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  JERRY HALL
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Naomie Harris, 2003

WITH LOUISA MCCORMACK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARY MCCARTNEY-DONALD







Harris wielded a machete with deadly effect in Danny Boyle's surprise horror hit 28 Days Later. Despite her onscreen fierceness, the British actress is very close to her mum.







LOUISA MCCORMACK: I've heard that, unlike a lot of young actors, you're fairly abstemious.
NAOMIE HARRIS: I am a good girl, yes. It sounds quite boring, but I'm afraid it's true. Actually, I took my family to see The Lion King this evening for my mum's birthday.

LOUISA: Are you very close to your family?
NAOMIE: I was an only child, so growing up I was my mum's best friend.

LOUISA: Even as a teenager?
NAOMIE: I never went through a rebellious phase because there was nothing to rebel against. My mum never really treated me like a child. She allowed me to do whatever I wanted, so it never seemed intriguing to go smoke a cigarette.

LOUISA: Last year you played Clara Bowden in the BBC television adaptation of Zadie Smith's celebrated novel, White Teeth. Clara is such a rich character —she's at the intersection of the book's many themes relating to culture, class, and immigration.

NAOMIE: My character was loosely based on Smith's Jamaican mother, who moved to the North London suburb of Willesden in the early '70s.

LOUISA: In the novel, Smith sometimes presents Clara's character through interior monologues. That must have been so helpful for you.
NAOMIE: Actually, it's a huge pressure when the character comes to you already formed. Usually a script gives you just a skeleton of the person —there's very little detail or background. Creating that for yourself allows you to own the character. If you're given it all in a book, it's harder to make it your own.

LOUISA: Had you read the book before you got the role?
NAOMIE: No. I did read it to prepare for the filming, but then I tried to forget it. In the book, the physical description of Clara is very different from me and that was quite distracting.

LOUISA: Clara is supposed to be tall and lanky with big buckteeth.
NAOMIE: Right. Also, television can't go into the level of detail that a novel does, so the adaptation skimmed over a lot of Clara's history. For instance, in the book Clara is determined to lose her Jamaican accent and starts speaking in a very clipped English way. But that transformation is never explored in the adaptation.

LOUISA: Was it difficult wearing Clara's prosthetic buckteeth?
NAOMIE: They were horrible, and they made it really hard to speak. Normally an actor would get a chance to rehearse with them, but I didn't get mine until the day of my first big scene. It was a nightmare.

LOUISA: Playing such a plain-looking woman must have been tough on your pride.
NAOMIE: You know, I absolutely loved it. I love playing characters that are not supposed to be attractive — I find it liberating. I didn't wear makeup to play the part, except when they applied bags under my eyes when Clara gets older. But despite the fact that I had buckteeth, no makeup, and short hair in little plaits, so many guys told me, "Oh my god, I found you so sexy in that role." I think Clara is incredibly sexy, because she doesn't give a damn — she's just herself. People confuse being sexy with being all dolled up. It's really about being confident with who you are.

LOUISA: Your character in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Selena, is definitely sexy — she's a hardened survivor of the apocalypse who fights crazed zombies in the deserted remains of London. She has to be really tough just to make it through the night. Did playing that role make you good at sticking up for yourself?
NAOMIE: No, I'm useless at that kind of thing! I'm the kind of person who, if somebody steps on my foot, I'll be the one saying sorry. But doing all the publicity for 28 Days Later did make me less shy. This summer I went to a screening of the film at the Comic-Con festival in San Diego. I was sitting onstage alone, answering questions, and there were two thousand people in the room. So I've become much more confident. But I can see how all the attention can give someone a huge ego. Fame can tip some people overboard.

LOUISA: Fame can be very distorting. Have you seen it get to anyone close to you?
NAOMIE: No, I don't have many actor friends. But directors tell me stories.
LOUISA: 28 Days was your first film, and you were the lead. You must have been pinching yourself.
NAOMIE: It was extraordinary. I had been out of drama school for only nine months, so when I went in for the audition I didn't think that Danny Boyle would ever choose me. In fact, my agent told me the audition was just a formality — they were obviously going to hire a big star. But after my second reading, Danny called me at home and coached me for the third one, which totally took me by surprise.

LOUISA: How did he coach you to play Selena?
NAOMIE: He told me I was too well spoken and posh — he wanted me to be tougher. So I went to my friend's cottage in the country, where I could scream and no one would hear me. I did lots of shouting, trying to be ferocious.

LOUISA: Danny Boyle is known for pushing actors to the breaking point with take after take after take.
NAOMIE: Perhaps I'm masochistic, but I'll do whatever it takes to get the best possible performance. I want to go that extra mile — and if I can't get there on my own, I want someone else to push me.

LOUISA: What exactly does Danny do to extract that perfect performance?
NAOMIE: He just keeps going. There's one scene in which I break down and cry. For most scenes, we did five takes, but for that one, we did eleven.

LOUISA: Is it difficult to stay immersed in your character through so many takes?
NAOMIE: When you're flying with another actor you forget about everything else. You just play. You pretend, you make believe. I spent all of my childhood in a fantasy world. Every morning when I was walking to elementary school, I imagined that I was chatting with Michael Jackson, who at that time was everything to me. At school I was always directing plays during break time and giving myself the starring roles. My acting is a continuation of that — it's just playing.

LOUISA: Did you always have the lead in school productions?
NAOMIE: Not really. I hated school. I was bullied by the other girls, so I bunked off a lot. I would just go across the road and sit in Regent's Park. When I was sixteen I wanted to leave school and go into acting, but my mum begged me to stay so that I'd have some qualifications in case acting didn't work out. I moved to a different school, worked my socks off, and went to Cambridge to study sociology.

LOUISA: Was Cambridge an improvement over your high-school experience?
NAOMIE: If you're lucky, you meet your crowd of friends at university, but I didn't at all. I hated Cambridge, but it gave me an interesting insight into another world. I come from a very working-class background, so Cambridge was a huge culture shock.

LOUISA: I would imagine that you were able to relate studying sociology to acting.
NAOMIE: Absolutely. In sociology you study the effect of society and the family on the development of the individual — factors you consider when you're creating a character. I specialized in child development, so I focused on the nature-nurture debate.

LOUISA: And what did you conclude?
NAOMIE: I think that family and society play a huge part. Since I'm an eternal optimist, I think that it would be defeatist to believe that our characters are entirely predestined.

© index magazinegelatin1
Naomie Harris by Mary Mccartney-Donald, 2003
© index magazinegelatin1
Naomie Harris by Mary Mccartney-Donald, 2003
 
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