Leo Barraclough celebrates Naomie Harris, this year’s Variety Award recipient: an extraordinary actress with a glittering future.
At this year’s British Independent Film Awards, Naomie Harris receives the Variety Award, an honour that recognizes a Brit who has made a global impact and has helped focus the international spotlight on the UK.
The actress is considered a major awards contender for Moonlight, in which she plays Paula, the crack-addicted mother of a young man navigating his budding homosexuality. She squeezed the shoot in between junkets for Spectre, in which she played a thoroughly modern Eve Moneypenny.
‘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,’ she told Variety.
The role was particularly challenging as Paula’s drug-distorted personality is a million miles from Harris’ own. ‘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,’ she said.
Moonlight is leading the race for the Independent Spirit awards, alongside American Honey, with both pics taking six nominations. This suggests a run for the Oscars is on, and critics are cheering the pic on. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: ‘Every year, we get only a few of these, movies that come out of nowhere, that are different, unexpected and wonderfully right. Moonlight is that kind of movie, one of the gems of 2016.’
Although Harris wasn’t short-listed for an Indie Spirit award herself (the cast have been tapped for the Robert Altman ensemble award), she is still considered a contender for the Academy Awards, and reviewers have identified her performance as a linchpin in the film’s appeal. The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan calls her the ‘superlative Naomie Harris,’ references some of her previous major movie roles, and adds she ‘is especially strong here, conveying an emotional rawness that is almost too much to witness.’
“I grew up with incredibly strong, powerful women around me who were highly intelligent and doing their own thing, and those are the women I’m interested in portraying.”
Harris’ ascent to stardom may have seemed rapid, but it is based on decades of hard work. It was only with her appearance as Moneypenny in Skyfall in 2012 and her role as Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in 2013 that she became widely known to the public, and Spectre last year cemented her place on the A list. But the 40 year old has been acting professionally since she was nine years old. After university and acting school, Harris broke through with 2002 TV series White Teeth and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in the same year.
After a role in Brett Ratner’s After the Sunset in 2004, her first parts in Hollywood blockbusters followed in 2006, as Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. She was nominated for BAFTA’s Rising Star Award the following year.
Roles in both movies and TV dramas on both sides of the Atlantic followed thick and fast in subsequent years, as well as a stage role in Boyle’s Frankenstein. As well as Moonlight, recent screen roles include Our Kind of Traitor alongside Ewan McGregor, for which she is also BIFA-nominated.
Despite her busy schedule, Harris has applied a strict filter to her career choices to avoid taking stereotypical roles. ‘I’m not interested in playing roles that stereotype me as a woman or as a black woman,’ she told the Guardian recently. ‘I grew up with incredibly strong, powerful women around me who were highly intelligent and doing their own thing, and those are the women I’m interested in portraying.’