When a waiter comes to congratulate Naomie Harris “for all those films” on a bright afternoon at a West Hollywood hotel, it’s fairly clear which ones he means. The highest profile, of course, is her work as a different kind of Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond series; there is also the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, Miami Vice and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on her filmography. But as Paula in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Harris says, she gets fewer well-wishers than she’s used to. The crack-addicted mother to lead character Chiron, Paula is troubled, aggressive and desperate to dull the pain.
There’s something romantic and beautiful about Moonlight, even as Chiron’s life is fraught with complication.
It’s very rare you get a script like that and you get as deeply affected. It made me cry three or four times just reading it, and I thought it would make an extraordinary film. And then I watched Barry Jenkins’ previous film, Medicine for Melancholy. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and it’s so beautiful. It’s another movie that just gets under your skin. I thought, if this filmmaker can make a film like that for $13,000, what is he going to do with a better budget and an amazing script like this?
What’s really interesting is that, for all the darkness in Chiron’s story, as well, he’s still so pure. His heart is innocent and untouched. And maybe that’s because he actually shuts down—to keep people out. But maybe it’s that purity that we find so beautiful, because it taps into an untouched part of ourselves.
Even with the script, did you have any hesitation about taking on a character like this?
You feel an extra responsibility because it’s an amalgamation of Barry’s story, and also [playwright] Tarell McCraney’s story. You’ve got to represent their mothers, and they know especially well what living under those circumstances is like. They know their mothers’ moods and behavior swings. It wasn’t the kind of role you could phone in. There was no fooling them.
To be honest, I underestimated how difficult the role would be. I didn’t say yes to it lightly, because I had to be persuaded to play a crack-addicted character like this. I thought the hurdle was simply, “Oh, I don’t want to play a crack addict, I want to play positive images of women.” I thought, once I got over that hurdle, everything would just be getting on with the work.
But it wasn’t like that with Paula, because she’s very, very complex. And also, for me, because I’m Miss Teetotal. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do anything like that. I felt this huge chasm between us. It was like she was on the other side of the world, and how was I going to reach her?
So how did you reach her?
I only had three days on set, but I had a month to prepare, and a lot of that time was really trying to understand this woman. YouTube was a big help. That was my resource. There were all these documentaries about crack addiction in the 1980s. Even documentaries about crack addiction in ’80s Miami specifically. It gave me an incredible insight into the world of the film.
I also met a crack addict who was kind enough to share her journey with me. That was helpful in terms of putting all those puzzle pieces together and making it personal, because you can never find a character outside of yourself, I don’t think. It always has to be an internal search.
The thing that really connected with me was a woman who described her relationship to drugs as like being in a relationship with a psychopath. She described being with someone who makes you feel like the most beautiful person in the world; the most loved, the most treasured, the most confident. And this is what psychopaths do: they mirror you to find out what you need, and then they give it to you. But once they have their claws into you, they start to ravage and destroy you, and that’s precisely what drugs do. The first hit is apparently never the same as any hit that follows. You’re always chasing the euphoric feeling of that first hit, which you’ll never be able to repeat.
The other thing that helped me was that I noticed that, in every single case—every single one of these women that were being interviewed about their crack addiction had been raped or sexually abused. It made me think about rape and social views, and it made me realize that nobody is ever raped just once. It’s a trauma that gets repeated over and over in your head, usually on a daily basis, unless you get really great therapy. And someone like Paula doesn’t have the resource for that, like most people. It becomes about living with a daily torment; emotionally and physically you’re being tormented and remembering hideous things that you don’t want to remember. You have this pain that you don’t know how to deal with; it’s an open wound.
I realized I could understand why somebody reaches out to something that numbs their pain. I don’t think you can play a character that you can’t find any compassion for, and that was how I managed to find compassion for Paula. I loved her and I wanted to honor her journey in a way that wasn’t about manipulating an audience. People have very strong reactions to Paula, and I’m OK with that. All I wanted to do was honor her story and ensure I showed the full complexity of who she is. She’s ultimately a very damaged woman. She was never given the love she needed, and so she can’t give it to her son. I don’t think you can really judge someone for that. And you realize how lucky you are, to be given the tools that you take for granted, to love because you’ve been loved.
Was she a hard character to shake?
No, I didn’t find playing Paula as dark as I did playing Winnie Mandela. A lot of what motivates her is hatred, and that’s a really dark place to stay in. Paula is coming from a place of pain, and that’s really sad, and it is really dark, but I just felt more compassion and connection to the pain, rather than the darkness of it all. Also, ultimately her story is hopeful, because she manages to turn her life around and she manages to become somebody who then dedicates her life to helping other people. She has the amazing ability to actually ask her son for forgiveness as well.
Paula is ultimately very human. Like the rest of the characters in this movie, there is no good and bad, only shades of grey.
