Arts

Naomie Harris: I'm happiest at the heart and soul of the person I'm portraying

Naomie Harris is up for an Oscar on Sunday for her role as a drug-addict mother in Moonlight, a performance that has seen her notoriously private mask slip, as Gemma Dunn discovers

Naomie Harris as Paula in the Oscar-nominated Moonlight

NAOMIE Harris breaks the mould for an A-lister. While the London-born actress's movie star looks, boundless talent and impressive CV conform to type, her conduct – refreshingly – does not, reading more girl-next-door than silver-screen prima donna.

On the day of our interview, Harris turns up early, and after pouring us both a drink and paying a few compliments, she's keen to talk – as long as it doesn't encroach on her personal life.

"I have a very separate life," she notes coyly, when the subject of her private persona is broached.

Just the night before, she proudly took 38 family members and friends to the premiere of David Frankel's grief-filled drama Collateral Beauty, in which Harris stars alongside Will Smith and Helen Mirren.

"I've known my friends since secondary school," the 40-year-old quips. "[There was] a friend I've known since I was a baby, then all my aunts and uncles."

It's a circle that keeps her sane: "I'll go, 'Oh this movie I did didn't do well and I am really upset about it', and my friends go, 'Oh, didn't it? Oh well'. They don't care at all, and I think that's great – it's grounding and really important to me."

That's a conversation she's unlikely to revisit with regards to her latest project, however.

Directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It follows the groundbreaking tale of one young man, Chiron's, tumultuous coming of age in South Florida over two decades.

Harris's tour de force performance – for which she has garnered her first Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress – takes the form of Chiron's emotionally abusive mother, Paula, whose frenzied life is ravaged by drug addiction. It's a part Harris – best known as Miss Moneypenny in James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre – was, at first, hesitant to accept.

"My mum is a very intelligent, capable, strong, independent, amazing woman. Those are the kind of women I grew up around, but I didn't see them reflected on screen. Instead, I saw quite negative portrayals of women, as the seducer or the prostitute or the drug addict or the victim. I want my career to reflect the women that I know, the community of women I am from," she explains.

So what changed her mind?

"I watched Medicine For Melancholy [Jenkins's critically acclaimed 2008 romance]. It was made with $15,000, which is nothing, and it's one of the most beautiful films that I've ever seen," she recalls, smiling. "So I was like, 'Wow, if this director can make a film as good as this for $15,000, what's he going to do with a proper budget?'"

Jenkins's exploration of race, sexuality, masculinity, identity, family and love has so far earned a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and is up for eight Oscars, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Harris's second – unfounded – quandary was whether she could pull off a convincing portrayal of a crack addict.

The Cambridge-educated actress, who doesn't drink or smoke, let alone use drugs, prepared by studying the lives and mannerisms of drug addicts from the era of Jenkins's childhood, when crack use in the US was at its apex.

"One of the most important things in playing any character is learning to empathise," Harris observes, referring to "the research" as the most important part of the process.

"You have to find a deep connection and understanding for the choices made by someone like Paula, in order to bring her thoroughly and effectively to life."

For Harris that meant a harrowing physical transformation and, to a point, living as Paula.

"That's where I feel happiest. It's the heart and soul and the torment of the person that I am really interested in portraying," she insists. "I go out shopping as the character, I go out walking as the character, I go everywhere as the character until I've really found them. Because then you're able to find them and then let them go.

"The only character I couldn't let go was Winnie [Harris played Winnie Mandela in 2013 biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom], but I think that was because we were filming in South Africa and the legacy of apartheid is still so tangible there," she reasons. "It really affected me."

On a mission to break down boundaries about diversity, Harris – brought up single-handedly by her TV scriptwriter mother, Lisselle Kayla – is confident Moonlight is transformative, in that it will make you look at addiction, among all else, in a different way. It's a stance she hopes film industry veterans on this year's shaken-up Academy Awards panel will adopt too.

"People have wanted to pigeonhole this movie and it's really frustrating," she begins, addressing last year's #Oscarssowhite snub. "It's not one of those films you can pigeonhole, because we've had a 70-year-old white man who has no experience of addiction who's come to see the movie, who's ended up in tears in Barry Jenkin's arms. Why? Because it touched something in him and deeply resonated with him.

"And so it's irrespective of colour, irrespective of sexual orientation. This is a movie that speaks to people."

Harris's next movie, Andy Serkis's 2018 live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book, provides a change of pace. But she's already looking for the next thing – "I would love to now do something lighter, like a comedy or something silly".

Does she allow time to recoup?

"I'm very goal-orientated. Too much so," she recognises. "I know it probably seems like I work all the time, but I don't actually, I take huge gaps. There was a huge gap between doing Moonlight and Collateral Beauty, and that's generally what I do, but when I am working, I am incredibly focused. And then I like to have my downtime as well."

But don't expect her to relocate any time soon.

"I fear living in LA, I might well lose perspective," she says, confessing her role as an "unmasked" Paula – with no make-up – has left her more vulnerable to fame.

"I think it makes me easier to be recognisable, which is unfortunate," Harris explains. "So I've now lost my mask in some ways."

:: Moonlight is in cinemas now

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