by Chesley Turner
photography by Spencer Heyfron
These days, we prefer our stars complicated and multi-faceted. We want accomplishment and poise. We want grace and wit. We want intelligence and motivation and depth, and we want it wrapped in a package of style and sex appeal and stunning good looks.
And that is why Naomie Harris is on the cover.
Because she’s more than the island witch woman from Pirates of the Caribbean. She’s more than the Bond franchise’s latest Moneypenny. Blockbusters may have put her in the mind of the masses, but she’ll stay there thanks to the tougher pieces she’s tackling.
“I’m a believer that change is possible; I’m always wanting more change. So [the movies I choose] are in tune with my pro-progression, my sense of basically who I am. They deeply resonate with me.”
Naomie’s upcoming film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is going to shatter the line between action flick and biopic. This isn’t your 4th grade social studies class. Accomplishing the change that transformed South Africa was a tumultuous and difficult effort. The story of the man who took the helm is necessarily compelling. But more than that, it’s recent. Our own Civil Rights movement seemed almost old news by the time this story was really developing; Michael Jackson already had hit albums when the white bubble burst in South Africa.
Change is constantly happening, but at its own pace. Naomie, who was excited and terrified to take on the roll of Mandela’s famous wife, recognizes the subtleties of the change that he empowered. She relates a story from the book about Mandela’s life on Robben Island and his interaction with the prison guards. “He knew that in the beginning they would be very aggressive and not friendly at all, incredibly hostile to him. And he realized that was really as a result of lack of exposure to black people, and total ignorance. And not actually anything to do with him or even to do with his race. It was just that… they’d just been fed a diet of propaganda about who black people were.” Change took time, but it came. “He realized that by being in close proximity with these guards and building up a relationship with them and talking to them and them getting to know him, he broke down the barriers. They learned to see, not just him, but generally the Africans he was imprisoned with. And he saw these incredibly tough guards melt and become new people.”
South Africa has come a long way since apartheid was ended and the white and black pieces could begin to stitch themselves together for the first time. But there is still a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding in the world. There is fear from nation to nation in how people see one another. Which is why, Naomie says, it is so great to live in a city. “I guess my idea is the same as Mandela’s: that it’s all about experiences and exposure. And that’s why it’s great living in a city, because you are constantly with people from different races, from all over the world and you get the opportunity to see up close and personal that ultimately we are more similar than we are different.”
Mandela isn’t Naomie’s first foray into Sub-Saharan change stories. A few years back, she acted in The First Grader, as a teacher who joins the fight to let an 84-year-old man attend school for the first time. It is a true story that pleads everyone is entitled to a basic education. “I love the idea of being part of something that shows on a huge scale how change is possible, and how as an individual you can enact change and it affects so many people’s lives. And how it is possible to make a change as an individual that affects a complete society, if not a whole country.” These change epics also require considerable acting chops. Stock characters need not apply. “Those kind of films enable me as an actress to really show the breadth of what I can do, and I find that challenging and also liberating and fascinating for myself as an actor.”
When next you see her, Naomie will be tackling the role of another liberating and fascinating woman: Winnie Mandela. Winnie is a modern icon to many. She’s still alive, and those who charted the course of South Africa’s recent history have watched her over the years. Her life is familiar, her actions well-documented, and her role in Mandela’s life was once virtually headline news. It is all but a straightforward role, and it was an exercise to portray. “I think the biggest thing for me was her anger and her resentment and her hatred because, for me, those are the kind of areas of myself that I try never to delve in. I always say that I don’t hate anybody and I don’t like to carry hatred. And I think those are kind of really unattractive, base human emotions and feelings. I had to feel what it means to actively seek revenge, and to live with an immense amount of rage. And that, for me, was a revelatory experience, because I’ve never explored that side of myself, really. And it’s always painful, you know, when you act roles like that.”
But to do a woman like Winnie justice, to make her story resonate and flesh out her reality, Naomie was tasked with hitting every rung on the emotional ladder. Because Winnie makes a journey in this story. “Most people don’t realize that she was not really a political being at all when she met Mandela. She was only 21. She was very very young, and she was very naive and full of joy and full of life and very happy and successful as well. You know, she was the first black social worker in Johannesburg.” So prepare to strap in for a roller coaster ride that starts on the up and ends with a precipitous acceleration downward. “I think to see the transition from that into the warrior, the fierce warrior she becomes by the end of the movie… I think that’s a very interesting journey that most people aren’t aware of.”
Talent and looks and emotional depth she may have, but it’s Naomie’s grit and determination that make her relatable. She is a powerful woman on the rise who acknowledges her roots. “I was really lucky growing up actually, you know – in some respects unlucky because I didn’t have my father around – but in some respects that was a blessing as well because I saw my mum being both the man and the woman. She had to be incredibly powerful and strong and resilient and resourceful.” This is the woman who raised the conscientious starlet. And the role modeling didn’t end there. “My aunts were very powerful, hard-working and very successful… I grew up really being encouraged to inhabit fully, you know, being powerful. And so it’s a shock when you enter the rest of the world outside your family and your extended family and you realize that women aren’t encouraged to do that, generally.” The world outside the nest still supported the ignorance and the racism and the sexism that she hadn’t yet encountered. But, she says, she learned to play the game. “Sometimes you kind of swallow your power in order to get where you need to get. It’s complex and complicated navigating [the gender divide] within the film industry, but the exciting thing is, I think, that really is changing. We’re seeing the emergence of more women’s voices and better roles for women, but it is slow.”
Change can be slow, and it still seems to be a man’s world. But in the city, a woman can realize her very own type of power. “As women, we have a helluva lot of power. But I think both sexes are incredibly powerful and resourceful. It’s just that I think that society allows more room for the expression of that in men, and not so much in women.” When those ugly stereotypes of mandated-fragility and patronal obeisance rear their rotten heads, we have to keep striding forward, destination: modernity. “It makes for more interesting relationships between men and women and much more interesting society when both sexes can fully inhabit their power.”
Even as women are less and less often the disenfranchised, it’s still important to keep an eye out for those who need help. Naomie has the unique experience of being able to pay it forward. She supports a charity called Women’s Educational Trust, helping young girls and women access education. Just over a decade ago, she was on the receiving end. “When I went to drama school, I wasn’t able to afford the fee, and so I wrote to a lot of charities for help.” The Women’s Educational Trust helped support her as she attended Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. “And now I am a patron for that Trust…. Education generally is – for both sexes – hugely important to me, because that’s how you can make a huge difference in your life, and ultimately in the lives of other people.” It’s the same story that she told in The First Grader. That true story really resonated with her own life, a life that has given her the opportunity to help others in the same way.
You know what else we want in our stars? Generosity and a sense of humanity. Check.