"Fearless" is how Idris Elba described his co-star Naomie Harris' performance in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. And, when you look at the challenge that confronted the 37-year-old actress in bringing Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to life on-screen, it's a very fitting epithet. Unlike Elba's portrayal of a heroic Mandela, Harris took on an altogether more divisive character - someone who is either a benevolent "Mother Africa" or a terrorist, depending on who you speak to. What's more, Harris had the pressure of meeting Madikizela-Mandela in the course of her research for the film, and anxiously awaited her reaction when it was released.
Harris aimed for the middle ground, depicting the politician as someone with natural warmth and charm who is broken down over years of struggle, becoming a conflicted warrior-type figure. Crucially, her performance is credited with showing Madikizela-Mandela's side of the story for the first time, as someone who has always lived in the shadow of her feted ex-husband.
In this interview (conducted before Mandela's death), we speak to the Bond actress about her most difficult role to date.
You must have felt a huge responsibility in taking on the part of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – as a living figure, and someone who’s both iconic and divisive. How did you deal with the pressure of that?
In the beginning with great difficulty because she’s a very complex woman – there are such different views about who she is. On the one side, there are people who see her as Mother Africa, they see her as this nurturing, warm figurehead for the nation. And then on the other side, there are people who see her as a terrorist, very violent – and they demonise her.
When you read accounts of events, different people describe Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her behaviour in completely different ways. So I found it really difficult to pull a cohesive idea from that of who this woman was. That was the thing that made it a real challenge for me.
The film casts Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in quite a sympathetic light, in contrast to the way she’s often portrayed in real life…
I think that’s because we largely see her as she ultimately ends up, so it’s a one-sided view. This film looks behind that, and says, how did this woman become that? What happened to her on her journey to force her to become this warrior figure that we see today?
And did researching her past make you more sympathetic towards her side of the story, and her experiences under apartheid during Mandela’s years in prison?
Definitely. As an actor you have to find compassion and sympathy for your character because that’s the way you connect with them. So you have to understand their journey and sympathise with it otherwise I don’t think you’d really be able to play it.
And I have to say when I started doing the research, I really struggled to connect to the warrior. Everyone can connect with Mother Africa – how lovely and warm – but the warrior woman is much harder to connect with and I really struggled at the beginning to find a connection with this woman who is demonised.
But having done all of the research, I think I understand why she is the woman that she is today.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela saw the film and really liked it – she said it was the first time her story had been captured truthfully on film. Were you relieved; had you been nervous about its reception?
I was hugely relieved. I’m still hugely relieved. It meant so much to me to play someone who’s a living icon and then have her turn around and say, “Yep, you have captured me and you’ve done a great job.” I’m so happy.
You’ve described this as your most challenging role to date. It must have been a big jump from your last performance as Miss Moneypenny in Bond’s Skyfall…
Yes definitely. It wasn’t a fun and games kind of movie. It was definitely taking you to some really dark places emotionally and it was very harrowing. But those are the movies that, as an actor, you also cherish and love because they force you to go to places within yourself that you would never normally go to. They force you to grow as a performer as well. So as hard as it was, I really cherished the experience.
Do you think there are enough of these kind of meaty roles for women in Hollywood now?
I think it’s definitely improving. I think there are some really exciting changes happening and I’m so thrilled to be around at this time when all these great roles are coming in for women. Of course I want more. I’m always after stronger roles for women.
Naomie Harris at the UK premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Where were you the day Mandela was freed?
I’ve no idea because I have the worst long-term memory in the world. I just remember being about 10 or 12 and my mum explaining to me about apartheid and saying, on the other side of the world people live a third class existence because of the colour of their skin and they’re not allowed to ride on the same bus as white people and they get a third rate education and I remember being terrified because I thought, “Wow, that could come here to England and what would that be like?”
And I also remember that when we went shopping as a child, my mum would say we can’t buy this because that’s from South Africa and don’t bank with this particular bank because they’re from South Africa. So even at that young age she was really instilling in me political activism.
And finally, you nailed the Xhosa accent. How did you manage it?
It was a huge challenge and that was one of the things where I had so many sleepless nights thinking, “I’m not going to be able to get this.” But I had a great acting coach who worked with me in South Africa. She came to my hotel room for one to two hours every day and she would just work me out and say, “Look you’re playing Mama Winnie, you’ve got to get this right.”
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is out now. Photos: Rex Features