Naomie Harris interview: Skyfall, Bond ladies and keeping secrets

As the launch of Skyfall edges closer, we talk to Naomie Harris about her role in the movie…

Following a breakthrough performance in Danny Boyle’s influential 2002 horror, 28 Days Later, Naomie Harris has continued to land roles in highly successful pictures such as Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, its sequel, At World’s End, and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. 

With Skyfall, the actress once again finds herself in an admirable role in what is surely the most anticipated Bond movie of the past few years – coming as it does not only after a lengthy pause since 2008’s Quantum Of Solace, but also timed to coincide with 007’s 50th anniversary on the big screen.

Although the ‘Bond girl’ has become a familiar staple in the franchise, Harris’s role in Skyfall is anything but passive – as well as playing a key role in its opening action sequence, she’s portrayed as being every bit as physically and psychologically capable as Bond himself.

We sat with Naomie Harris for a lively round-table discussion about her role in the film, keeping the unusually secretive script under wraps, and her difficult performance in Justin Chadwick’s forthcoming biopic, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. 

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There are mild spoilers for Skyfall ahead.

I wanted to ask you about the shaving scene with Daniel Craig. Were you nervous about doing that?

Erm, yeah, I was a bit nervous. But the producers made sure I had three weeks of going to barbershop school, so I practised on some balloons with shaving foam. I was very well prepared. It was also a fake blade as well, obviously.

So it was really great to do that scene, because I’d been doing so much action work up to that point, and it was so intimate and without massive trains and sets falling down and that sort of thing.

What was it like working with Daniel [Craig]?

It was great working with him, because he’s really down to earth, and a lovely guy. And a brilliant actor, he’s at the top of his game. That’s what you want as a performer – to work with people who were brilliant, so then you raise your game.

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Did you burst any balloons?

No, I didn’t burst a single balloon, so I was very pleased.

I wondered why they gave you a false blade…

Oh, just insurance.

It would have been a bit of a career killer if you’d slit Daniel Craig’s throat…

Yeah, it would have been. [Laughs]

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Michael [G Wilson] and Barbara [Broccoli] have just confirmed you’re in the next Bond.

[Surprised] Did they?

They did. They’ve said that yourself, Ralph [Fiennes] and Ben [Whishaw] have been confirmed.

Oh, wow. Erm, I am not allowed to say anything about that, looking nervously around. But no, I can’t say. They can say what they like, because they’re the producers. Me on the other hand, I’ve been told otherwise.

At any rate, is it exciting to possibly involved in the next Bond?

It’s interesting, yeah. It’d be amazing. I’ve loved doing it. It’s like a family experience. You’ve got Barbara and Michael, obviously, who are a brother and sister team, and then you’ve got lots of other members of the family who are part of that team. They’re very loyal to people – my driver has worked on Bond for 18 years. The stunt director, Gary Powell, his father was the stunt director before him. There’s a real sense of family, so to be able to join that family would be a huge honour.

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It’s a paradigm changer, though, isn’t it? It’s a one-time only deal, the way your character works this time, because she changes as the story goes on. They’ve changed the way women are presented in general, haven’t they?

Well, when I was offered the role, the producers said they wanted to make a real distinction between this Bond girl, Bond woman, and the ones of the past. They said, I want you to represent the modern woman and I want women to be able to watch you and respect you. That you are just as capable as Bond.

Things do go wrong as the film goes on. But she is a very capable field agent, actually. She is just as capable as him. That was really important to me, and one of the reasons I wanted to play this role. I love playing strong independent women, and anything that helps to foster a better impression of women on screen for me is hugely important. It is a male dominated industry, and films are much more skewed to a male perspective rather than women, so it’s really important for me to address that balance where I can, and do what I can to provide a positive role model. 

What do you make of Berenice [Marlohe]’s character, then? Would you have played that role?

I don’t think I really have the assets to play that role. I’m not your typical babe, in that regard. I love my character, basically, that’s the character I really enjoyed playing and identified with most. I’m always looking for characters that challenge me and that I can truly identify with, so I’d choose Eve first, yes. 

This is a very modern Bond, but with all these classic elements to it. That’s part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary, that you respect the history of Bond, as well as moving it forward, reinventing it, revitalising it. And I think you keep those classic elements, like the gadgets and the humour are much more apparent in this one than in recent movies such as Quantum Of Solace and Casino Royale.

