In “The First Grader,” British actress Naomie Harris (“28 Days Later,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) stars as Jane Obinchu, a Kenyan teacher who risks her career to help an 84-year-old tribesman who takes the new government’s offer of “a free education for everyone” literally. Taking on the true story provided some interesting challenges for Harris, as she explains to Metro.
How was taking on portraying someone who is still alive?
I felt really scared about meeting Jane, and I kept trying to put it off because if she came in and said, “That is not actually me,” or, “That is not how I am,” I would have felt really bad about that. But she didn’t come until late into filming. She watched me do a scene with the kids and she was like, “You’ve really got it. You’ve really captured my essence.” It was such a relief. Jane is a very strong character. She is a lot older than me. She is a fighter. She is a survivor.
Do you have anything in your life that you want to fight for?
What I admire about Jane is the fact that she was willing to lay her career on the line, her marriage and her life to guarantee that Maruge gets his education. I don’t know that I could have been as strong to do that. I hope I would have been, but I don’t know. There is certainly nothing, at the moment, that I would lay my life down for.
Did your time in Kenya change you in any way?
What I generally get from being in Africa is a sense of warmth and openness. As a stranger, you are always welcomed into people’s homes and people are always offering you food. Also, in Western society, we look at education as a bit of a chore. I am sure I have been guilty of that myself. When you go somewhere like Kenya and you see how the children don’t have pencils and pens — all of these things are considered luxuries — and what a privilege they see education as and how hungry they are to learn … I wanted to give my brother and sister long lectures. That definitely stayed with me.