Naomie Harris: ‘I portray strong women because that’s what I know’

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The star of forthcoming Le Carr adaptation Our Kind of Traitor on female directors, posh actors and why theatres not for her

Oh gosh, someones had an accident there, says actor Naomie Harris, sounding concerned. Shes in a car en route to the Dior show at Paris fashion week; such invitations have tumbled in since she played Winnie Mandela in 2013s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and updated Eve Moneypenny in the Bond films Skyfall and Spectre. Harris, 39, began acting professionally aged nine, and after university (Cambridge) and drama school (Bristol Old Vic) she was cast by Danny Boyle in the dystopian 28 Days Later. Her new movie is Our Kind of Traitor, an adaptation of the John le Carr novel, in which she and Ewan McGregor are an ordinary couple caught up with the Russian mafia while on holiday in Marrakech.

Is going to fashion shows fun or professional obligation?
I love fashion and I have a great stylist who introduced me to it, because I didnt know anything about fashion before. Now we go every year to these shows and its just a fun thing to do. But its just for the red carpet, not everyday life.

With Our Kind of Traitor and the BBCs recent The Night Manager are we seeing Le Carr being adapted in more opulent, glamorous style?
Id say Our Kind of Traitor has got the real Le Carr feel to it, but maybe a difference would be the emphasis on the romantic relationship. Its a spy thriller and all of that, but at the heart of it, its about love and family and you dont generally see that at the centre of Le Carr films.

It used to be that Le Carr heroes were the cynical, anti-James Bonds. As someone who has worked on film versions of both, do you think they are coming closer together?
If anything, Bond is moving closer to Le Carrs world in that, with Daniel [Craig] playing Bond, its become much grittier and less fantastical. So yeah, theres some movement but they are still fundamentally going to be very different.

Watch the trailer for Our Kind of Traitor

With two regular people at the centre of Our Kind of Traitor, it encourages the audience to think what we might do if, say, a kingpin money launderer for the Russian mafia asked for our help. How did you answer that personally?
Oh, Id react incredibly badly. Im such a scaredy-cat, so I dont think Id be going on any of those adventures. Id be like my character, Gail, not wanting to go. That she goes along with it is solely because of her depth of love for Perry [McGregor] and I dont think I would be brave enough to do that for anyone.

Our Kind of Traitor is directed by Susanna White, who made Generation Kill, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and the BBCs Jane Eyre. Is it a different experience being directed by a woman in an action film like this one?
Its not really a different experience as in, if you have a great director then they have great sensitivity and understand how to speak to you to get you into a specific emotional state. The difference in having a female director and also Gail Egan as a producer is just a sense of reassurance on set. So often when youre on a film set, you do feel isolated, because youre often the only woman. Im so used to it that I just accept it, but theres some part of it thats alienating, and when you have an experience like working with Susanna and Gail, it makes you feel much more part of the process than you normally do. You feel like you belong a lot more.

You famously asked for press material to refer to Bond woman not Bond girl do you specifically seek out strong female roles?
Im not interested in playing roles that stereotype me as a woman or as a black woman. I grew up with incredibly strong, powerful women around me who were highly intelligent and doing their own thing, and those are the women Im interested in portraying because thats what I know to be the truth. A woman who waits around for a man, pines after them I dont have any experience of that kind of woman, so I dont think Id be very good at playing that kind of character.

You landed the Moneypenny part after Sam Mendes saw you on stage in Danny Boyles Frankenstein. But is it true that you dont find theatre acting wholly enjoyable?
Im not a theatre animal. Its not my thing at all. I went to the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, so Ive trained to be a theatre actor, but in every performance I felt like I was going to throw up. I dont think that level of nerves is particularly healthy. I suppose the challenge is to channel those nerves into energy, excitement and things that help your performance, but I didnt manage to find a way to do that.

Harris
Harris alongside Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Photograph: Pathe/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

You played the role for a few months it didnt get better?
It didnt get easier at all; every night was the same. Like Groundhog Day. Arrgh!

Can you do anything to overcome nerves?
I do something called EFT, which is emotional freedom technique, otherwise known as tapping, which really helps me.

Is that where you use your fingers to stimulate acupuncture points?
Yes, so Ill do that before a first day of filming. And if theres a particularly tricky scene Im worried about, Ill do it before then as well.

Will anything positive come out of the #OscarsSoWhite debate about the Academy Awards lack of diversity?
I hope it does, because I wanted the debate to be more focused on solutions rather than venting about where were at. The stats speak for themselves the Oscars voters are 94% white, 76% male so it just seems right, fair and inevitable that there should be some kind of change in the voting system. But if you just say, This is unfair, were going to boycott it, it doesnt force people into action. However, if you show the injustice of the system and say, Look, heres a way forward, it makes it more difficult for people to ignore.

Idris Elba, your co-star in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, complained recently that theres no British equivalent of the American Dream, and thats why he left to find more interesting work in the US. Would you agree with that?
I understand what hes talking about with the American Dream: the notion that you can achieve anything. And I love the can-do mentality, in LA especially, the hunger. But there are negative sides to that as well, because I dont think this insatiable appetite for success at all costs is particularly healthy or balanced. And I think theres a fallacy in the dream, in that success doesnt necessarily lead to happiness. The things that you want arent necessarily the things that are best for you. So I agree with him in some ways and in some ways not.

As someone who was raised in a single-parent household in Finsbury Park, London, and went to state schools, are you surprised by the middle-class dominance of acting?
It doesnt surprise me in the sense that its an expensive profession to enter if you want to train, because now there arent really the grants. So everybody has got to raise their own money to get to drama school, which is a huge hurdle if you dont have parents who have got money. And if you dont have any financial support and back-up its a very scary profession, because there are always these huge intervals when youre not earning. Thats just the nature of the business.

Harris
Harris with Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyles Frankenstein at the National Theatre in 2011: In every performance I felt like I was going to throw up. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Has that been difficult for you personally?
I was very lucky because I started earning at nine and I saved all my income so that when I turned 18 and needed to go to university, it was all there. I always had a really strong work ethic. I didnt need to rely on anybody else financially and I couldnt anyway that was never really an option but I had a strong belief in myself that I could do it on my own. And thats what got me through.

You wrote a novel aged 13 what was the plot?
It was about a middle-class girl whose parents get taken ill and she has to go and live on a council estate with her aunt. It was about the escapades she gets into and the culture shock, being from a very middle-class background and ending up on a council estate.

Have you reread it recently? How does it hold up?
I did reread it about two or three years ago and I was really impressed! Its so dated, because I talk about cassette players and Walkmans, so if I ever try to rewrite it and bring it up to date, it would need quite a bit of work. But I was like, Oh my gosh! Then of course I shoved it back in a drawer.

Is it true that youve never drunk alcohol?
Well, Ive had a sip of wine and I do love Baileys at Christmas. The most girly drink possible. But other than that, no. I hate the taste and smell of it.

Whats the most useful and useless skill that youve had to learn for a movie?
Most useful: the physical training I had to do for Skyfall because it really kicked my butt and got me in shape. Im usually quite lazy about things like that but its given me a lifelong healthy habit. The most useless was probably learning to scuba dive [for After the Sunset], because I absolutely hated it. I wont be doing that again in a hurry.

Our Kind of Traitor is out 13 May

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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