Naomie Harris often says her breakout role was in the 2003 post-apocalyptic thriller “28 Days Later” with Cillian Murphy, but that is not exactly true.
Because even as the film was scoring at the box office and drawing critical plaudits, Harris found herself unemployed and sending out dozens of resumes and letters to casting directors, begging for work.
The same thing happened after she landed parts in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and the James Bond movie “Skyfall.” People told her that now the work would come flooding in — but it never did. Then along came “Moonlight,” the 2016 indie that ended up winning an Academy Award for best picture. Harris’ performance as Paula, a drug addict and mother, earned her a best supporting Oscar nomination. “This is going to change everything,” people told a skeptical Harris yet again. Finally, they were right.
“With ‘Moonlight,’ it was fundamentally different,’” Harris said, calling from her home in London. “It has been nonstop offers and nonstop work.” It also led Harris, who is 43, to secure her first leading role in the new movie “Black and Blue,” about a rookie police officer in New Orleans grappling with suspicion from the African-American community and deep corruption in the police force. A taut, gritty thriller, the film, which also stars Tyrese Gibson, puts a spotlight on the deep distrust between many African-Americans and the police.
Harris will return to the big screen in 2020, reprising her role as Eve Moneypenny in the next James Bond picture, “No Time to Die,” and is also appearing in the forthcoming HBO and Sky One series “The Third Day.” She is, she said, relishing every minute of this career high.
“You want a woman that’s going to drive the story, you want a woman with depth and layers, and that happens with maturity,” she said. “We all become much more interesting with life experience.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Even though you’re British, you seemed to have an intuitive grasp on Paula, your character in “Moonlight,” and Alicia, the officer in “Black and Blue,” who both come from marginalized communities in a country where race issues are fraught.
I don’t know whether it’s intuitive, because it requires a tremendous amount of hard work. It’s about as much exposure as possible to the kind of upbringing that the person you’re playing is from. I was really lucky I had Tyrese to act opposite. He grew up in South Central L.A. but was able to tell me about his experiences growing up. And I always talk about YouTube, and the incredible mine of information there. I researched African-American policewomen in New Orleans, and also juvenile detention centers, because that’s Alicia’s experience.
How do relations between black communities and the police compare in Britain versus the U.S.?
It’s an endemic problem, and it’s so sad, it’s so dark, and it’s hugely depressing. We have all the same issues that you have in the States, though it’s on a much more extreme scale in the U.S. We have the Black Lives Matter movement here, we have the whole issue with police brutality and police corruption and cases of black people who’ve been taken into detention and end up dead. It seems as though the system is designed in such a way so to protect officers and not to protect civilians. I don’t feel terror when I see the British police here. But, especially in New Orleans, from speaking to a lot of people on our movie set, that’s their experience when they see the police.
I’d like to go way, way back in to “Simon and the Witch,” the 1980s British TV show that marked your first role. Is it right that you did not have to do auditions until later in your career?
I did do auditions, but I got every single role I ever went up for as a kid. I never heard no, which actually set me up quite badly for the adult acting profession. I spent the first year outside of drama school completely unemployed, completely unable to get any work. It was one of most depressing periods of my life.
That “Moonlight” changed everything is wonderful to hear. Do you hear comments on the fact that your biggest role came after you turned 40?
People always ask me, ‘What it’s like, you’re past 40 now?’ This is the best point of my career ever. I’m getting the most interesting roles. So I hope that myth will be laid to rest.
Can we go back to Oscar night in 2017, when “La La Land” was mistakenly named the best picture winner and then “Moonlight” ended up winning. That must’ve been so surreal. Did you expect it to win?
I remember being frozen in my chair. I was so in shock that I literally couldn’t move. And all the cast and the producers and Barry [Jenkins, the director] were going up onstage, and I was just left in my chair. I would have stayed there if it wasn’t for Jeremy Kleiner [a producer on “Moonlight”] who came back and grabbed me.
You’ve talked previously about an audition in your 20s when a major actor put his hand up your skirt in front of the casting director and director, who said nothing.
I just chalked it up as this hideous experience that I was aware a lot of fellow actresses had experienced at some point. I wasn’t particularly traumatized by it. I just kind of though, “O.K., now it’s my turn,” and I just got on with it. I realize now that we in that period, going back 15 years, we had to develop that resilience. It’s so indicative of the extent and scale of the problem at that time that I felt, “O.K. this is what I should almost expect as actress in this business.” It’s absolutely hideous.
Has there been a shift?
I really feel that for the next generation and current generation of actresses, that the landscape has changed in such a huge way, that it’s not acceptable anymore, and that the behavior of men fundamentally has changed as well. I’m on a project at the moment with Jeremy Kleiner [the HBO series “The Third Day”]. Before we started the read-through they read a whole statement about having a zero tolerance attitude to any form of intimidating, bullying or sexual violence against women. It was extraordinary. It actually made me well up. Once you state that at the beginning of a job, you set the whole tone for everybody on the film. And that never would have happened 15 years ago. That’s the power of the #MeToo movement and it’s extraordinary how quickly things can change.