As the British screen star prepares to make her National Theatre debut in Frankenstein, she talks to Matthew Amer about Danny Boyle, LA and why she doesn’t play girlfriends.
From the humble beginnings of 80s kids show Simon And The Witch to the multi million dollar Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, Naomie Harris has made quite an impact on screen. Now the north London girl is stepping away from the cameras and onto the stage for the first time since she left drama school a decade ago.
Some actors might make this daunting transition in a small production at an intimate theatre and ease themselves into live performance. Not Harris. She is appearing in one of 2012’s most highly anticipated productions on one of the country’s biggest stages, the Danny Boyle-directed production of Frankenstein at the National’s Olivier theatre.
Harris squeals – partly with excitement, partly with fear – as she considers her impending debut as we chat at the National Theatre. Having only just run through the piece for the first time in rehearsals, the thought of taking it into the Olivier in front of a live audience is both intimidating and thrilling to the actress who, because of her filming commitments, has “spent the last three years living out of suitcases”.
The opportunity for a settled life was one of the reasons she chose to try treading the boards this spring, that and the chance to work again with the director who gave her her big break in zombie film 28 Days Later. “I know he’s a really supportive, generous director,” she says of Oscar-winner Boyle, “so I feel in safe hands.” She is, she says, a family girl at heart, and her hectic filming schedule, which recently included TV dramas Blood And Oil, Small Island and The Accused, has dragged her away from family and friends for far too long.
Despite the blockbuster roles – in addition to parts two and three of the Pirates franchise, in which she played a goddess trapped in human form, her films include Josh Hartnett movie August and Colin Farrell flick Miami Vice – Harris has not been wooed by LA. She can’t stay longer than three months in Lala land for fear of going “stir crazy” and she has none of the pretensions so often associated with Hollywood. She is a chatty, vivacious London girl – north, not south, make no mistake – with a knack for playing strong women. She doesn’t play the ‘girlfriend’. Not until now.
“It is scary, but I hadn’t even thought about the fact that it was a horror”
In Frankenstein, Harris does take the role of the doting other half of the scientist who gives life to a creature of his own creation. It is, she admits, out of character for her to play a weaker, subservient woman – they don’t interest her as characters – though on this occasion the lure of Boyle and the National Theatre tipped the balance. “And I can hide,” she says. “It’s not the lead. Jonny [Lee Miller] and Benedict [Cumberbatch] are carrying the show.”
It is a very honest appraisal of the situation from an actress more used to playing meatier roles. Brit-turned-US-star Miller and Cumberbatch, whose stock has never been higher following the success of TV detective revamp Sherlock, have caught the headlines along with Boyle’s return to the theatre following the Academy Award-winning success of Slumdog Millionaire. Harris’s involvement has snuck by most of the media, giving her the chance to gain valuable theatrical experience in a high profile production while still avoiding the full glare of the spotlight.
That is not to say the production does not offer some very idiosyncratic challenges to overcome. Cumberbatch and Miller are sharing the roles of Frankenstein and his monster, alternating each day. “It is like there are four different characters that you have to get to know,” Harris explains. Miller and Cumberbatch, as one might expect, have been given the freedom to explore each character in their own way. “I didn’t even think about that,” Harris smiles, “and it is difficult because you get into a rhythm when you’re working with one person. When it’s disrupted each night you have to find that rhythm all over again.” I can’t, however, push her on which way round she prefers the performers. In that way, at least, she is as steadfast as your typical film star, treading a very fine political line. The twinkle in her eye suggests she has a preference, but her broad grin tells me I could never wheedle it out of her.
“I’m told that it keeps on evolving when you get it on stage,” she says of the show, and it becomes apparent with this comment how little theatre experience she has. This really is a new experience for the star more used to performing for cameras. Now, instead of acting for a lens, she has to fill the Olivier’s gaping auditorium. “I wanted something where I’ve got to stretch myself,” she says, “so I can get big, physically and vocally.” There can be few better venues for her to expand her abilities. As daunting as the National Theatre may be, it is also supporting her wholeheartedly with vocal tutoring and Alexander technique lessons. “It’s almost like going back to drama school. You have all these like-minded people in one space who are all about just being creative and telling a story in the best way.”
