Spiky-haired actress Naomie Harris was raised by her single mother in London. After studying political science at Cambridge, she enrolled at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for professional stage training. In the ’90s, she made a few appearances on U.K. television series, including reoccurring roles on Runaway Bay and The Tomorrow People.
She gained more recognition for her role in the miniseries White Teeth as Clara, the Jamaican daughter of a fanatical Jehovah’s witness mother. Adapted from the book by Zadie Smith, White Teeth was shown in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece Theater in 2002. She made her international breakthrough the same year in Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later. For the role of urban survivor Selena opposite attractive lead Cillian Murphy, Harris trained in kickboxing and learned how to properly wield a machete.
Quickly becoming noticed for her talent and skill, she also appeared in Fritz Baumann’s German drama Anansi as an immigrant from Ghana. Back on television, she played a radical activist for the New Labour party in the two-part BBC1 drama The Project. Harris’ feature films for 2004 include the live-action remake Thunderbirds and the thriller Trauma, starring Colin Firth. This year, she will be seen as wild, Jamaican fortune teller in the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, and not long after, as an undercover New York in Miami Vice. It seems the pretty Ms Harris is on her way. She spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: Being the newcomer in the Pirates gang, talk about working with Johnny and all those guys? Was that never-racking?
Harris: It was. Especially because of my first day of shooting I actually flew from London to Los Angeles and started filming, and I lost-I caught a cold on the plane over and ended up losing my voice and so I wasn’t allowed to speak during any intervals in filming. I had to use sign language because the doctor said that if I spoke too much, I could lose my voice and not be able to continue filming.
Question: Did you have any input into your makeup?
Harris: Yeah, they were great actually, because Martin Samuel who did the hair and Ve Neill who did the makeup and Penny Rose did the costume. I mean they were all open to suggestion and we actually spent two days just trying on different looks and variations. And me saying I like this and they would say bring in pictures and I brought in pictures and they said, ‘yeah, that’s a really good idea, we’ll incorporate it.’ It was fantastic! And then what ended up happening was that we all ended up on a look that we loved, we brought it to Gore [Verbinski] and he said, ‘no, that’s way too much.’
Question: You mean a sketch?
Harris: No, we did it all, got it all ready. I got all in the costume and everything and went to see Gore and he said, ‘that’s way too much.’ And he just said, ‘wipe it all off. And just bring everything down. Like bedraggle her.’ And that’s what we did and that’s the image we ended up with.
Question: The mouth and teeth looked really uncomfortable.
Harris: It was hugely uncomfortable, actually, because it’s like having your teeth kind of pressed and your gums pressed constantly, so it wasn’t too nice but bearable.
Question: Did you ever come up with a back-story to your character?
Harris: There is a huge back-story but it’s all revealed in P3. You know she has her own reasons for doing what she’s doing in P2. P2 is just an introduction for the character and in P3 she actually goes on a journey with all the different characters.
Question: Did you get to read both scripts?
Harris: No, I had to do 2 without knowing what was happening in 3. But Gore did brief me, which was a little hard because there is so much that happens with her in p3.
Question: Where you ever down in the Caribbean?
Harris: For P2, everything was shot in Los Angeles on a lot in Disney. But then for p3, I went to the Bahamas in Dominica.
Question: Are you done shooting?
Harris: No, I start again in August.
Question: How was the audition process? Other girls?
Harris: Well, you never know kind of who you’re up against because it’s just um…you know you’re in a room with the director and the casting director. But I didn’t know that Gore didn’t actually want me for the part. Because, he said that I was actually too pretty and he didn’t want anybody pretty. He wanted like an older actress and I didn’t know that when I walked into the audition room but I learned that later. So, the casting director, Denise Chamian, who cast me in…well she actually tried to cast me in something else but it didn’t’ work out. And she really wanted me for the part so she persuaded Gore to audition me. And he said to me, when I walked into the room, he said, ‘ok, you’re going to have to do this like 3 maybe 4 times so…ok, let’s just have a go-just see what you’re done.’ And so I read it once and then he went, ‘how would you like to come to the Bahamas?’ It was great!
Question: How did you get that accent?
Harris: It is Jamaican, actually. And I did a Jamaican accent for “White Teeth,” which I did for the BBC in London. And also my family are Jamaican as well.
Question: What kinds of doors has this movie opened up for you?
Harris: I don’t know…I never think of that in terms of parts. I just think in terms of what roles challenge me. What role takes me in a new direction? And I was really excited about playing Tia Dalma because her-she allowed me to introduce physicality in a way that I haven’t introduced in other characters. She allowed me to be larger than life which I hadn’t been allowed to do in other characters. And she also didn’t have to worry about being beautiful, which I really like, you know, just not having to worry about your looks and being conventionally attractive. But I think she’s a hugely attractive character but just not like in a conventional way, and I found that really liberating.
Question: What was your previous experience with Voodoo?
Harris: I didn’t, no, I think I would have been absolutely too terrified to. Because I used to go back to Jamaica once every year when I was growing up, and actually lived in Jamaica for six months and went to school there for a while. So I know a lot about voodoo and it’s very alive and well in Jamaica and in the Caribbean in general. We do believe in it a lot so I wouldn’t go exploring in those realms unless I really had to.
