Naomie Harris portrays truth with daring in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Power couple: Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Heart of the matter: Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, statesman.
Nanjing Night Net

Playing real-life characters isn’t something that comes naturally to Naomie Harris. The British actress was familiar to fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean series well before James Bond came calling in his latest outing, Skyfall, and has seemed more focused on the fantastical, or at least the fictional. But with her latest role, she is suddenly playing one of the most divisive figures of the late 20th century. Harris is suitably fired up, on and off screen.

When we meet at the Dubai International Film Festival, Harris has just flown in from London and the British premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. During the screening, news came in of the former South African president’s death. The timing felt eerie. The night became an impromptu tribute of sorts to the man who helped eradicate apartheid from his troubled nation.

Harris, 37, calls it a numbing experience. But she points to the film’s earlier unveiling in Johannesburg as a true test of her abilities to read Winnie Mandela correctly, far from the headlines that famously demonised her.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Harris says. “All the Mandela family, the nieces and nephews, all turned out, as well as those who’d been imprisoned with him. It was a lot of pressure. These people were all there. There was complete silence when the movie was being shown. People were really affected. Winnie was crying. I had one of the Mandela nieces sob in my arms. It was intense.”

Harris met Winnie Mandela during pre-production of the film – and was told to “just tell the truth”. The London-born actor spent hours watching news footage, met those who knew the Mandelas, and read copious amounts (including Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, upon which the film is based) before she felt confident to portray the former first lady of South Africa. What she discovered surprised her.

“She was a huge part of keeping his memory alive while he was in prison for 27 years,” Harris says. “She was at the heart of the Free Nelson Mandela campaign. She was also, as we know, a huge part of the Soweto youth uprisings.”

Bypassing previous films about the Mandelas, she adds: “What was really difficult for Winnie was that she was so integral to these two movements: the free Nelson Mandela campaign, the anti- apartheid movement. When Nelson came out of prison, she was sidelined, and expected to go back to being almost the wife, to stand in Nelson Mandela’s shadow, when for so long she had been standing in her own light, and leading a movement in effect. I think that was really difficult for her.”

Harris dismisses the notion that Nelson Mandela, or his former wife (the pair divorced in 1996), were either saints or demons. Both achieved extraordinary things during a tumultuous period in their nation’s history. It took Harris six months to feel “released” from the character, something that “wasn’t pleasant”. Winnie and the family are said to approve of her exhaustive work on screen.

Her performance in the film, alongside fellow British actor Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, is testament to the hours she put in. Harris delivers an extraordinary performance, managing to navigate and articulate a radically shifting personality as Winnie ages from 21 to 57. Were the current awards race not so crowded, both she and Elba would surely have been in the running for Oscar attention.

Harris began acting on television, aged nine, in the British sci-fi series The Tomorrow People. Schooling and further education later kept her away. Then, in 2002, she was cast as an unknown in the zombie thriller 28 Days Later. She thanks its director for all that has come since.

“Danny Boyle is the reason why I’m here today. He gave me the very start of my career, with 28 Days Later, when I’d just left drama school, and didn’t really have any credits to my name. And he also cast me in Frankenstein, at the National [Theatre of Great Britain], which is how I got Bond, because [Skyfall director] Sam Mendes came to see it with Debbie McWilliams, who cast all the Bond movies. So I’ll always work with Danny, no matter what it is. Even,” she laughs, ”if I am playing a bimbo.”

Joking aside, Harris is very serious about her work – and clear about what she will and won’t do. Michael Mann wanted her to strip for a sex scene with co-star Jamie Foxx in 2005’s Miami Vice (she refused, she says, so Mann was forced to use a body double). Similarly, playing Moneypenny in the revitalised Bond franchise appealed because the lady who once fawned over Agent 007 had now been firmly recast as a thoroughly modern woman.

“[The producers] wanted to make her a modern character, someone that women and audiences can identify with and look up to,” she says. “That’s what I’ve always strived to do, in terms of my choices. I don’t have much freedom in terms of what roles I get offered. The freedom I have is in what I choose. I always choose strong women. Those are the women I was brought up with, that I admire and respect.”

Harris grew up in a single-parent family after her father walked out while she was a child. Her Jamaican-born mother went on to become a successful screenwriter (for BBC TV’s EastEnders), lending her daughter a work ethic far removed from the trappings of celebrity. The actress is currently in a steady relationship, although she won’t discuss the man concerned. But she seems genuinely happy. Which begs the inevitable question: what next?

“I’ve always wanted to do a period drama,” she says. “I wrote a dissertation while I was at university about black people in 18th-century Britain. And I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen. So I’d love to be in a Jane Austen-esque film that reflects that period of time, when there were a lot of black people in Britain. After that, who knows?”

Six of the best: leaders on screen

Gandhi (1982)

Sir Richard Attenborough’s epic biopic awoke a generation and garnered 11 Oscar nominations, winning eight, including best actor for Ben Kingsley, for his era-defining performance as the spiritual leader of British-ruled India.

Nixon (1995)

Oliver Stone’s dramatisation of notorious former US president Richard Nixon and his fall from grace wasn’t without its critics but delivered a superb lead turn from Anthony Hopkins, who inhabited the man in a way few others have done before or since.

Downfall (2004)

Almost a decade before the disastrous Diana, filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel delivered this tense WWII drama about the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz inhabited the doomed fuehrer with an intensity so compelling it led to a spate of viral videos, lampooning one of his most brutal monologues.

The Queen (2006)

Philomena director Stephen Frears hit pay dirt with this glorious ode to Elizabeth II, as played by Dame Helen Mirren. Presenting a human side to the usually austere royal family helped soften her subjects’ often-bumpy relationship with their monarch. Mirren won the best actress Oscar for her efforts, dedicating her win to her Queen. A nation applauded.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Kevin Macdonald’s engrossing look at one of the most bizarre figures of the past century provided a career-defining role for Forest Whitaker, who lent the figure of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin the enormity it required. Whitaker won the best actor Oscar.

Patton (1970)

Franklin J. Shaffner’s landmark biopic helped educate a nation about US General George S. Patton, the controversial World War II tank commander. Played with incomparable gusto by the great George C.Scott, the film – a game-changer for its no-holds-barred view of a man relieved of his war duties – is preserved in the US Library of Congress for historical importance.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is released in cinemas on Thursday.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.