By Murat Oztaskin. Photographed by Brian Bowen Smith. Styled by Jill Lincoln and Jordan Johnson | February 20, 2018 | People Feature
After wowing the world in Moonlight, British bombshell-with-brains Naomie Harris returns to the big screen with a box-office giant that couldn’t be more different than her last hit.
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Naomie Harris’ newest film, Rampage, takes its inspiration from the 1980s video game of the same name. Oldschool arcade fans will remember embodying a giant ape, itself the size of a modest skyscraper, and demolishing city after city into an ashclouded ruin. The movie version, directed by Brad Peyton, which hits theaters in April, makes some surprising changes to the roles of villain and protagonist. Naomie plays Dr. Kate Caldwell, a geneticist working on gene therapy whose research is misappropriated to create weaponized DNA. When inoculated into a silverback gorilla—named George—it turns him into a mammalian wrecking ball that is constantly growing and evolving. Now, George is on a rampage, having brought along a wolf and a crocodile, both of whom have also been enlarged to equal monstrosity. To save Chicago from imminent destruction, Naomie’s character teams with David Okoye, played by Dwayne Johnson, a primatologist who has been George’s caretaker since birth.
If a Johnson-fronted box-office blockbuster seems an unusual follow-up for an actress whose previous leading role—as Paula, in 2016’s best picture Oscar-winner, Moonlight—demanded an emotionally taxing turn as a crack-addicted mother, Naomie argues its variety that’s the spice of life. “It’s very important for me to never get typecast,” says the 41-year-old, who got her acting start at age 9. “I want a career that is as varied as possible. That’s what keeps me excited and passionate about this profession.”
All that to say: “Rampage was a delicious opportunity,” she gushes. It reunites Naomie with Beau Flynn, the producer behind her very first Hollywood movie, After the Sunset, in 2004. “Beau was the one who approached me and said, ‘After all these years, I’ve got something completely different for you to play,’” she explains. In Rampage, “Kate is all about finding the antidote to this virus—and it’s my kind of antidote to Moonlight, in the sense that I wanted to find something that turns things on their head and makes people see me in a completely different light.”
But even a big-budget blockbuster can tug at the heartstrings in the way of an earnest indie. “[Rampage] is a heart-centered movie, which is about, ultimately, the relationship between a man and a gorilla against the larger action spectacle of the story,” says Naomie. “That’s a very beautiful relationship.” She also touts Peyton for keeping the movie’s focus on that relationship through his solid direction. “He is phenomenal about bringing everything back to emotions. He’s not about just big action and special effects and CGI. He’s always [looking for] the heart in [the story]. And you see that in every scene.”
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Another big draw for the actress was working with Johnson. “I think he is extraordinary,” she says. “I shouldn’t be, but I’m constantly amazed by how many people are fans. People get so excited about him. And I just love his message of positivity and hard work because that’s what I’m all about as well.”
They’re values Naomie has tried to espouse throughout her career, having been consistently outspoken about the cultural importance of portraying women, and especially women of color, positively in film. The only notable exception, in fact, would be Moonlight, for which she received best supporting actress nominations from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Explaining her choice to take on Paula, Naomie has said director Barry Jenkins had asked her, essentially, to play his mother. She told The New York Times, “Here, for the first time, is someone who has a vested interest in ensuring that [this kind of character] doesn’t become stereotyped and that she is given her full humanity.” For Naomie, it also became clear that, at some point, for art to truly mimic life, it needs to represent its grim realities as well.
Naomie knows firsthand life’s grim realities—just as well as its uplifting figures. She grew up an only child in a project housing estate in Finsbury Park, in North London. With her father out of the picture, Naomie was raised by her single mother, Carmen Harris, who had her at age 19. Out of work and subsiding on welfare, Carmen, who had come to the U.K. with her parents at age 5, nonetheless created a positive atmosphere for her young daughter, backing up her goals for Naomie with goals she had set for herself. “My mum always promised herself that when I turned 5, she would go back to university and get a degree. And that’s what she did”—oftentimes picking Naomie up after school and bringing her along to evening lectures, which the actress would sit through with a coloring book. Once Carmen got her degree, she became a journalist, later writing for the TV show EastEnders and landing her own sitcom, Us Girls, on BBC One. She nurtured her daughter’s creative predilections with elaborate bedtime stories, eventually publishing several into a children’s book.
