After appearing in some of the most expensive movies ever made, including sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean and the most recent James Bond films, you can understand how Naomie Harris would get used to the languorous pace of a blockbuster shooting schedule. Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, then, threw Harris for a loop: The only way she could co-star in this acclaimed new indie was to cram all of her scenes into an intense three-day shoot that landed smack dab in the middle of the international press tour for Spectre. Fortunately, Harris made it work, and her role as a drug-addicted Miami mother with a tenuous relationship to her gay son (played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) has earned the 40-year-old British actor acclaim and Oscar buzz. Last week, she sat down with Vulture to explain how she did it.
So walk me through this, Naomie. You had three days to go film Moonlight, but at the same time, you were on this giant James Bond press tour? Hopefully they weren’t making you do phone interviews in between takes.
There was no way I could have done press at the same time! [Laughs.] It was still really complicated, though. I was in Mexico City for Bond and flew to Miami for three days where I could just focus on the filming of Moonlight. And then I went straight back into the press tour!
Big movies can involve a lot of “hurry up and wait.” What was it like to work so constantly, in such a concentrated fashion, on Moonlight?
I loved it. I loved the opportunity to work morning, noon, and night. There was no time to languish in a trailer — it was like, “Get on, and deliver.”
How did you feel the night before your first shoot day?
You always have butterflies, and I did not sleep well that night.
Although that’s something you could use for your character, Paula.
Yeah, exactly. And you know, it was particularly tough for me on my first day. The first scene that we shot was from the second stage, so Paula is in her worst throes of addiction at that time — she’s really far gone, so it’s really out there. I had to go to set, say hi to everyone and meet them for the first time, and then go to this really dark place. That was very intimidating.
At first, you were reluctant to play Paula.
I knew I had to get to a place where I had deep compassion for her and, on some level, had kind of fallen in love with her. What really helped me was hearing other women’s stories and having compassion for them. It’s so easy to be judgmental about a life when you know so little about it, but when someone opens up to you and speaks from the heart and tells you about their journey, you can’t help but be moved by it.
So what did it feel like after that very first day on set, when you’ve already shot so much of the movie and faced your character from so many different angles?
I was definitely exhausted, but it was a privilege to be part of this amazing project. As much as I had resistance about playing Paula initially, once I discovered her and got underneath her skin, it was a joy to play her. I felt so comfortable because I’d done so much research beforehand. I watched interviews with crack addicts, and I had the privilege of sitting down with a lady who was in the throes of her addiction, and she shared her experience with me. All of that really allowed me to get to set and hit the ground running. Barry could throw whatever he wanted at me, and I welcomed it.
What would he throw at you?
He’s experimental. We’ll do the scene one way, and he’ll say, “Hey, Naomie, I just thought of something: Can you say the whole scene to camera?” Or, “I just thought of a new line, can you say it?” So you have to be really rooted in your character and very authentic, because otherwise it could throw you for a loop.
That’s surprising to me, because the movie feels so exacting. It’s as if it sprung whole from someone’s head.
But that’s the wonderful thing about being on a Barry Jenkins set: It never feels like there’s even the notion that something could be wrong. Everything is welcome, and when you’re in an environment like that, the magic happens. Then you get the ability to fly and truly be creative. When you’re in an environment where you’re constrained — where you think, I can’t go there, because it might be wrong — then you don’t find the real gems, the real heart and soul of the piece.
Did the location help you find the character?
Everyone said, “You’re going to be filming in Liberty City? It’s one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the United States.” We had police escorts, that sort of thing, and I thought, Oh God, what is it going to be like? But actually, there was such an incredible feeling of warmth and appreciation and gratitude from the people who lived there. It was the first time someone had come to their community and wanted to represent it onscreen, and since Barry Jenkins had grown up in that area, there was this sense of pride and this desire to support him. You felt this love from the community that I’ve never felt in any other location, anywhere in the world, and it was so strange that it happened in a place where people were expecting the complete opposite.
When you’re working as fast as you did, is there time to check in with your scene partner in between takes, or do you have to stay in this tricky character?
To do your best work with anyone, I think you need to feel safe and comfortable. In between scenes, I wasn’t distancing myself from them — I was sitting and talking with them and, in the little bit of time I had with them, trying to build that rapport. Especially with Alex. When we shot this, he was only 11 years old, and usually it takes a long time to build that rapport with a child. I was lucky that he was so open and talented and willing to just get on with it.
What was your mood like after the third and final day was done?
I felt really cleansed, in a way. Often, when you’re inhabiting a character for three to six months, it can feel afterwards as though they’re under your skin and it takes a long time to get them out of you, to exorcise them. With Moonlight, I felt as though I truly managed to inhabit Paula, so at the end of it, I could just let her go. That was a really nice feeling, and so satisfying. She’s all out there, all done and finished, and I could get back on a plane and go back to my promotional tour for Bond.
I know those press tours can be awfully long, so it must have been nice to have such a meaningful experience in the middle of it.
It was like having an opportunity to get some oxygen, some food, some nourishment. Ultimately, we do all of this press because what we really love is that moment on set where we get to do our craft. So it was a nice shot of something really exhilarating and fun and rewarding that sent me back into the tour, reenergized.
What is it like now to watch the film with an audience?
I always find it very hard to watch myself onscreen, to be honest. It’s really difficult to maintain objectivity and not be highly critical, but I’m really proud of the work.
At the very least, you know that Barry has honored what you did with the character. She looms so large throughout the movie … you’ve probably got more screen time in this film than you do on movies that took longer to shoot!
Exactly. I’m lucky that I haven’t had too many experiences [where they cut most of the character’s scenes], but it has happened to me and it’s really galling! Especially because you’ve then got to go on these tours and promote a movie that you don’t feel passionate about. You’re thinking, You really destroyed my character, but you’ve still got to talk it up. That’s really tough.
What do people say to you after watching Moonlight?
People’s reactions afterwards are really interesting. They’re often really moved, and they’ll go to Trevante and give him a hug. Then they’ll look at me, like, “You’re a bad mother.” And I’m like, “No … I’m an actress!” [Laughs.]