She’s got model looks and an enviable body but, much like her character in the latest Bond film, there’s more to Naomie Harris than meets the eye.
The 36-year-old British actress stars alongside 007 Daniel Craig as agent Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall, and sitting down to chat to the “Bond girl” during her recent trip to Australia to promote the film, it’s clear she wasn’t chosen for the part on looks alone.
“In a way it was a shock when I started being interviewed and people were saying you’re a Bond girl,” says Harris, who is perched on the edge of her chair wearing a short, pillar box red 1960s-style dress.
“I was like ‘Am I?’ I feel like the roles of women have evolved so much that actually it’s a bit antiquated to say Bond girl because there was a set type in the past but I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
Indeed, while comparisons to glamorous Bond girls of the past such as Ursula Andress and Jane Seymour are inevitable, Harris and co-star Berenice Marlohe, who plays Severine in Skyfall, are just one example of the new direction director Sam Mendes has taken the franchise, now in its 50th year.
“It was very much their belief that they needed to modernise the women in this movie so they came to me and said we want you to create an original woman, a woman that is strong, someone other women can respect and look up to,” says Harris, who boasts a degree in social and political sciences from Cambridge University.
“Sam was amazing and sat me down with John (Logan, co-writer) and said you can change anything you want in the script but I didn’t feel any need to.”
If she had, Harris wouldn’t have needed to look any further for inspiration than her Jamaican mother Carmen — a former screenwriter on the British soap Eastenders — who raised her single-handedly following her divorce from her Trinidad-born father.
“My mum has always been an amazing role model for me,” the actress says with a broad smile.
“One of the main things she said to me was you can achieve anything, be anything and you can have anything you just need to work for it and stay focused on what you want. I never felt as a woman there was anything I couldn’t achieve or do. I always felt like everything was open to me. Even now, even though lots of things have happened as I’ve got older to make me realise it’s not as simple as that I still come back to that same belief.”
Born and raised in London, Harris has been appearing on television and in films since she was nine. She cut her acting teeth at Bristol’s famous Old Vic Theatre School but it was her role in Danny Boyle’s 2002 post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later that first brought her to our attention.
She has since gone on to star in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, show her comedic side in Michael Winterbottom’s highly-regarded film A Cock and Bull Story and starred alongside Josh Hartnett in 2008’s August.
However, Harris says nothing could have prepared her for the success she and her fellow cast mates, who also include Dame Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes, have enjoyed with Skyfall, which has now taken more than $790 million worldwide and is the highest grossing film in the Bond series.
“Sam was explaining the stats to me. He explained how Skyfall has overtaken Titanic in the UK as the highest-grossing movie and so then I understood because when I was a student I remember going to see Titanic and it was so huge.”
Still, despite the hype surrounding the film and the rock star treatment the stars were given on their worldwide promotional tour, which ended in Sydney a couple of weeks ago, Harris says life on set was vastly different. “It was very informal, very collaborative and it felt like we were making an independent movie, which I think is the best environment to do your best work,” she says.
A self-confessed couch potato — though you wouldn’t guess from her toned figure — Harris was required to undergo intense physical training to get in shape to play an MI6 agent out in the field.
“I wasn’t a sporty person before so I suddenly went from being on the couch doing nothing to two months where I was out five days a week, two hours a day with a personal trainer,” she says.
“I also spent three days a week on the gun range and had stunt combat and stunt driving once a week.”
However, while Skyfall was her most physically demanding role, Harris says playing Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie in next year’s Justin Chadwick-directed biopic Long Walk to Freedom was by far her most emotionally challenging.
Harris plays the South African leader’s wife from the age of 18 to her late 50s and says it took her to “the darkest places”.
“I had no idea before I signed up that she had such a harrowing life and that she was such a controversial figure as well,” she says.
“It was a revelation to me and really hard work as well. I think it’s the role that I am most proud of.”
Starring as Mandela is Thor actor Idris Elba, who has seen his own fan base grow rapidly thanks to his roles in The Wire and Luther. In fact, some are even tipping him to become the first black Bond.
However, Harris isn’t keen on those tags. “The main thing is, Daniel is signed up for the next two Bonds,” she says.“I also think this whole thing of it being a black Bond is a bit silly. The point is, you want a great person for the role and I think we have a great person so we should focus on that.”
Skyfall is now screening.