‘The part scared me’: Naomie Harris talks Oscar-winning Moonlight
Make-up free, and with her hair pulled back, Naomie Harris draws admiring glances as she walks towards the table where we’re unexpectedly having lunch alfresco, thanks to last month’s heatwave. Accompanied by her mum, Carmen (who looks more like her sister), she greets me like an old friend and, being typically English, we immediately start discussing the virtues of the great British weather.
For someone who has just arrived from Toronto, via Los Angeles, and says jet-lag is her enemy, Naomie, who recently turned 40, looks incredible. ‘That’s down to a flotation tank,’ she says. ‘I’ve discovered that the only way to combat the effects of travelling is to immerse myself in a dark pod, filled with salt water and float for an hour.
‘It’s all about sensory deprivation and works a treat. I go straight there from the airport, but my dream is to have my own tank at home. That’s what keeps me working!’ Carmen’s tried it too but can’t attest to its success in quite the same way. ‘Mum had a freak-out in there,’ laughs Naomie.
‘She was screaming, “I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” but half an hour later people had to bang on the door because she’d fallen asleep! I’ve never done that!’
Carmen and Naomie often come as a pair and live on the same street. ‘We are very close,’ Naomie says. ‘There’s not much I wouldn’t pass by mum first – and I have a lot to be thankful to her for.’
TOP OF THE CLASS
Naomie’s father left the family home before she was born, so it was down to Carmen to raise her daughter alone. Times were tough, but so was Carmen, and being surrounded by strong, powerful women in the family, brought out the very best in Naomie.
‘I grew up to believe anything was possible if you worked hard enough,’ she says. ‘Mum has always had a very strong work ethic; she’s penned a prime-time BBC1 sitcom [Us Girls] and worked a 10-year stint as a core writer for EastEnders, among many other projects, so I’ve always known I had to work if I wanted to be independent.’
She continues: ‘I went to school in Finsbury Park and was always top of my class, but by the end of my GCSEs, I was ready to go into acting full-time. It was mum who convinced me to do my A-Levels and although I went to Sixth Form College begrudgingly, it was while I was there that I met Mr Murdoch, a wonderful teacher, who told me I had the potential to go to Oxbridge.’ And it turned out he was right.
But despite being immensely proud of being there, it was a very different environment to the one she’d been used to.
‘My school had been like the United Nations – there were all different races – so I’d never felt colour was an issue. But at Cambridge, I was the only black person in the year.
‘Looking back, though, my colour wasn’t the issue; it was my class that made me feel like an outsider.’ They talked about Eton and skiing, which was a million miles away from her childhood in north London.
Nevertheless, she refused to give up and stuck it out for three years until she got her degree. ‘I was always told, “don’t see obstacles; see where you want to get to and ignore everything else. If other people have issues, let them be their issues.” It was invaluable advice and I still apply it today.’
LIVING IN THE MOMENT
But these days, having starred in Pirates Of The Caribbean and as (M’s secretary) Miss Moneypenny in the two most recent Bond films, Naomie is a Hollywood A-lister, you’d imagine has very few obstacles in front of her.
‘I still struggle with the same challenges everyone else does,’ she insists. ‘There is so much going on in my life that I find myself in constant high-stress mode, so I’m always looking to find ways to overcome that feeling. We’re all human and will always have challenges thrown at us, but it’s how we perceive those challenges that we can control.
‘I used to find it so difficult to enjoy each moment, preferring to look impatiently to the future to see what was next. But I’m learning to appreciate it is the now that’s important. Every moment is a gift, even the negative ones, so be as thankful when things go wrong as when they go right, as that may well take you on a different path that is ultimately better for you.’
It is clear to see Carmen, who now has a healing practice in London and has written a self-help book entitled Sh*t Happens… Magic Follows (£15.99, O-Books), has instilled a spiritual empathy in her daughter which she relies on in times of stress and conflict.
‘There are certainly techniques I implement when I feel under fire,’ says Naomie. ‘At the moment, I’m practising Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) and I meditate for at least an hour every morning. It’s been the best thing; it centres me and brings me back into the here and now. I feel utterly joyful afterwards and ready for whatever knocks may come my way.’ For Naomie, the biggest ‘knock’ would come in the form of inter-personal conflict.
‘I hate the thought of upsetting someone and I positively shy away from confrontation,’ she says. But that only seems to apply to her personal life because when it comes down to business, she admits she’s like a dog with a bone.
‘Dawn French said to me at the beginning of my career, “Make sure you develop and maintain a thick skin” and it’s the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever been given. At the end of the day, it’s my career, and I need to look after it.’
And it’s a tactic that seems be working, as Naomie has gone from one box office success to another. But it’s not always about the next Hollywood blockbuster; sometimes it’s simply because she feels a story needs to be told.
Her latest project, Moonlight, is a powerful film about a young boy’s coming of age. She plays his crack-addict mother in a gripping performance she had to dig deep for. ‘The part scared me because it’s everything I’m not,’ she says. ‘I don’t smoke, I’ve never taken drugs, I’ve never been drunk – I don’t even like the taste of alcohol, but the script made me cry and I knew I had to do it.’
After the big-budget movies she’s become accustomed to, Moonlight was very different. ‘I normally have a trailer with a bed and each department has its own bus. But with this film, everything was just piled in together and we all had to queue to take turns on this one little wobbly chair! It was a huge bonding experience for everybody. We all knew why we were there – and it certainly wasn’t for the pay cheque. We were there for the art and it was brilliant.’
While Naomie loves the creativity of acting, it’s the other side of the industry she finds difficult. ‘Believe it or not, I’m not someone who likes to be in the limelight,’ she says, ‘so it’s bizarre that acting is my profession. I love forming the personalities of the characters I play, finding out what makes them tick and who they really are. But when it’s just me, and I’m expected to put all the make-up on, wear a posh frock and walk a red carpet, I’m not at all comfortable. I often wish I had a twin who could do all that for me.’
Having decided to keep her personal and professional lives separate, Naomie has yet to be photographed on the red carpet with anyone other than her male co-stars, who are inevitably billed as her new love interest.
From Orlando Bloom to Chris Evans, Naomie has supposedly dated them all, but she won’t reveal who the lucky man in her life today really is.
‘My first publicist advised me never to talk about my love life,’ she says. ‘She had another client who declared to the world how in love she was, only to be jilted at the altar. Nobody wanted to know about her new movie, only how she felt about being dumped.’
A LEISURELY LIFE?
Naomie hopes one day soon she’ll be able to lead a more normal life; by leaving London for the peace of the countryside, settling down and enjoying life at a more leisurely pace.
‘That’s my happy-ever-after,’ she admits. ‘But I honestly don’t know if this insatiable drive and ambition will ever leave me.’
Carmen nods and smiles knowingly… like mother, like daughter.
‘Sleep doesn’t come easily to me… I have too much of an active mind that never seems to want to switch off, so the only way I can get off to sleep is by using a meditation app. I’ve found a really good one by Glenn Harrold and it works every time, but invariably I’m awake again a few hours later and have to go through the entire process again! I need eight hours a night and I probably get it overall, but it’s very erratic. One of my greatest hopes is to be able eventually to sleep through the night.’
Read more: David Gandy — Who is the man behind the model?