Causing a major splash on the festival circuit this year is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a personal passion project for the director that burst onto the scene a month ago at the Telluride Film Festival. Naomie Harris stars in the film as the drug-addicted mother of a young man navigating his budding homosexuality and the broken reality of his home life while desperately seeking a genuine connection. It’s her most impressive performance to date, one that was squeezed into a long weekend while she was in the midst of promoting a global mega-franchise. It was also a role she initially didn’t want, the kind she swore she’d never play.
The film screens tonight at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters Oct. 21.
So I understand you shot your scenes in this film during downtime from a junket.
Naomie Harris: Three days.
What were you promoting?
Bond. I was traveling all over. I think I flew in from Mexico. I was in a different city every three days.
That’s a difficult head space to inhabit even if you’re in the most ideal of circumstances.
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It was one of the most challenging things that I’ve ever done, but also I loved it because basically I was terrified and running on adrenaline. When you’ve only got a short space of time, you never get a chance to slip out of character. You’re just in the zone the whole time. So it just fueled me to get through the whole thing.
It kind of pressure cooked it.
One of the most amazing things Barry does here is capture the spirit of this character, your character’s son, in three different actors with such ease. You worked with all three actors, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. How did each of them strike you?
They all have that sadness in their eyes, this soulful element. It was easier for me because in each chapter, the way I’m relating to them is fundamentally different. With Little (Hibbert) at the beginning, I’m in the early stages of my crack addiction, a little bit aggressive, but she’s got a lid on it. She’s got it under control. In the middle section with Ashton, she has completely lost the plot, really, and she’s in the deepest, darkest place of her addiction. And then by the end, there’s a point where she’s come to terms with what she’s done and she has this amazing connection with her son. For me it wasn’t like I was trying to recreate anything, because each chapter is so different for her.
How did Barry work with you, dialing you in, particularly given the rushed nature of the schedule?
So there was no rehearsal process, obviously. It was literally just those three days. What I’ve always found when you do a rehearsal process is that it’s the most amazing experience because you get to play and feel relaxed and just experiment with each other. And then what happens when you get on set with a director is he gets pressured and there’s this intensity, like, “You must reproduce it exactly.” What’s amazing about Barry is, yes, there was no rehearsals, but he created an environment on set like it was a rehearsal process. He was not pressured. He’s said when he’s filming is the happiest he ever is and the most relaxed he ever is, and you genuinely feel like that. You feel completely safe to fall flat on your face, to experiment and try whatever, and that’s despite the fact that this movie was made for very little money. And Janelle Monae actually says that on her first day — this is her first-ever film part — Barry said to her, “There is no right and wrong. We just play.” And that’s his general attitude, which is really unique.
What kind of preparation were you able to do for the role? Production was squeezed but did you have the luxury of spending much time building before you shot?
I had, I think it was about a month to prep. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I’ve not done any drugs, so this was like a whole new world I had to discover. And I had a lot of judgment about it. I was judgmental about the fact that she was a bad mother, that she was a crack addict, and I had to overcome that.
Let me stop you there. Did that make you feel like you weren’t the one to do this role?
So…I didn’t want to play the role. I’ve always said that I want to base my career choices on portraying positive images of black women, and I thought I never, ever want to play a stereotypical role, because there are enough of them out there. And I’ve always said I will never play a crack addict. My mom had me when she was 18. I grew up on welfare. But my mom then put herself through university when I was 5 years old. She got her education and she transformed her life and she’s an amazing woman. Those are the kinds of women I grew up with and I want to represent them. I want a counterbalance to those stereotypical images. So I really didn’t want to do it, but I loved the script, so I was in a really tough position. I watched “Medicine for Melancholy,” one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. And then I had a Skype conversation with Barry and I said, “Look, I have these issues,” and he said, “Naomie, I have them, too. As a black man, I don’t want to ask you to play a crack addict. But the reality is this is my story. That’s who my mother was. So what do I do? Because I want to represent that story faithfully.”
What can you do? The guy is basically asking you to play his mother.
Exactly. And that put a totally different spin on it. I thought here’s an opportunity to play a crack addict, but in a non-stereotypical way. And that’s why it was really important for me to bring out the layers in who Paula is. The more I read about addiction, it’s like a demon takes you over. So I wanted to show that Paula is taken over, basically. But underneath that, there’s still that love, but a lot of pain as well, a lot of trauma that she’s trying to escape. By showing all those layers I think she doesn’t become stereotypical. And also, her story is an inspirational story about how you can turn your life around.
The whole movie really plays with stereotypes like that and flips them on their ear. Mahershala Ali’s character feels like a threatening drug dealer initially, but proves to have a heart of gold, for instance.
Going back to the three-day thing, so was each day squared away for each section?
Wow, so it was all over the place. And you’re being aged back and forth throughout the day.
Yeah. It’s because it’s location dependent.
I just want to ask the same question all over again, which is how do you cope with that?
I felt very deeply connected to this part. It’s so strange because it was a part, for me, that was the hardest to connect with in the beginning, but ultimately it’s the part I connected with the most deeply, because I really had to unpick so many judgments about her and I had to really go back to basics and get to grips with, “OK, who is this woman? How does she make these choices?” That involved lots of YouTube documentaries, and the biggest thing I discovered was every woman that was interviewed that was a crack addict had either been sexually abused or raped. Something about that trauma created a split in them where they just couldn’t deal with being in their bodies, being them. They had to create an escape from that trauma. And that, for me, was the jumping off point. I was like, “OK, I can relate to that,” because I think every actor is trying to escape themselves. Otherwise why would we jump into the skin of other people every day?
Let me drill down there. Why do you think you’re trying to escape yourself?
I was bullied when I was a kid, so I escaped into fantasy worlds of a better life, imagining that I was different people on my way to school. I played truant because I didn’t want to go in and face the bullies. I think that’s, for me, when it started, creating this imaginary world.
And what did you think when you finally saw this film put together and all these pieces you had filmed quickly over the course of three days melded into this narrative?
It completely transcended my expectations. It’s so authentic it’s almost like a visceral experience. You feel like you are placed inside this world. You can smell it, you can feel it, and film rarely does that. I think that’s what makes the film so incredibly special. And the film manages to capture something that I think is really hard to capture, which is — I think the movie is all about love and these deep connections. And what’s so powerful about it is it manages to break through all your sense of identity — “I’m the man,” “I’m this race,” what have you — and get to the core of what we’re about, which is heart. I never expected it to touch that deeply.