Oscar-nominated actor Naomie Harris, OBE, has had to overcome more obstacles offscreen than her onscreen stunts as Miss Moneypenny in the Bond franchise. Here, Naomie opens up to GLAMOUR’s Josh Smith about the racism and sexism she has faced in her career, childhood bullying and learning to walk again after a life-changing operation…
It’s February 2020 and I’m sitting down with Naomie Harris after her GLAMOUR cover shoot in a Stratford penthouse overlooking London. The words ‘COVID-19’ and ‘lockdown’ were not even in our vocabulary, so there is zero social distancing as we sit curled up on a sofa together. Most importantly, the renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement has not happened, and yet so much of what Naomie had to say to me then about her 35-year acting career, the prejudice and racism she has faced in her life are more poignant now than ever. In fact, I interview inspirational women every day, but none of them have encountered the sheer number of obstacles Naomie Harris has and come out the other side with such a strong sense of self.
“When I started out [in acting], there weren’t a lot of Black roles for women and it was tough,” she told me then. “But I always set out with this mission statement: ‘My job is to portray positive images of Black women. If I get presented with a stereotypical role, I’m not going to play it. If it doesn’t move the story forward about Black women and show us in a positive, strong and multifaceted light, then I’m not going to play those roles.’ It was difficult in the beginning, because I didn’t have any money. I was trying to support myself and I’d have to say ‘no’ to roles that I needed to pay the bills, but it paid off.”
WATCH: Naomie Harris opens up about the obstacles she has overcome from learning to walk again to racism.
Fast forward six months and we pick up where we left off, this time, on Zoom– with Naomie’s brother on hand for technical support. She’s in her living room in north London, which is a stone’s throw from where she was raised in a council flat in Finsbury Park by her single mother, Lisselle, a screenwriter. “Where I grew up, there was a heavy influence of West Indian communities because it’s where so many people from the Windrush era settled, like my [Jamaican] grandfather and my grandmother,” Naomie says. “It was so multicultural. It meant I was shielded from the structural racism happening outside – where there was a higher proportion of unexplained deaths of Black men in police custody – it was one of the most acrimonious periods between the police and the Black community.”
What racism did she experience growing up? “The racism I grew up expecting to encounter was not the racism that I encountered. I expected it to be somebody hitting me round the head and calling me the ‘N’ word. That’s not the kind of racism that you generally encounter in the UK. But what you have is more insidious and harder to pinpoint. My family and the community worked very hard to shield us, as kids, from that.”
“The older I’ve got I’ve thought I was the privileged one. I got the experience of coming from a council flat.”
Naomie’s career kick-started when she was just nine years old with numerous roles in children’s TV shows such as Simon And The Witch and The Tomorrow People before she underwent a life-changing operation – more on this later – and paused her acting career to attend Cambridge University. After graduating with a degree in social and political sciences, she returned to acting and made her big-screen debut in 28 Days Later, followed by a bewitching turn as Tia, the witch in Pirates Of The Caribbean. More recently she has starred as the re-feminised Miss Moneypenny in Bond, a role she’s played since 2012 and played Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom opposite Idris Elba. But Naomie was finally given the awards attention she deserved when she was Oscar-nominated for her heartbreaking performance in Moonlight and an OBE followed in 2017.
Then, just as she was about to hit the promotional trail for Daniel Craig’s final fling with Bond in No Time To Die and her latest TV show, HBO thriller The Third Day opposite Jude Law – with Naomie playing a mother stuck on a mysterious island, which has finally landed on Sky Atlantic – the world just, well, stopped. And while she took the time to write (she’s coy about what), at the suggestion of her friend, acclaimed journalist Afua Hirsch and have ‘Sunday cook-offs’ with her family who still live on the same street as her, she also re-evaluated her own experiences of racism. “For a long-time, my experience at Cambridge and the sense of alienation that I experienced there, I put down to class, rather than racism. It’s only in later life that I’ve looked back on that and I’ve thought, ‘How do class and race intercept?’ The two go hand in hand. This period has made me reflect on my experiences growing up – and so much that I discounted as not being racist, I look back on now and I think, ‘it probably was’.”
Her university years were also the first time she really encountered the concept of privilege. “I was confronted with people from completely different backgrounds to mine, who would talk about going skiing with mummy and daddy in the holidays. And I was like, ‘What’s skiing?’ My parents took me to Butlin’s,” Naomie laughs.
“I was ignored and then I’d have things like my bag tipped over the stairs as I was going to class or being told I was going to be beaten up after school so I was terrified to go home.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, they are so privileged.’ But the older I’ve got I’ve thought I was the privileged one. I got the experience of coming from a council flat, having that awareness, and then I also studied at Cambridge and learned about that rarefied atmosphere that I was part of. I am aware of these different echelons in society. That is the true privilege.”
How have privilege – and racism – played out in her career? “It’s hard to say – everybody in this profession has an individual path. Having said that, there are more limited opportunities for people of colour, and that’s just a fact. For instance, if you look at rom-coms, how many Black female lead heroines do we have?”
Did she have to push to become the leading lady she always thought she should be? “I can’t really say, ‘That’s due to racism.’ I can suspect it is. But also, for a long time, I didn’t want to play the leads. I didn’t want the responsibility of holding a whole film and its success. But how many [lead roles] did I get offered in my career? Not many.”
Which leads us to Bond and the release of No Time To Die, which may be moving to April 2021. When asked what she thinks the new Bond represents, Naomie is clear: “Society is no longer tolerant of the kind of chauvinistic representations of what it means to be a man of old. There’s been this real decision that we have to make a departure from these representations of masculinity of old, and we will not accept them any more!” With Phoebe Waller-Bridge on board, having helped to write the new script, Bond is certainly embarking on a new mission.