Question: Are you expecting your daily normal life to change from doing a big movie like this?
Harris: No, thank goodness, because I’m wearing so much makeup that I don’t think anyone will recognize me in the street, which I think is great.
Question: You have another big summer movie coming out?
Harris: Yes, I’m doing Miami Vice.
Question: How different is this character in Miami Vice?
Harris: They are like miles apart. She is an Intel Analyst for…she’s an undercover cop basically, and working with a team of undercover agents in Miami.
Question: You play American?
Harris: Yes, I play someone from the Bronx, actually. I have a Bronx accent from that. I’m trying to get in all my accents.
Question: How did that Caribbean production compare to Pirates?
Harris: Yeah, and actually I was flying backwards and forwards, I was filming in Miami and then flying to the Bahamas to film P3. It was kind of filmed simultaneously. It was just a really different atmosphere onset. Because there was Michael Mann with Miami Vice so it’s much more intense experience. And Pirates in Bahamas was much more fun and a much bigger kind of deal. Because even though Miami Vice is a big production, Michael Mann likes to keep it intimate and very much about the actors and it’s not about green set or green scenes or what-have-you, and all those kind of technical things.
Question: Did you know your original character on Miami Vice had a nickname-Big Booty Trudy?
Harris: Oh really!? She did? I didn’t know that. (Laughs).
Question: Does your character in the new movie have a nickname?
Harris: No. And I didn’t know anything about that one. (Laughs).
Question: Was there any initiation as one of the newcomers coming to Pirates?
Harris: No, I wish there had been, actually, because I only have two scenes effectively in P2, and so it was very difficult because all the characters had been on it before, generally, and were quite bonded and so it was quite difficult kind of finding my feet in amongst all of that, so I wish there had been some kind of initiation process. But what was really nice was that I’d worked with Kevin McNally when I left drama school…he’s actually the first actor that I’d had worked with and I had one line in the film that he did. And he remembered me from that and he kind of took me under his wing, so that was really nice.
Question: What surprised you about working with Johnny and Orlando?
Harris: What surprised me…just how down to earth they are and how absolutely lovely and yeah, just real. There was no airs and graces. You know it’s just basically when you get down and you start doing work together it’s just like working with anybody else, really, any other actor, which is nice. You completely forget about who they are and their star status.
Question: How much physical stuff is there for you in Pirates 3?
Harris: Not very much at all. No, apart from getting tied up, there’s not much at all. I seemed to get tied up in every movie I do, like, 28 Days Later, Miami Vice and now Pirates as well.
Question: If you’re going on a voyage, is there a lot of water to deal with?
Harris: Um…yeah but I don’t end up getting sort of thrown overboard or anything like that, which is nice. But I didn’t think about it. It’s so weird because I signed up to do Pirates but I didn’t think about whether I got seasick-and I’d never been on a ship before. And so there were all these people who suddenly we started filming, and people throwing up and having to leave the ship and thankfully I don’t get seasick I discovered, but it would have been awful if I did.
Question: How did you end up at Cambridge studying political science?
Harris: Well I went to Cambridge because I was bullied at school. So I always said that I would leave school at 16. And then when I came to the age of 16, my mom begged me to stay on and do my A-levels, because she said just in case you ever change your mind about acting, then just at least have your A-levels behind you. So, for my mom, because she never asked me to do anything else before, I did stay on and do my A-levels. And, while I was there I had this really inspirational teacher called Mr. Murdoch who made me fall in love with my subject which was Social and Political Sciences. And he was the one who said you know you have the potential to go to Cambridge so you should work and do that and that’s what I did. So I really owe it to Mr. Murdoch, basically.
Question: So why the transition?
Harris: I always knew I wanted to be an actress. I’ve never ever wanted to do anything else. But I just loved working with Mr. Murdoch…he was such an inspirational teacher. That it was not really for him, but because I fell in love with this subject as a result of his teacher, that’s why I wanted to explore it.
Question: Miami Vice budget overruns…is it frustrating as an actress that people pre-judge the movie?
Harris: I think people judge the movie on its own merit so that’s really good. And I think actually although it’s not nice hearing negative things in the press about the movie, it actually just adds to the buzz of the whole thing and makes people anticipate it more so I don’t really worry about it. The only thing is that I actually myself bought into some of those rumours and ended up writing a letter to Michael Mann and saying, ‘is everything ok on filming because I’ve heard such awful things?’ And he wrote me a letter back saying don’t worry about it. It’s all rubbish.
Question: Why were you bullied in school?
Harris: Because I was a child actress. I started acting when I was 9, so I was on TV and I just think there was a lot of jealousy to be honest.
Question: Are you still bullied for being an actress?
Harris: No. Not anymore.
Question: Had you seen the first Pirates? Were you a fan of the first one?
Harris: No, I had seen it. Because I have a younger brother and sister, they’re 9 and 6, so, yeah I watched it several times because of them.
Question: Which ending of 28 Days Later did you like better?
Harris: I liked the one that wasn’t used. I just thought that was more believable. And that’s what Danny [Boyle] wanted. It was the executive producers that wanted the other ending…the studios…
Question: What are you working on after Pirates 3?
Harris: I’m not doing anything at the moment, I’m just open to possibilities, reading scripts and seeing what’s next.