Naomie Harris, fearless force of nature, on playing Winnie in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
With Skyfall, Miami Vice, and now Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Naomie Harris burns up the screen. In a New Zealand exclusive, the charismatic actress who vividly portrays Nelson’s wife Winnie talks by phone about why Madiba shouldn’t be seen as a saint, her biggest surprise making the biopic, and the connection with her ongoing Bond role. Illustration by Elina Nykänen.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Congratulations on your impressive performance, Naomie. The mighty Idris Elba describes you as “a fearless force of nature.”
NAOMI HARRIS: Oh wow, amazing! [laughs]
AB: How was it working with The Wire’s Idris Elba? He’s such a visceral and physical presence. How is it acting alongside such smoldering intensity?
NH: It was fantastic working with him. He’s such a great actor. It was a really wonderful experience because when we were both cast, neither of us auditioned with each other. The first time we met each other was in the rehearsal room in South Africa, and we didn’t know what it was going be like to work with the other person. But he was incredibly open and generous. We also didn’t know whether we had chemistry on screen. It was the director Justin Chadwick, he just took a risk, but I think the relationship really worked and we do have real chemistry. So it was great working with him.
AB: In his energetic funeral tribute Obama quoted a great Mandela quote. He said, “Nelson Mandela is not a saint. Mandela himself said ‘I’m not a saint, unless your definition of a saint is a sinner who never stops trying.’” One of the many good things about Idris’s performance is he doesn’t portray Mandela as this simplistic ‘black father Christmas,’ as he’s sometimes represented.
NH: Yeah, I think that is a really wonderful quote. That’s one of the challenges of the film because lots of people come to it seeing Mandela as a saint. And one of the things that he always said in his life was, “That’s not who I am.” We wanted to show him in the film as the man behind the icon, as a flawed human being who had a first marriage that wasn’t successful, he wasn’t a great husband, and as someone who was a womaniser at the start of his life. All of those facts make the film greater, and also make Mandela’s achievements seem greater, because we recognise and celebrate the fact that he was an everyman like all of us. It makes us recognise what greatness we are capable of, and understand how extraordinary it was that Mandela overcame his baser instincts of revenge and justice, and actually turned the other cheek and offered his forgiveness, understanding, and compassion.
AB: What do you think about people comparing Obama and Mandela?
NH: I don’t think one is related to the other. Obama is completely different to Mandela. I think he’s politics, his views are completely his own, as are Mandela’s. There’s a lot similar to them, I guess, but I wouldn’t want to lump them together merely because of the colour of their skin.
AB: You were terrified portraying Winnie. How did you summon that rage, that rage that led her to endorse necklacing, which Mandela powerfully tells her must stop in your film, just before he separates from her?
NH: The rage was a matter of just imagining. Imagining myself in that situation, imagining myself having suffered the kind of injustices that she suffered along with her fellow black South Africans. And it’s extraordinary it doesn’t actually take that long to fit in and imagine those kinds of scenarios and what black South Africans went through before some kind of anger built up inside you. I also did a hell of a lot of research. It was a matter of reading books about people who knew her and had met Winnie. I also interviewed Winnie herself and watched documentaries about the apartheid era. All that research helped me really understand her and find the emotions that she felt.
AB: From 28 Days Later, to Pirates of the Carribean, via Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, you have a diverse CV. Following the exciting Skyfall, you’re assumed to be in Bond 24. [“No arse, no tits. It’s always a body double,” you say about onscreen nudity.] What connection do you draw between playing Winnie and a Bond woman?
NH: Ah…. [laughs] I don’t think there’s much connection at all, really. I think it’s part of my very broad body of work, with eclectic choices in terms of characters. That’s what keeps me excited. But I love, I suppose, the general thread that she’s a strong, independent, powerful woman, in the same way [in Bond she’s] a strong, independent, powerful woman. Those are great women I love to portray.
AB: What was your biggest surprise making the film?
NH: My biggest surprise making the film… learning about how much Winnie suffered and what she went through. It really taught me about human endurance and also the strength of love as well. Although obviously towards the latter part of their marriage things fell apart, Winnie did for long time stay faithful to a man that she saw extremely infrequently. I think in the beginning it was once a year! And the letters that they wrote to each other, they never were able to [say what they really wanted]… they were highly censored. I think those were real discoveries for me in making the movie.
AB: Yes, 27 years with your husband in The Big House is really tough. Critics say it’s been a strong year for black cinema (Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Mandela). Have you met 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen?
NH: I have not, no.
AB: Did you like 12 Years a Slave?
NH: I did, I thought it was great. It is a great movie.