No one on set said a word when a film star put his hand up Naomie Harris’s skirt. Depressingly, the Bond star feels ‘lucky’ that this was her only brush with Hollywood sleaze. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith how she’s faced – and conquered – a lot worse on her road to stardom

Naomie Harris: 'al being to never take anything for granted. ‘Going through something so traumatic, I learned that my health is a very fragile gift that I have to constantly nurture.'

Naomie Harris: “al being not to take anything for granted.” ‘Going through something so traumatic, I learned that my health is a very fragile gift that I have to constantly nurture.’

Naomie Harris seems to be a successful actress. She is beautiful, smart, successful – scooping Oscar nominations as well as starring in blockbusting Bond films. But appearances can be deceptive: Naomie has fought for everything she’s achieved and that fight began when, as a child, she underwent major surgery that changed her life. ‘When I was 11 I was diagnosed with scoliosis, which is a curved spine,’ she explains. She had surgery at the age of 15 to correct her condition. ‘During the op I had a rib removed, my lung deflated, then all the muscles near my spine cut through so they could insert a metal rod all the way up my back.’ She spent a month in hospital, after which, she says, ‘I had to learn to walk again. The experience was horrible. But on the ward, there were children who had it far worse – some would never walk again. There were tears and screaming, little kids in pain…’

This dark time taught Naomie, 45, many lessons – the most vital being to never take anything for granted. ‘Going through something so traumatic, I learned that my health is a very fragile gift that I have to constantly nurture. At such a young age I decided to make every effort to keep it healthy. Hence I never drank, smoked or did drugs because I wouldn’t put anything toxic in my body.’

Naomie sits comfortably in her North London house in a jumper, jeans, and is an engaging, charismatic character. She laughs in disbelief when I point out she’s had the most successful year of any actor, with parts in two of 2021’s top five highest-grossing films – the Spiderman spin-off Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Bond’s No Time To Die, its release having been delayed by Covid restrictions. ‘The Bond premiere was very special,’ she smiles. ‘It felt amazing to walk the red carpet after so long and to be part of something the whole nation seemed to be celebrating. You’re offering entertainment for everybody after what’s been a pretty s*** two years.’

I’m glad she had a great night, because I’d heard that – as part of her health regime – Naomie is always in bed before 10pm. Is she willing to take a chance on Daniel Craig? ‘No,’ she laughs. ‘I actually left the Bond premiere early because I was filming in Spain the next day. But I do occasionally stay out late, it’s an 80:20 situation – 20 per cent of the time I’m open to what life offers me, especially if I’m out with friends. But mostly I go to bed early because I love to get up at 5.30am and have that special morning time to myself, where I get loads done before anyone else is up.’

Naomie Harris: ‘Cambridge gives you a gravitas in terms of people’s perceptions. I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but people do perceive you differently as a result of having gone there.'

Naomie Harris: ‘Cambridge gives you a gravitas in terms of people’s perceptions. I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but people do perceive you differently as a result of having gone there.’

 Her next role is very different to the Bond behemoth. Swan Song is simultaneously available in cinemas as well on Apple TV. It’s a moving, quiet study about a happy married man, Cameron (Mahershala Ali), who faces his impending death due to an incurable illness. Naomie plays his wife Poppy, who’s oblivious to Cameron’s plight because, unbeknown to her, he’s arranged to have himself cloned, meaning he will be replaced by someone who looks and acts exactly like him and even shares his memories – the original Cameron watching from afar as his clone lives his life.

The concept got me thinking, not least because I’ve told my horrified family I’d like to clone our dog when his time comes. Naomie giggles at me when I tell him this. ‘Maybe scientists would say cloning is a possibility but I don’t believe in it. It is possible to physically clone someone, and make them sound similar. But to have the heart and soul that makes a human being – only our creator can do that.’

Naomie was raised in an Islington council flat by Lisselle Kayla her mother, who immigrated from Jamaica as a child with her parents. Naomie’s Trinidadian father Brian left before she was born and she’s only met him ‘a handful of times’. Naomie’s mother was a single parent and raised her as such. She went on to study at university and got a job with EastEnders. Her mum’s example – of hard work and fighting for every opportunity – was instrumental to Naomie. While her schoolfriends enjoyed weekends off, she’d attend theatre school. Her sacrifices, dedication and passion for acting eventually paid off with her first role aged just nine in the BBC drama Simon & the Witch. Despite working as a child actor through much of her time at school, Naomie didn’t neglect her studies, and went to Cambridge University to do social and political science. While the party side of uni was a little overwhelming for a non-drinker, Naomie has seen the benefits of her time there, saying previously: ‘Cambridge gives you a gravitas in terms of people’s perceptions. I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but people do perceive you differently as a result of having gone there. This is especially true for women working in this field. People assume, “Oh. She’s got a brain.’’’

