Naomie Harris: ‘What shocked me most? The director said nothing’

No one on set said a word when a film star put his hand up NAOMIE HARRIS’s skirt. Depressingly, the Bond star feels ‘lucky’ that this was her only brush with Hollywood sleaze. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith how she’s faced– and conquered –a lot worse on her road to stardom.

Naomi Harris

It may seem as if Naomie Harris has it easy. She is beautiful, smart, successful – scooping Oscar nominations as well as starring in blockbusting Bond films. But appearances can be deceptive: Naomie has fought for everything she’s achieved and that fight began when, as a child, she underwent major surgery that changed her life. ‘When I was 11 I was diagnosed with scoliosis, which is a curved spine,’ she explains. The condition worsened quickly and aged 15 she had to have surgery. ‘During the op I had a rib removed, my lung deflated, then all the muscles near my spine cut through so they could insert a metal rod all the way up my back.’ She spent a month in hospital, after which, she says, ‘I had to learn to walk again. It was a horrific experience. But on the ward, there were children who had it far worse – some would never walk again. There were tears and screaming, little kids in pain…’

This dark time taught Naomie, 45, many lessons – the most vital being to never take anything for granted. ‘Going through something so traumatic, I learned that my health is a very fragile gift that I have to constantly nurture. So at that young age, I made the decision to do everything I possibly could to maintain it. Hence I never drank, smoked or did drugs because I wouldn’t put anything toxic in my body.’

Sitting in the kitchen of her North London home dressed in a jumper and jeans, Naomie is a fizzy, charismatic character with not a hint of grandeur about her. She laughs in disbelief when I point out she’s had the most successful year of any actor, with parts in two of 2021’s top five highest-grossing films– the Spiderman spin-off Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Bond’s No Time To Die, its release having been delayed by Covid restrictions.

‘The Bond premiere was very special,’ she smiles. ‘It felt amazing to walk the red carpet after so long and to be part of something the whole nation seemed to be celebrating. You’re offering entertainment for everybody after what’s been a pretty s*** two years.’

I’m glad she had a great night, because I’d heard that – as part of her health regime – Naomie is always in bed before 10pm. Did she make an exception for Daniel Craig? ‘No,’ she laughs. ‘I actually left the Bond premiere early because I was filming in Spain the next day. But I do occasionally stay out late, it’s an 80:20 situation – 20 per cent of the time I’m open to what life offers me, especially if I’m out with friends. But mostly I go to bed early because I love to get up at 5.30am and have that special morning time to myself, where I get loads done before anyone else is up.’

Naomie Harris

Her next role is very different to the Bond behemoth. Swan Song, which opens simultaneously in cinemas and on Apple TV, is a quiet, moving study of a happily married father, Cameron (Mahershala Ali) facing up to his imminent death from an incurable disease. Naomie plays his wife Poppy, who’s oblivious to Cameron’s plight because, unbeknown to her, he’s arranged to have himself cloned, meaning he will be replaced by someone who looks and acts exactly like him and even shares his memories– the original Cameron watching from afar as his clone lives his life.

The concept got me thinking, not least because I’ve told my horrified family I’d like to clone our dog when his time comes. Hearing this, Naomie shrieks with laughter. ‘Maybe scientists would say cloning is a possibility but I don’t believe in it. You can clone someone physically, maybe make them sound like them. But to have the heart and soul that makes a human being – only our creator can do that.’

Naomie was brought up in a council flat in Islington, North London, by her mother Lisselle Kayla, who had emigrated from Jamaica with her parents when she was a child.

Naomie’s Trinidadian father Brian left before she was born and she’s only met him ‘a handful of times’. While raising Naomie as a single parent, her mother put herself through university and eventually secured a job as a scriptwriter for EastEnders. Her mum’s example– of hard work and fighting for every opportunity – was instrumental to Naomie.

Naomie with her mum Lisselle Kayla

While her schoolfriends enjoyed weekends off, she’d attend theatre school. Her sacrifices, dedication and passion for acting eventually paid off with her first role aged just nine in the BBC drama Simon & the Witch. Despite working as a child actor through much of her time at school, Naomie didn’t neglect her studies, and went to Cambridge University to do social and political science. While the party side of uni was a little overwhelming for a non-drinker, Naomie has seen the benefits of her time there, saying previously: ‘Cambridge gives you a gravitas in terms of people’s perceptions. I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but people do perceive you differently as a result of having gone there. And I think, particularly as a woman in this industry, it helps to have that. People assume, “Oh. She’s got a brain.’’’

