As in demand on the stage at the National Theatre as she is in the most famous film franchise ever, Naomie Harris has no intention of pressing the pause button
Words: Debbie McQuoid Photography: Jonty Davies Fashion: Alexandra Fullerton
Crouched behind a market stall in Istanbul, I’m spying on Naomie Harris. Her Jeep has crashed and the pouty blond beside her has started firing a gun across the square. I’ve waited three days to see this, and it all lasts just 90 seconds. But it’s thrilling
The day before, Naomie is much more polished in green Erdem. She’s sharing a stage at a press conference with Daniel Craig (the pouty blond) and, despite the fact she will be destroying Istanbul’s ancient Spice Bazaar in just 24 hours, looks very relaxed. She later tells me, “The questions aren’t directed at me, so I can just chill out and smile and think, ‘Yeah, that’s a difficult one. I’m glad Sam’s answering that one.’”
The difficult questions are about Skyfall, the 23rd Bond film, out this week; Sam is director Sam Mendes. There is always excitement around any Bond release but the brouhaha this year has been something else, mostly due to the franchise’s 50th anniversary. As is often the way with press conferences, nothing is given away. Naomie spends the hour smiling sweetly and answering the same question asked 10 different ways with just a few words.
A few months later, we meet in a less exotic but equally glamorous location, London’s Corinthia Hotel. It’s one-on-one this time and I’m meeting a totally different Naomie. Towering over me in a white Maje mini dress, she is passionate, enthusiastic, demonstrative; she talks nonstop about friends, knocking down walls in her new flat, her plans to travel to Thailand…
A self-confessed homebody who still lives round the corner from her family in London's Finsbury Park, Naomie first started her acting career back in 1987 in kids’ show Simon And The Witch. But it wasn’t until after picking up a degree at Cambridge University that Naomie got serious, heading to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to study drama. Nine months after graduating in 2002, Olympics knight-in-waiting Danny Boyle cast her as Selena in zombie thriller 28 Days Later. The same year she played a character who couldn’t be more different to Selena – Clara in White Teeth, Channel 4’s adaptation of Zadie Smith’s debut novel. Posters of her face advertising the series were dotted around the country.
“I remember sitting underneath one on the Tube,” she says. “It was hilarious.” A steady slew of film and TV roles – from the BBC’s Small Island to Hollywood cash cow Pirates Of The Caribbean – has seen Naomie work consistently over the last decade, but her latest role, in Skyfall, has brought her back to the beginning.
“When Danny cast me [in 28 Days Later], he changed my career and my life,” she tells me. “Then exactly 10 years later, he cast me again in Frankenstein at the National Theatre, and changed my life again. Sam Mendes was in the audience and rang Danny to ask what I was like. So I have Danny to thank for everything.”
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Naomie, who plays field agent Eve, should thank Boyle a lot. Skyfall is, in my opinion, the best Bond yet; an opinion I share with most of the Stylist office and nearly every critic in the country. Exciting, explosive, dark, very funny (and probably the first Bond to have the F-word in it), I’ll see this film again (and again) before it leaves the cinema. Like most of us, Naomie grew up with Bond, but, again like a lot of us, it was Daniel Craig who made her sit up and take notice of the films.
“There is more fragility to Daniel; it seemed like he could potentially get injured, he could fall in love,” she says. “I was much more emotionally involved and felt like I was going on more of a journey; there was more at stake for me as a viewer.”
The 36 year old finished filming Skyfall just a few months ago and has already moved into her next role, Winnie Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom opposite Idris Elba’s Nelson. She’s even following our interview with a flight to South Africa to meet the woman herself.
“It’s hugely daunting,” she admits. “I wasn’t sure I wanted [to meet her], but she’s such a complex character and there are so many different opinions about her, I want to see for myself. If I’m going to represent her, then I think I owe her that at least.”
The last time we meet is for our photo shoot, a few weeks before Skyfall’s release. Yoga mat in hand, Naomie arrives at the studio with no entourage but in a more sober mood. Two days before, she had returned from South Africa and gone straight to Champneys spa, where she goes on her own after every movie. “It’s like staying in someone’s home, but without having to talk to anyone,” she says. “It’s brilliant.”
So, how was Winnie? “Really hard work and intense,” she tells me. “I didn’t realise when I signed up that it was such an intense world. But it’ll be worth it.”
Today, she’s quiet and determined. She knows exactly what she wants and instructs the hair and make-up people accordingly. In truth, despite our previous meetings, I’m intimidated. Last shot taken, I tentatively ask, has she always been so strong-willed?
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“Yes. Very much so,” she says. “I’ve always been very independent and known my own mind. But I don’t stick to anything. It’s my most difficult characteristic and also what I love about myself. I can be totally right in an argument, then realise, actually, I’m totally wrong. And that’s OK. But I must be very difficult to live with.”
So, three meetings, three Naomies; the quiet one who allows others to take centre stage, the passionate chatterbox and the determined careerist who knows what she wants and won’t compromise. “I feel like I have very distinct personalities,” she concedes. “That’s probably quite usual for an actor. Some would say I’m quite serious, but that’s only to people who meet me the first time. My friends would say I’m quite crazy. I think I’m unpredictable.”