It is an extremely fragile gift and I must constantly care for it. 

Afterwards, she went to drama school, where she worked hard and flourished, but then came eight months she calls ‘the toughest period of my life’. After years of getting every role she auditioned for, she couldn’t find work. ‘Even Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer turned me down. I tried waitressing – no one would have me. I remember handing out flyers in my area – nobody would take them. I didn’t know what to call myself. I didn’t think I could say “actress” when no one would employ me.’

Despite endless rejection, she didn’t give up and was eventually cast by Danny Boyle in his small-budget British zombie movie 28 Days Later – a film that went on to be one of the most profitable horror films of all time. It was a long journey that led to more roles. After playing witch Tia Dalla in Pirates of the Caribbean films and Winnie Mandela as Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in 2011, she became the Bond actress in 2012. However, Naomie says she only began being offered leading roles after playing a crack addict in 2017’s Moonlight, which starred her Swan Song co-star Mahershala Ali. Naomie won Best Picture Oscar for the independent film and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars and Bafta awards. In addition, she received an OBE for her acting services that year. ‘It wasn’t until I did this little film, which I only spent a few days working on, that my career took off. Now the calibre of roles being sent to me is entirely different.’ While some warned her that her career would go into decline when she hit 40, she says: ‘I’ve never worked as much or been in as high demand as I am now.’

Naomie also contributed to others’ struggles throughout her career. In the wake of #MeToo, the flood of revelations about abuse and harassment in the film industry prompted her to recall her own experience when a ‘huge, huge star’ put his hand up her skirt during an audition. ‘What was so shocking about it was the casting director was there and the director, and of course no one said anything because he was – he is – such a huge star. This was my #MeToo only incident. I was very grateful for that, given the rife nature of this behaviour. Now things have definitely changed: I was on a project where there was a #MeToo incident and there was no hesitation… (the perpetrator) was immediately removed.’ She won’t be drawn further on the identities of the two actors.

Naomie with Mahershala Ali in her latest film Swan Song

Naomie and Mahershala Ali, in their latest movie Swan Song

Black Lives Matter has been a major opponent. ‘I’d hope there’s greater awareness [of race issues] now,’ she says. ‘But obviously injustices still happen every day.’ Still, she was thrilled that Swan Song – a film that could have picked actors of any race – cast a black couple for the starring roles. ‘That’s a prime example of the changes happening.’

My time spent with Naomie comes to an abrupt end. I am able to see that she is still sensitive, despite all the difficulties. Appalled by the recent tragic accident involving Alec Baldwin shooting dead a camerawoman with a gun that was somehow loaded, she says: ‘After that I was on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth [her upcoming TV series]It was scary to handle guns. I dislike guns but many of my jobs require me handle them. Since I didn’t know what a bullet could do, I have never done a stunt that required me to shoot a blank. I wouldn’t fire it near anybody.’

This sensitivity also means any ‘letting loose’ of her emotions happens exclusively on set. ‘I only get angry every five years – and then only because there’s been years of build-up and then there’s a huge explosion.’

With her mum Lisselle Kayla

Lisselle Kayla is her mom

 Wanting to learn how to stop bottling up her rage, Naomie recently took an anger-management course. ‘I thought it would teach me to express anger in a constructive way but actually it was for people who had an inability to suppress it, so I was surrounded by extremely angry people – and one of the things I’m terrified of is people who are angry! So it was a very interesting experience,’ she laughs. ‘It’s still something I need to work on.’

Having spent her years constantly striving, she’s now had a rethink. Ever since the year and a half she spent on the Moonlight promotional circuit left her ‘totally burned out’, she’s taken long breaks between projects. Two months after Swan Song, she spent time in Costa Rica. Now, with The Man Who Fell To Earth just in the bag, she’s off to Peru.

Ultimately, she’d like to stay off the beaten track for ever. ‘It’s my dream to live off-grid, to be self-sufficient, with solar panels, collecting rainwater and growing all my own food.’ She’s worked with an architect to design the house she’d live in. ‘I spent years searching for the right plot of land to build it on. Although I was thrilled when I finally found the right plot, I lost out on it. But everything happens for a reason – I’m sure I’ll find my plot. If it happens soon, I’d live there and carry on acting. If it’s a bit later I’ll just live there full-time.’ If her acting career keeps going like this, I think Naomie’s good-life dream may be on hold for quite a while.

Swan Song will air in select UK, Irish and Apple TV+ cinemas on December 17.