Afterwards, she went to drama school, where she worked hard and flourished, but then came eight months she calls ‘the toughest period of my life’. After years of getting every role she auditioned for, she couldn’t find work. ‘Even Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer turned me down. I tried waitressing – no one would have me. I remember handing out flyers in my area– nobody would take them. I didn’t know what to call myself. I didn’t think I could say “actress” when no one would employ me.’

Despite endless rejection, she didn’t give up and was eventually cast by Danny Boyle in his small-budget British zombie movie 28 Days Later –a film that went on to be one of the most profitable horror films of all time. From then on, the parts snowballed. She was witch Tia Dalma in two Pirates of the Caribbean films, Winnie Mandela in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, before bagging the Bond gig in 2012. However, Naomie says she only began being offered leading roles after playing a crack addict in 2017’s Moonlight, which starred her Swan Song co-star Mahershala Ali. The independent film won the Best Picture Oscar and saw Naomie nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Bafta (she was also awarded an OBE for services to acting that year). ‘It wasn’t until I did this little film, which I only spent a few days working on, that my career took off. Now the calibre of roles being sent to me is entirely different.’ While some warned her that her career would go into decline when she hit 40, she says: ‘I’ve never worked as much or been in as high demand as I am now.’

Naomie with Mahershala Ali in her latest film Swan Song

Over the course of her career Naomie has also helped contribute to the struggles of others. In the wake of #MeToo, the flood of revelations about abuse and harassment in the film industry prompted her to recall her own experience when a ‘huge, huge star’ put his hand up her skirt during an audition. ‘What was so shocking about it was the casting director was there and the director, and of course no one said anything because he was he is– such a huge star. That was my only #MeToo incident, so I felt very lucky given how rife that behaviour was. Now things have definitely changed: I was on a project where there was a #MeToo incident and there was no hesitation… (the perpetrator) was immediately removed.’ She won’t be drawn further on the identities of the two actors.

Another battle has come with Black Lives Matter. ‘I’d hope there’s greater awareness [of race issues] now,’ she says. ‘But obviously injustices still happen every day.’ Still, she was thrilled that Swan Song –a film that could have picked actors of any race– cast a black couple for the starring roles. ‘That’s a prime example of the changes happening.’

As my time with her comes to an end I can see that, regardless of the challenges she has faced, Naomie is still a sensitive soul. Appalled by the recent tragic accident involving Alec Baldwin shooting dead a camerawoman with a gun that was somehow loaded, she says: ‘After that I was on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth [her upcoming TV series] handling guns and it was terrifying. I hate guns, but a lot of my roles require me to handle one. Even before this, I refused to do a stunt that involved firing a blank because even blanks can kill. I wouldn’t fire it near anybody.’

This sensitivity also means any ‘letting loose’ of her emotions happens exclusively on set. ‘I only get angry every five years – and then only because there’s been years of build-up and then there’s a huge explosion.’

Wanting to learn how to stop bottling up her rage, Naomie recently took an anger-management course. ‘I thought it would teach me to express anger in a constructive way but actually it was for people who had an inability to suppress it, so I was surrounded by extremely angry people – and one of the things I’m terrified of is people who are angry! So it was a very interesting experience,’ she laughs. ‘It’s still something I need to work on.’

Having spent her years constantly striving, she’s now had a rethink. Ever since the year and a half she spent on the Moonlight promotional circuit left her ‘totally burned out’, she’s taken long breaks between projects. After making Swan Song she spent two months in Costa Rica. Now, with The Man Who Fell To Earth just in the bag, she’s off to Peru.

Ultimately, she’d like to stay off the beaten track for ever. ‘It’s my dream to live off-grid, to be self-sufficient, with solar panels, collecting rainwater and growing all my own food.’ She’s worked with an architect to design the house she’d live in. ‘I spent years searching for the right plot of land to build it on. When I found it I was super-excited but then I got outbid. But everything happens for a reason – I’m sure I’ll find my plot. If it happens soon, I’d live there and carry on acting. If it’s a bit later I’ll just live there full-time.’ If her acting career keeps going like this, I think Naomie’s good-life dream may be on hold for quite a while.

Swan Song will premiere in select UK and Irish cinemas and on Apple TV+ on 17 December


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