That’s also really lovely because, as the characters are allowed to be their flawed, human selves, they reflect us, and the good and bad aspects inside of us. We can’t all be one thing or the other, and we never are. It allows us to embrace our humanity in a different way; because we recognize that we’re contradictions and that that’s OK. I find the movie really non-judgmental and non-dictatorial. I don’t feel like Barry has any agenda—or you don’t feel it in the way he tells the story. I feel like he’s just saying, “Come into this world. This is the story I have to tell you, and you’ll take away from it what you want.” When we go to Q&As and meet people who’ve seen the film, we get wildly different interpretations about what happens after the film ends, which is really interesting.
The other thing about Barry, is I think he was knocked off his journey a bit with this film. When he decided to do Moonlight, he did it because he recognized the similarities to his life but he thought he’d be telling Terell’s story. He never thought it would be as personal to him as it became. It was only through the process of filming that he realized how personal it was, and how cathartic the journey proved to be. He had to really open up in a much deeper way than he’d been expecting.
Considering how much of a presence Paula is, it’s amazing that you shot it all in three days.
We shot out of sequence; so we were going back and forth between older Paula, middle Paula and younger Paula. It was dependent on location, and we never intended it to be shot in three days. We were going to shoot over three weeks, with me coming back and forth from London, but I had visa issues, and we were doing the Spectre press tour at the same time. But at the time, it never felt rushed. Only on the last night was there a scene where Barry and I were like, “Did we quite get that?”
But it’s testament to Barry, and the fluidity of working on an indie movie, because we didn’t have these massive lighting setups. You can center and the focus can be entirely on performance and getting that right.
Barry’s very experimental, which I love. The first scene I shot was actually the middle scene, where I’m chasing my son for money and pretending to be nice to him, to welcome him into the house because then I want to attack him for his money. We did the scene and got to the point of, “OK, we’re moving on,” when Barry said, “I want you to do the whole scene to camera.” That was never intended, but we did it to camera and then he was like, “Now add this line in.” He’s really that fluid, and it’s great because if you have someone fluid, it makes you feel as though you can be experimental and try a new thing, and there’s no right or wrong.
Barry’s open to the elements also. He’s open to what life will offer him in the moment. He often talks about the baptism scene, when Mahershala is teaching Alex Hibbert to swim. It was supposed to be six hours to shoot, but there was a storm coming in, so it ended up that they only had an hour and a half. There was a lot more dialogue, and it all had to be cut down to its bare essentials. Barry really embraced it and said, “You know? Nothing will give me more than the elements can give me.” Nature will always show you a better way, and he embraces that. That’s the greatest thing for a performer, because you can think, “I can just use whatever’s here.” That’s the biggest thing you ever want from a director; to feel safe.
What’s also beautiful is that, when you have companies like Plan B and A24, who are looking for authentic voices in filmmakers, what they’re allowing the filmmaker to do is to run with their ideas and to have full autonomy over their work. I think what often happens, in bigger budget movies, is you get directed-by-committee. They mess with that voice and it gets polluted, and it’s a connection to the authentic voice that actually moves the audience. That’s what A24 and Plan B allowed Barry to do, and that’s really special.
You mentioned the different ways the audience is reacting to the work. How did those first premieres out of Telluride and Toronto feel?
You know, it’s a funny thing, because with Paula I think often people feel some resistance. You watch a movie and you connect with these characters, and then you can meet the actor but you still see them as the character. I understand it. They see me as this really bad woman. [laughs]
But Telluride was extraordinary, because we came out of the theater and the audience had stayed to applaud us. The organizer said they’d never had that happen in the life of Telluride. It was really very special. And then Barry had a 70 year old man in his arms, and a young girl came up to me to speak about the film and she couldn’t finish—she ended up crying in my arms. When you see that… It’s really hard to take it in, in a way. But it’s what you live for in terms of you want the film to be deeply affecting, because that’s how it can bring about change. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that I think this film really changes the way people view themselves, and view life.
You’ve been working with Andy Serkis on his mysterious Jungle Book project. What can we expect?
I worked with Andy on Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, and I’ve always said he’s the nicest, most down-to-earth man in the entire world. So when he said, “I’m doing Jungle Book,” and he wanted me to be a part of it, I had no hesitation. I didn’t have any idea about what he was going to be like as a director, but he directs exactly like he is as a person; endless amounts of enthusiasm and support, and just good energy.
I can remember I was doing a scene with Mowgli, saying how much Mowgli belongs in our tribe, and that he has no need to worry about the fact that he feels different. And Andy had tears in his eyes, and was choked up with emotion. He’s so great with his actors, and it was just a beautiful, dream job. I spent a week with dots on my face and the head camera, with no hair, no makeup, no costume, and you just get on your hands and knees and howl. It was like being back at drama school; I was a kid in the playground. It’s completely liberating; it’s pure performance.
I’m just so frustrated that it isn’t coming out until 2018. [laughs]