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I think that traditional Bond woman or Bond girl is one of those classic themes that they wanted to keep, and that people enjoy. But I’m happy to offer an alternative view of women as well.

How does this compare to playing Winnie?

I finished Bond, then I had two days off, and then I had to fly to South Africa and start playing Winnie [Mandela]. So it was very difficult to shift my head into that completely different character. It was the most challenging role I’ve ever played, and it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.

I said yes to it because I’d worked with Justin Chadwick on The First Grader, which he directed. We became friends, and that’s why I said yes, but I had no idea she’d gone through all those horrific things. I didn’t realise she’d been tortured in prison, I didn’t realise she’d spent 18 months in solitary confinement, that she’d had her children taken away from her – all these awful things. Naturally, you have to inhabit all those dark spaces, and it was the most difficult thing in my career. But I think it’s going to be an amazing film, so it’s worth it.

Your character’s relationship with Bond is quite flirty. How did you prepare for that?

Berenice and Daniel really had this relationship beforehand. They really worked at having an off-screen relationship as well, but I never had that luxury. We never had a screen test, Daniel and I, and we didn’t really do that much rehearsal – I probably saw him two or three times, when we sat down and discussed it. But we never really rehearsed anything.

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It was just a case of the producers trusting us, that we would find that chemistry, and that we’d find that playfulness with each other, and we did. I don’t know why it worked, but it seems to have, and I’m really pleased about that. But no, we didn’t spend days and days getting to know each other or anything like that. It was luck, really.

Were you very familiar with the Bond films beforehand? Did you go off and watch all the Bond movies to prepare?

I definitely didn’t, because what you feel when you’re cast in a Bond movie, as well as complete elation, is that the challenge is so huge. Because there are so many expectations, and such set ideas when they see Bond. There are all kinds of characters in Bond, you know? One of the worst things you can do is go back and look at previous Bonds, especially when you’re asked to offer a very original interpretation of a role.

You worked with two big Irish actors – Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice – do you think either of them could play Bond one day?

Cillian often plays a lot of bad guys, though, so I don’t know whether I would… Bond, ultimately, although he goes around killing people, he’s ultimately our hero. You always think there’s something good in him. So I don’t think any villainous quality that Cillian has in him would work. So I would go with Colin Farrell.

You think Colin Farrell would work?

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Yeah! Why? You sound so sceptical!

Fassbender! [Laughs] Have you worked with Michael Fassbender?

I haven’t, no.

Well, work with Michael Fassbender, and we’ll ask you again.

Okay, I will. [Laughs]

Another choice for you: Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? 

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I’m going to have to go with Daniel, because it was so much fun to work with him. I’ve never worked with Sean Connery, and he might not have been so nice. It’s all about the working experience, so I’ll go with Daniel. 

This was one of the more secretive Bond movies in recent memory. Did you have trouble keeping some of those script elements secret?

Yes, it’s been really, really difficult. Particularly because I was cast three months before the announcement was made about the Bond casting, and I was asked to keep it a secret. I had to sign a confidentiality agreement and all kinds of things. It leaked beforehand that I had the role, and lots of people were asking me – and I had to lie, basically. I had to become a good liar, basically. Ever since, I’ve just learned the art of cagey answering, because there is so much that you can’t say that’s in the script.

What about this Corfu travel magazine, which quoted you as saying you were playing this character? Was that a misquote?

No, I would never, ever break it. I know the one you’re talking about – it wasn’t Corfu, it was the Maldives. [Laughs] No, I never said a word, because the announcement hadn’t been made. I didn’t say that, but he quoted me as saying that, which is very bad. Very naughty.

Did you tell your family and friends, or did you keep it a secret from them too?

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In the beginning, I was really cagey with everyone. I didn’t even let my agent know about the developments in the script. When they were casting, they didn’t let Debbie [McWilliams, the casting director]’s people know about all the developments of the character. So I was very cagey at the beginning, and then as time when on, and it was leaked, I got a bit braver, so I told one family member, then another, then some of my friends. And the next thing I knew, there was a big party happening! [Laughs]

Naomie Harris, thank you very much!

Skyfall is out on the 26th October. You can read our review here.

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