing as her “most challenging role to date.”
Among the challenges was getting to grips with the Xhosa accent, but Harris says her accent coach was wonderful – and there were plenty of others on hand to offer advice.
“Everybody around us was South African and they could hear if we were messing up the accent – and they’d correct us if we did. Anyone would correct us; an extra, the person doing lights – anyone! That’s the South African way, so we had to get it right. But the correction was never said as a criticism. It was more like, ‘We are one and we’re all working towards a common goal, so I’m here to help and support you.’"
She adds: “I’ve worked in South Africa before, doing the film Blood and Oil, so I had a real sense of the country already. But what always strikes me is the warmth of the people.
"It’s always fascinating to me that in countries where there’s been war and huge upheaval, the people are often the warmest you’ll come across.
"It makes it hard to understand how it’s possible for there to have been those kind of grievances in the country. That’s how I feel about South Africa, because everybody I meet there is so incredibly warm.”
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is in cinemas from January 3

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