When Naomie Harris received the script for her new film Moonlight, she tried not to be too analytical about it. Best known these days for reinventing Eve Moneypenny in the Bond franchise, she tries to choose her roles based on how a script makes her feel. In this particular instance, the script – about a young Black American male wrestling with his sexuality at three key stages in his life – made her feel pretty emotional. “I cried three or four times,” she laughs. “I just thought ‘this will make a really, really beautiful film’.”
Naturally, then, she was resistant to it. Or at least, she was resistant to the part writer/director Barry Jenkins wanted her to play. “I was scared of playing a crack addict,” elaborates Harris in reference to her character, Paula, whose troubled status as the addiction-ravaged mother of the film’s protagonist, Chiron, shapes and haunts his adolescence and adulthood (Chiron is played as a bullied ten-year-old by newcomer Alex Hibbert, as an introverted 16-year old by Ashton Sanders, and as an unsure-of-himself 20-something by Trevante Rhodes). “I was scared of her becoming a stereotype or a cliché,” Harris continues. “I just thought there have been enough of these sorts of roles and I didn’t want to be another one.”
But after sharing her fears with Jenkins during a Skype meeting, she changed her mind. “He explained that the story is basically an amalgamation of his life and that of the playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney [the script is based on his original play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue]. He said: ‘I want to tell my story and my story does involve the fact that my mother was a crack addict.’ So I thought: here’s someone who’s emotionally invested in ensuring the character doesn’t become stereotypical, that she’s given full emotional complexity and humanity.”
And so it proved. Since hitting the festival circuit last autumn, the poetic, beautiful, experimental Moonlight has become something of an arthouse smash, earning back its budget in the US several times over and topping many influential critics’ films-of-the-year lists. Now it’s at the forefront of the awards season, with the film picking up eight Oscar nominations earlier this week, including a best supporting actress nod for Harris to add to the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations she’s already received. When we talk, though, only the Golden Globe nominations have been announced (Harris didn’t win, but the film won best picture). But having broken through in Danny Boyle’s low-budget zombie hit 28 Days Later and since become a veteran of indie films and blockbusters alike (she’s as comfortable playing Winnie Mandela as she is a witch in the Pirates of the Caribbean films), she knows what awards buzz can mean for a film like Moonlight.
“It draws so much attention to the films that have been nominated and that is really powerful for a movie like Moonlight that has a tiny, tiny publicity budget. What’s been great about this film is that so many people have taken ownership on social media and made it their business to promote the movie to their friends and family.”
The film itself couldn’t be further from her experiences on Bond, a franchise she understandably relishes for the opportunity it has given her to create a modern version of an iconic character. “It’s funny, you don’t feel as if you’re part of this huge juggernaut when you’re making it; it’s only when you’re at the promotional stage that you’re reminded that, wow, these are huge movies.”
Indeed, she was in the midst of a global promotional tour for Spectre when she signed on for Moonlight. Travelling the world, going to a new country every three or four days, it wasn’t exactly the right headspace for figuring out a drug addict from Liberty City, one of the most deprived areas of Miami. Given the character was so far from her own experiences (“I don’t even drink coffee,” she says of her self-confessed health-nut status), she worried about not having time to research the part by sitting down with addicts, or even her director. “I was only on set for three days,” she reveals.
Playing an undercover cop in Michael Mann’s narcotics-soaked Miami Vice wasn’t much help either. “There was no correlation at all,” she says of the two movies. “With Michael Mann, I could say to him: ‘What’s really going to help me is to go to Outer Mongolia and learn to play the bongos’ and Michael would be like: ‘OK, I’ve chartered a private jet for you; you’re off tomorrow.’ That’s what Michael is like. He had me go out with undercover agents in New York City; I went on drug raids with them. It was a crazy, crazy experience.”
For Moonlight, then, YouTube became her greatest resource. She found a series of intimate documentary interviews with addicts that had been filmed in crack dens using camera phones. “It was incredibly personal and insightful. What I realised from watching the YouTube documentaries was that addiction is like a demon. It takes over people and they become extra aggressive, so actually being with them is like being on an emotional rollercoaster. You never know when they’re going to be sweet, nice or angry or start crying. It’s totally unpredictable, but underneath that the real person still exists. With Paula, she’s someone who loves her son; she just can’t express it. Most of the hatred she projects onto Chiron is really because of her own self-loathing and I wanted to show all of that complexity.”
It helped that Jenkins gave her complete freedom. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be able create without anybody putting constraints or conditions on what you deliver,”
she says. “That’s what Barry did. I asked him once why he trusted me. He said: ‘You’ve got as much to lose
as I have.’”
*Moonlight is on selected release from 10 February and will be released nationwide from 17 February.