Naomie Harris has always maintained a certain degree of accidental balances throughout her decade-long film acting career. For every giant blockbuster like “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” or “Skyfall,” there have been such tiny indies as “The First Grader,” “Explicit Ills,” and this year’s breakout “Moonlight.” And for every Hollywood venture, like next month’s “Collateral Beauty,” there is an equal and opposite reaction on her own side of the Atlantic, with her filmography full of such fundamentally British fare as this year’s “Our Kind of Traitor” and her filmic breakthrough “28 Days Later.”
As the recipient of the Variety Award at the BIFAs, designed to honor an actor or producer who has “helped to focus the international spotlight on Britain,” Harris says she never found she had to take any particular steps to champion her homeland’s industry.
“I can’t say I’m conscious of trying to do that, because British culture is my culture, and I feel at home representing, reflecting, and exploring it,” she says. “I live in London, I was born in London; I’ve never left London.”
True to form, when reflecting on her work in Britain, Harris cites both her splashiest film role — as Moneypenny in the most recent two James Bond films, a franchise that she says, “I grew up watching, so to be part of that meant a great deal to me” — and one of her least-known to American audiences, 2009’s BBC One miniseries “Small Island.”
“I think about stories like ‘Small Island,’ exploring the Windrush era, and what it was like for Caribbean people to come over to England during that period and experience the racism that they experienced, the difficulty of integrating — that was particularly fascinating for me, because that’s basically the story of my grandparents.”
Harris is hardly alone as an actress who divides her time between popcorn blockbusters and probing indie fare, but in the case of this year’s “Moonlight,” it’s striking to note just how exponentially her role as the troubled mother Paula in Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age film has expanded her reputation. Harris shot all of her “Moonlight” scenes in three days, during a break in the press tour for last year’s “Spectre.” And while her second Bond outing was certainly seen by more people, it’s the microbudget indie that’s put Harris’ name at the forefront of any serious Oscar prognosticator’s list.
Harris says the rave reviews she’s received for “Moonlight” haven’t had any tangible effect on the way she will approach future roles. “Honestly, we had very low expectations about the amount of people who would see it. It’s just a passion project.” But the experience itself has nonetheless altered the way she looks on her future.
“I’ve always said that I was never interested in directing, and never interested in producing,” she says. “Because there’s such a freedom in being an actor. When you’re the producer or director, you have to baby a project for seven, eight, 10 years, crafting material and trying to get funding. It’s a very long process, and I’m very impatient. So I love the fact that I come on board at the very last stages of development, where everything has been greenlit and I can just get on with it.
“But now I’m starting to get to a point where I’m questioning that, and realizing it would be a wonderful thing to have more input into the material that I’m part of. … And it’s been an effect of working on ‘Moonlight’ and the joy of getting to shine a light on a section of the community that rarely has light shone on it. There are so many wonderful stories like that out there in the world, so to be able to help find those treasures and bring them to light, I think that would be a very wonderful thing to do.”
With the November election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and the surprise success of the U.K.’s Brexit referendum last summer, artists on both sides of the Atlantic have been pondering their responsibilities as entertainers are in a quickly changing political landscape. But for Harris, such questions have always been part of her process.
“To be honest, I think being black, and being a woman, has always ensured that my choices were never as free as other people’s are. So I always felt a responsibility to represent women and black people in a positive light. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s what I’ve always felt. And by positive, I don’t mean that you can’t have anything negative — in ‘Moonlight,’ obviously, Paula has some very negative traits. But they are still progressive roles, edifying roles. I feel that now more than ever it’s important to represent the humanity of all people in a positive light.”