A few years ago, Naomie would have seemed like an unpredictable choice for a typical Bond film, but since Craig’s arrival in 2006, producers have worked hard to rebrand the franchise, casting intelligent, strong female leads and Naomie seems like a natural choice. Despite this, at first Naomie didn’t see herself as Bond material.
“When my agent first said I was auditioning as a Bond girl, I was like, ‘I’m 35 – I don’t think it’s very likely.’”
So, Naomie said it first: ‘Bond girl’. Over the 50 years, the debate has raged about Bond and his misogynist tendencies. Things have improved dramatically: when Judi Dench took over as Bond’s boss ‘M’ in 1995’s Goldeneye, the women were no longer there just to look good, have sex with Bond, or die. But the ‘Bond girl’ moniker has stuck, which can still feel, well, a little bit Sixties.
“I don’t mind it at all,” says Naomie. “I know some people think being called a ‘Bond girl’ is an insult but I’m hugely honoured and flattered; so many amazing women have been Bond girls before, and now I’m considered one of them? I don’t see it as anything derogatory at all.
“Anyway, I don’t think it’s a term that holds water now, to be honest, because all the women in the movies have evolved so much. They’re multifaceted, multidimensional, intelligent and equal to Bond.”
It’s clear Naomie is ‘on board’ with Bond. She’s not trying to make excuses; she’s fully embracing the juggernaut and it’s hard not to get excited with her, and for her.
“I feel incredibly grateful,” she says. “No other film has this guaranteed international platform in the way Bond does. It completely changes your career and your standing in the profession. That’s amazing for any actor. Loads of scripts are coming in now and there is more interest in me, so I can go on to play a lot more exciting roles.”
With more roles comes more attention. Is she prepared for fans accosting her in Finsbury Park’s local supermarket?
“People keep telling me life is going to change,” she says. “Two journalists did turn up at my mum’s and try to get a story out of her, but, really, that was it. The next day I was on the bus and no-one recognised me. It’s how you manage it.
“I’m very anti-fame. I am an actress first and foremost. I never ever wanted to be a celebrity.”
But isn’t achieving success as an actress somewhat of a Pandora’s box; once you go there, there’s no turning back?
“I’m quite a lazy actress,” she tells me. “Lots of actresses I know, particularly in LA, will go from job to job to job, and I don’t want to do that. Bond was seven months of shooting – nine months in total with prep; that’s a long period of time to be away from your family and friends. I don’t think that’s a very healthy way of living, which is why I think a lot of actors become unhinged and end up doing drugs or become addicted to sex. It’s really important to balance that with coming home and just doing some ordinary living.”
In a profession that can be fleeting – one day you’re hot, the next you’re not – isn’t it hard to turn down work? “Every actor worries about work,” she says. “Out of the 22 of us who graduated in my year at drama school, I think there are maybe two of us who make a living out of it. The odds are very much stacked against you.
“I still worry about where the next job is coming from, or will it even happen? All of that is completely part and parcel of the job. It takes a certain kind of personality to be able to deal with it, but thankfully I have it. I’m happy to live like this. It doesn’t stress me out so much that I can’t do it.”
I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t pick a less fractious career? Her mother, Lisselle Kayla, was a scriptwriter for EastEnders among other programmes, and her stepfather was a prop handler for a while.
“It’s always been acting,” she says, determinedly. “I’ve always been passionate about it. My mum has been amazing because she’s not from that kind of family and background, but she still said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, I will support you. You can do it. You can achieve anything.’”
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This self-belief was crucial in the early years when Naomie could not afford her fees at Bristol. She sent off 250 letters to different charities who funded her training. Every couple of weeks another cheque would arrive. She’s now patron of the Women’s Educational Trust, one of the charities that helped her.
“Whenever I doubt things, I always remember that time because I had faith and, if you have faith, everything just kind of works out.”
Speaking of fame, the internet, which we know we should never trust, says Naomie is a Buddhist. She laughs.
“I don’t know where that came from. I don’t really have any particular faith,” she says. “But I am very spiritual and I definitely believe in God and I pray a lot. I believe in the power of prayer, very much so.”
The forthcoming months will see Naomie take a mammoth Skyfall press tour around the world in six weeks; Europe, America, China, India, Australia – “Maybe after that I’ll be like, ‘I hate this!’” she laughs – and then Long Walk To Freedom.
With our last meeting coming to a close, she tells me her flat has progressed slightly (she’s onto the decorating stage); the trip to Thailand is still on the cards; she has nearly finished 50 Shades Of Grey. My eyes go into auto-roll. “Come on, you’ve got to give it a try! I’m enjoying it. I hear it gets more psychological as the books progress because they’re just bonking all the time now. It’s very entertaining.”
A flash of humour and the very British word ‘bonking’; suddenly Naomie doesn’t feel so intimidating after all.
Skyfall is in cinemas nationwide from 26 October