Naomie Harris is sitting in a quiet corner of a Soho restaurant. The first thing you notice is how strikingly pretty she is. She looks like a child woman, but she’s 34 years old, self-contained, demure – unrecognisable from her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, in which she wore gold teeth to transform herself into a voodoo fortune teller, who she admits “wasn’t physically attractive”.
But Harris seems at odds with many of her characters. On TV she starred in White Teeth and Small Island. Interesting parts for a strong woman. Filming Miami Vice, she told director Michael Mann she wouldn’t do nudity, demanding a body double for the sex scenes.
In light of this, I tell her I find it surprising she’s in the papers being touted as the new Bond girl. I always imagined her too serious to do anything that might involve being a token babe.
“Nothing is confirmed, but I would love to be part of the Bond movies. What makes them work is that they are responsive to the times. Eva Green’s character in Casino Royale was not scantily clad. She was an intelligent, strong, modern woman. The older idea of the Bond movie is in the past. Now it appeals to all generations, ages and sexes.”
Her career began in the theatre, and it’s there that she has most recently tasted success. Danny Boyle gave Harris her first break in 28 Days Later… and earlier this year she starred in his stage version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, where she was raped and murdered every night by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as they alternated between the roles of monster and creator.
“Recently I’ve discovered there are more hidden strengths in me than I ever realised. I’ve always thought I was too shy to be like my mother, who is so strong. She has basically been a mother and father to me. But to survive in this business you have to be tough, resilient.”
Harris was brought up by her mother (a journalist, then a script-writer on EastEnders) in north London and they have an extremely close relationship. Her father was never around.
“He never came looking for me. I bumped into him at the age of seven.” How did she know it was him? “You just know who your father is. He looks very similar to me.” And that was it? No relationship, no curiosity? “We have traded phone calls, but it’s not a relationship. At 34, I don’t need to be fathered any more.”
She does, however, think that it’s important for children to have fathers. “Any breakdown in those relationships is going to make it difficult. It means you have extra stuff to work out. I think it’s important for men to take responsibility, stay around and look after their children.”
Has not having her own father around made her more cautious about men? “Yes, it’s definitely made me more cautious. A friend of mine who said she would never want to get divorced, and suddenly is getting divorced, said to me, ‘Naomie, you can’t live your life in fear. You have to delve into life and hope it works out great and if it doesn’t hope you can cope with it. We are much stronger than we think.’ ”
Does she have a partner at the moment? “In the same way as I shouldn’t be required to do nudity, I don’t think I should be required to talk about that.” Does she think a part ever requires nudity? “It’s the objectification that I don’t like. I didn’t sign up to be a stripper. I’m very anti the pressure that is put on women to take their clothes off.”
The more we talk, the more I see her as the teacher she’s playing in The First Grader (in UK cinemas from Friday 24 June), as opposed to the latest Bond babe. Harris is not so different from Jane Obinchu, the real-life Kenyan head who – when the government promises free education for all – helps a Mau Mau veteran in his 80s to learn to read. She sits easily at the head of a classroom, perhaps more easily than she sits in a London restaurant.
“If I hadn’t gone into acting,” she admits, “I would have definitely been a teacher. My stepdad is a teacher, so over the years I have helped out in his school. It’s such an amazing, rewarding job.”
Harris herself did not enjoy going to school, though. “I was verbally abused. I had started to do some acting at the time. I think it was largely to do with being on TV. It was to do with jealousy.” She went on to Cambridge, but again felt she didn’t fit in. Others there talked about Eton and skiing. She was a black girl from Islington.
As we finish our lunch, Harris recalls working on Small Island, the 2009 BBC drama set just after the Second World War when the first Jamaicans settled in the UK – the story of her grandparents’ generation.
“It was amazing to be part of something that explored what life must have been like for them. The kind of racial abuse they suffered. It’s great as well to see the journey we’ve all taken. The end of Small Island showed the mixed-race children walking into their own house, showing how far we have come. There’s still farther to go. There’s always farther to go, but how brilliant to have made the progress we have.”