Naomie Harris didn’t want to play a crack addict. It wasn’t long ago — and it’s still the case, frankly — that a lot of black actors get stuck playing drug addicts. The English-born actress wanted to avoid that. And she has: She’s played strong female characters going back to “28 Days Later,” through taking on Winnie Mandela in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” right up to being our current Moneypenny in the Bond films.
So what led to Harris breaking her vow for “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed drama, in which she plays Paula, the crack-addicted mother of a shy boy in a low-income Miami neighborhood who we watch, over three segments, grow into a hard, grill’d-up man? Harris said he wanted to avoid stereotypes, especially having been raised by a mother who battled her own addiction. “She wasn’t just a demon, she wasn’t just an addict,” Harris tells us of her character. “The wonderful thing about her is she’s so full of love.”
We talk to Harris, 40, about learning about a subject she knew little about, the beauty in this sometimes brutal film and how it’s also quite funny, too.
This is quite a heavy film, but it also has moments of real transcendence. It’s even funny sometimes.
You know what? Last night at our New York premiere, people were laughing left, right and center. That’s the first audience that has laughed that much. I didn’t even realize how many jokes were in the movie. They were finding a lot of [actress] Janelle Monae’s lines really funny. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that is pretty funny.’
It’s incredible to think you shot all your scenes, over three separate time periods, over only three days. You had to navigate a lot of ground.
The work was done before. I had a month to prepare, so I did all my research then, all my interviews with people with addictions. YouTube is a minefield for research. I saw some amazing documentary on YouTube about addiction, from the ’80s. It had interviews with crack addicts. Then how I get into character is doing this, what we’re doing: I imagine that I’m being interviewed.
So these junket interviews are actually helpful!
They are! I imagine an interviewer asking, “Where did you grow up? What is your mum like?” And I answer them as though I’m being interviewed in the voice of the character. That way I find a whole narrative behind them. Through that I find their voice. Then it comes alive.
What kinds of things did you invent for Paula’s backstory?
What was tragic was every single story I researched of a woman with crack addiction had some kind of sexual abuse or rape in her history. It was almost like the trauma of that created a split in their personality. There was this public face, where they were holding it all together. Then there was this separate persona that was in deep pain, that was never addressed and never healed. That means they’re always looking for an out, some way to escape from themselves, escape from their pain. That’s why drug addiction, especially crack, is so seductive.