This shift is something Naomie has noticed behind the scenes following the #MeToo movement, too, “I recently did a film where the producer stood up before we’d even started shooting, and he said, ‘This is an environment which is not tolerant of any abuse towards women.’ I’ve never had a producer say that before. I feel as though lots of men are running scared – and I don’t mean the good men as the vast majority of men have nothing to fear, but there were some really bad apples and they’re getting their day now in court.”
“A prime example, for me, is going to an audition and having a very famous actor put his hand up my skirt during the audition. And having the casting director there, and the director of the movie there, and nobody saying anything at all.”
How has toxic masculinity played out in her own career? “A prime example, for me, is going to an audition and having a very famous actor put his hand up my skirt during the audition. And having the casting director there, and the director of the movie there, and nobody saying anything at all – and feeling like I couldn’t say anything as well. Now, that would just never, ever happen. There’s been this radical shift and it’s so exciting to see the power of a movement like #MeToo. In such a short period of time, it’s changed this culture.”
The #MeToo movement has certainly given Naomie a new sense of her own inner voice and the power to speak up, but it’s still a challenge she admits. “I feel absolutely safer and I feel like I’m encouraged to have a voice within the industry, but to be quite honest it’s still a challenge for me. I’m still having to remind myself, ‘You have a right to be in this room. You have a right to speak up. You have a right to speak up about behaviour that makes you feel uncomfortable.’”
One thing Naomie has been consistently vocal about, however, is that she will never be pressured into doing nude scenes. “I was offered this role by Michael Mann – one of the hugest directors of all time – and he wanted me to do this nude scene in Miami Vice,” Naomie reveals. “I’ve always said, that’s one of the things, from the very start of my career is, ‘I don’t do nudity.’ That’s a line for me that I don’t cross. He said, ‘Well, if you don’t do nudity, then you can’t have this role.’ So, I said, ‘OK, I’m not going to do this role.’ My team thought I was insane and said, ‘What? This is Michael Mann [director of The Last Of The Mohicans, Heat and Collateral]. This is such a huge opportunity in your career.’ But I was willing to walk away from it and, thankfully, Michael Mann changed his mind and said, ‘OK, that’s fine. You can have the role.’”
Naomie is certainly well versed in playing ‘hardball’, and to me she has always seemed so in control of the power of her own body especially when fighting terrorists in the Bond franchise or avoiding mutated gorillas opposite The Rock in Rampage. But her relationship with her body image has provided one of the greatest challenges of her life. “I was born with scoliosis and I had a metal rod inserted all the way along my spine when I was 15. I spent a year in a plaster cast,” Naomie shares very matter-of-factly.
“What it taught me is not really to be fixated about the way I look. So, I make sure I look after my body because I know what it’s like not to be healthy,” Naomie continues. “So, I really work on trying to be as healthy as I can.”
This teenage challenge also came at the same time of continuous bullying. “I was on TV, so by the time I got to secondary school, I was kind of famous, because I was in these shows kids watched like Simon And The Witch, so they knew who I was. I think that intimidated lots of people – and particularly one girl, who was the head of this gang, became really uncomfortable. She turned everyone against me. She’d say, ‘If you talk to Naomie, then nobody is going to talk to you.’ So, I was ignored and then I’d have things like my bag tipped over the stairs as I was going to class or being told I was going to be beaten up after school so I was terrified to go home.”
How much you have achieved is such a good two fingers up at anyone who ever bullied you, I remark, “I think it really is,” Naomie smiles. “It’s so funny you say that, because that has been what drove me at the start of my career. I thought, ‘I’m going to prove it to you, I can achieve this.’ But then at some point, I realised I don’t think they give a shi*t. I’m doing this for me. I’m not doing it out of vengeance or any sense that I need to prove myself to them, because they’re not worth it ultimately.’”
“I know what it’s like when all the muscles in my back were cut through, I know what it is like to learn to walk again, I know what it’s like to spend months in hospital recovering from a major operation like that.”
Naomie is one of the most poised, articulate and yet warmest people you could meet, but one thing that topples her composure is when she talks about her mum. “She had me at 18 years old. She had to stop school to raise me. She had nothing. She didn’t really have support, and certainly not any financial support. But she said, ‘Once you turn five, then I’m going to go to university and then I’m going to do what I want to do with my life.’ That’s precisely what she did. I started school, she went to university, she got her degree. Then she went on to become a television writer. As well as EastEnders, she had her own sit-com on BBC One [Us Girls}. She achieved so much, and so when you have a mother who sets her mind on something and says, ‘I’m going to do that,’ and does it, it’s such an incredible example, because you realise like, ‘Oh, it’s possible for my mother. I can do the same.’
Her mum’s influence was key in adulthood too, when Naomie almost gave up acting.“After Moonlight, I went through one of my darkest periods in my career, because I was burnt out,” Naomie admits. I worked only three days making the movie Moonlight, but then spent six months promoting it. It was exhausting. I came into this to act; I didn’t come into the profession wanting to do red-carpet and interviews. Suddenly that’s what my life became about. Afterwards, I said to my mum, ‘I don’t think I want to do this any more.’ Her response? ‘Take some time out and then reconsider. This is what you’re born to do.’ She’s always had that faith in me.”
Is Naomie Harris still out there slaying her career for the younger her who was living in that council estate, I wonder? “I do it for every girl who’s in that position now, just for them to know that anything is possible. But it requires hard work. It requires tremendous sacrifices as well. There’s a lot of sacrifices that I’ve made in my personal life. But it’s been worth it.” Naomie Harris is the definition of a role model.
The Third Day airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and Now TV, and No Time To Die will be released on 2 April 2021.