But, then, in many ways, says Naomie, it didn’t quite matter where she grew up. “I spent so much of my childhood in my mind, in my imagination,” she says. “I was always creating these fairy-tale scenarios in my head. Usually with me and Michael Jackson—that is, me marrying Michael Jackson.” She also spent a lot of time in front of the mirror in her room “trying to make myself cry, pretending I was other people, doing funny accents,” and, at other moments, “forcing people to sit down in our front room while I entertained them.” Expressing, in other words, an innately performative spirit. “My mum saw very early on: This child is either crazy, or she’s going to be an actress.”
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Carmen knew it was the latter, and, when Naomie was 5 years old, she put her daughter’s name on a long waitlist for the Anna Scher Theatre, a prestigious, community-based drama school in nearby Islington. Four years later, Naomie was admitted. From there, “I very quickly got on the agent book,” she says. Over the next eight years, Naomie balanced a string of British TV series—Simon and the Witch, Erasmus Microman, Runaway Bay, The Tomorrow People—with her schooling, which she was ready to discontinue in favor of working. It was her mother, who at that point “had never asked me for anything,” urged her on to high school.
Just as Naomie’s mother noticed and helped nurture her daughter’s artistic talents, Mr. Murdoch, her a sociology teacher, noticed and nurtured her academic ones. His support helped Naomie gain entry to the University of Cambridge, where she studied sociology, writing a thesis on black people in 18th-century Britain. Even still, having come from a housing project to one of the world’s great universities, the actress knew that world wasn’t for her. “Britain is a class-ridden society, and I felt that most at Cambridge,” she says. “I was one of a very, very small minority of working-class kids that got into ‘the establishment.’ It was an incredibly alienating experience.” While she says she wouldn’t change it for the world, upon graduation, she quickly got back to what she knew by enrolling at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for two years of classical acting training. Asked if she’d consider doing theater work again, Naomie replies firmly in the negative. “I’ve been in front of the camera since I was 9 years old,” she says. “That’s the medium that I love, the medium where I feel most comfortable, the one that I understand.” Not to say she doesn’t cherish her training. “I think if you can master Shakespeare, you can master anything.”
Next came star turns in 28 Days Later, Miami Vice, Pirates of the Caribbean and Long Walk to Freedom. Add on to that two films— Skyfall and Spectre—as the Bond franchise’s Eve Moneypenny. She and Daniel Craig both are set to return for the next—as-yet-unnamed—film, expected to debut in late 2019. “I’m even more excited to be part of it now than I was [when I started],” she says. “I understand even more how much it means to people, how much it’s loved, how much it’s part of the fabric of British society and culture.”
But any patriotism the Bond films stir in Naomie are nothing compared to having been invited to Buckingham Palace in February 2017, where Queen Elizabeth II awarded her an Officer of the Order of the British Empire appointment for her artistic contributions to British culture. The honor represented a kind of culmination in her life. Looking around now, Naomie can see how her mother’s house, once filled only by the two of them, is now bustling with energy, thanks to her mother’s longtime partner and their two grown children; she can see a new chapter opening with her Trinidadian father, who is also a Londoner, after reconnecting with him last year; she can even see her personal edict, of uplifting women and people of color, increasingly reflected in Hollywood, the home of the industry she’s loved for more than 30 years, and where injustice and imbalance of every complexion is being stifled and resisted.
But, as she stood in Buckingham Palace, reflecting on her achievements, Naomie can never forget where she came from. Carmen still lives in the house where she raised her daughter. Naomie lives eight doors down.
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