“Maybe I have a steely thing, I don’t know”
“But it’s funny,” she continues, thinking about the luxury of the long rehearsal period that she does not get when filming, “the more time you have, the more time you need. In film you feel ‘I’ve got this, I can do this now.’ In theatre it feels like ‘Wow, we’re going to do [Frankenstein] in a week, but no, I need more time, which is weird.”
It is also weird that Harris is not a fan of horror. Frights, blood and screams are not her thing. That in itself is not odd, there are many people who don’t feel the need to scare themselves, but when you consider that her breakthrough film role came in a zombie romp and that her major theatre debut will come in Frankenstein, it is a touch surprising… like finding a knife wielding serial killer in your closet.
“There’s one quite graphic scene,” she says of Nick Dear’s stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s much loved gothic novel for which the National Theatre is suggesting a 15 age limit. “It is scary, but I hadn’t even thought about the fact that it was a horror.”
This is not the first time that Harris has somewhat stumbled into a role without considering exactly what to expect. For her most notable of Hollywood outings in the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy she “just rocked up to the audition and ended up getting it, not really realising that it was such a big deal”. In fact, she had to ask her younger siblings to fill her in on the original blockbuster movie as she hadn’t seen it.
“I admire people who are driven, but it’s not me. It’s never how I’ve been,” she continues. “I love acting and I love this profession and I want to do good stuff. I only do what I want to do. I’ve never done anything to pay the bills because I don’t have a family yet. When I do, maybe my choices will be very different, but now it’s ‘I fancy doing this, okay.’”
“In this business, as a woman, it’s very difficult a lot of the time to be taken seriously”
She does, though, keep some money aside for “when they come and tell you you’re going to play a tomato in some show in the middle of nowhere”. It is plainly referred to, through mounting laughter, as her “f**k off fund”.
With such screen success behind her, the fund is as yet untouched. I imagine she will only have to consider delving into it if she becomes inundated with offers to play girlfriends, wives and hangers on. Yet that doesn’t seem likely: “I always do strong roles. For some reason, those are the roles that I get offered and that I gravitate towards, which is funny, because in real life I don’t think I play that strong. Maybe I have a steely thing, I don’t know.”
Indeed, Harris does not come across as a woman with a heart of stone, an impenetrable force field or a driving ambition, ready to dominate anyone and everyone around her. She is warm, funny and cheerful, naturally friendly and outgoing, never putting up a wall to any question or query. Yet, undeniably, she is a survivor.
Other interviewers have written widely about her time at Cambridge University studying Social and Political Science, and the mention of the subject is met with a groan. It would be an understatement to say that she did not enjoy her time studying, the university life not living up to expectations and Harris feeling like an outsider. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to walk away, but she didn’t: “I’m not a quitter. If I’ve started something I’m going to finish it. Despite everything that’s been written about that, I’m so glad that I went to Cambridge and that I got my degree. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of and I’ve got my certificate up on the wall. It makes a big difference to me. I’m glad that I went. It wasn’t the best experience, but if I had my life again I would probably make the same choice. In this business, as a woman, it’s very difficult, sometimes, a lot of the time, to be taken seriously. I think it really makes me stronger. When you go into a room it’s usually all-male. Producers, writers, directors; they’re all male. To come in knowing that you have that in your bag, it just makes you feel better and stronger.”
It is a well hidden steely streak, but it is most definitely there, behind the wide grin and unapologetic laughter. Still, with Harris’s growing list of credits, which now includes Frankenstein at the National Theatre, there must be little that should frighten her; not boardrooms of male colleagues, not horror movies, and certainly not a large, lumbering gothic monster.
Though the current booking period of Frankenstein is sold out, day seats are available and the National Theatre has announced a second NT LIVE broadcast of the show. On 17 March audiences can see Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein in cinemas around the UK. On 24 March there is an opportunity to see a second performance with the leading actors switching roles. For more information about NT LIVE screenings visit www.ntlive.com