Naomie Harris For Interview Magazine; Talks Her Desire To Take On Winnie Mandela’s Story

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British actress Naomie Harris is featured in the December 2013 issue of Interview magazine. For the shoot, the Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom actress was styled by Natasha Royt and shot in NYC by famed photographer Patrick Demarchelier. Inside, Harris was interviewed by actor Jeffrey Wright while in London. She talked about what Moneypenny would think of Winnie and Teacher Jane, her desire to take on Winnie Mandela’s story, working with Idris Elba and spending time with Winnie Mandela. Below are some highlights:

What would Moneypenny (Harris played Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall) think of Winnie Mandela and Teacher Jane?

I think Moneypenny is part of the British establishment, but one of the things I thought when I had the pleasure of finding out who she is, trying to create her, was that she’s a radical as well. I imagined her as someone who has often been told off because her skirts are not quite long enough and her attire isn’t quite establishment-friendly enough, so she would be all about the celebration of someone like Teacher Jane. But, you know, Winnie is a very complex woman. She’s very polarizing in terms of people’s opinion about her, so what Moneypenny thinks about her is going to be a lot more complicated. I think, without a doubt, Moneypenny would be totally in admiration of Teacher Jane’s work with Maruge and wanting someone who’s older to have the right to free education along with the schoolchildren.

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How did your being a Brit of Jamaican-Trinidadian background who studied political science influence your desire to take on Winnie Mandela’s story? What does she mean to Naomie Harris as opposed to Moneypenny?

I’m always interested in telling stories that have a message because I really do believe that film is so powerful. I am always interested in affecting people in some way, making them think about particular areas of history that they have never thought about or that they may have thought about in one way and then changing their view. That has to do with my studying social and political sciences because I think it made me even more aware of how influences like the media have such a huge impact on an audience. When I got offered the role of Winnie, I thought, Oh, yeah, that’s Nelson Mandela’s wife. I didn’t know anything about her political activism. I didn’t know anything about the fact that she is the woman who really kept Nelson Mandela’s name alive throughout the world while he was in prison. I didn’t know that she suffered immense brutality at the hands of the South African Police establishment. I didn’t know that she was separated from her children while she was put in solitary confinement for 18 months. I didn’t know all these things. Also, I wanted to tell Mandela’s story. Mandela is this extraordinary individual who can inspire the world. Instead of wanting revenge after being brutalized, he showed the world how to forgive. As for how me being Jamaican-Trinidadian influenced my desire to play Winnie … I can’t really speak to the Trinidadian side of things because I don’t know my father; I’ve never known my father, so I am lacking that cultural influence. But I do know about being Jamaican, because that’s what my mum is, and I was raised within the Jamaican culture in Britain. I was surrounded by these incredibly powerful women growing up—independent, opinionated, strong-willed women, like my mum and my aunt. But what always shocks me is that I don’t really see those women being represented in film. I see a woman who is a kind of adjunct to a male story and doesn’t really influence how the story goes. The men kind of go off and do the brave things and the women kind of wait at home, cowering while the dragons are slain. And from my experience growing up in a Jamaican culture, that’s not at all how it was. The women would be going out to slay the dragons alongside the men, if the story were told from their perspective. That’s one of the things I really loved about the opportunity to play Winnie, because here is a woman who is as fierce, as strong, as intelligent, as resourceful, as resilient as the women that I grew up with. Also, powerful women are the most interesting to play. Winnie is one of the most complex characters I’ve ever played—she is like seven women rolled into one, and that is just a gift of a part for any actor.

What was the experience like of telling the story together with Idris? 

Idris and I are actually very dissimilar but also have this weird kind of connection as well. We’re both born on September 6 and we’re both only children. He’s kind of like my brother, Max …

I guess that’s a little confusing. [laughs] I was an only child until I was 20, so I was raised an only child. When I was 20, my brother came along and then my sister came along shortly thereafter. Idris and I did have this great connection, though, from the very beginning. Neither of us went through an audition process to get these roles, so the first time we met, we were in South Africa in a rehearsal room. I remember afterwards, Idris turned to me and said, “This is just terrifying, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yeah, it really is.” It was so human and vulnerable that he opened up to me in that way, and it just meant throughout the film we could be incredibly open. I felt as though we were almost holding each other’s hands through it, because it was tough, particularly filming it in South Africa. People have very strong opinions about how their national icons should be played, and they weren’t particularly thrilled, especially in the beginning, about the fact that they were being played by two people from London.

On if she spent any time with Winnie Mandela? 

Yeah, I did. I had dinner with her. She’s also seen the film and is very, very pleased, which, obviously, means a great deal to me. When I met her, though, I said, “How do you want to be played?” because I thought, if someone were playing me, I’d have all sorts of ideas about how I’d want to be portrayed. But she said, “Look, you’ve done your research. You are the right person for this role, so you just have to trust that. All I want from you is to be truthful—that you decide how to portray me, because you’ve done your research.” And that was incredibly liberating, especially on the set when there were people who were very opinionated about how they want the Mandelas to be perceived.

Read the full interview  over at Interview magazine.

Spotted: Interview magazine

Photos Credit: Patrick Demarchelier via Interview magazine

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Donovan is the CEO and Editor-In-Chief of For all general inquiries please email Donovan has a BA in Journalism & Media Studies from the prestigious Rutgers University. He's currently studying entertainment and fashion law.