Naomie Harris revamped Miss Moneypenny for a 21st century James Bond – and transformed her career too

The Spectre and Skyfall actress on life with James Bond, and playing "the only person Bond can trust"

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Loyalty and discretion are two of Miss Moneypenny’s greatest attributes in the Bond films. And they can also be applied to Naomie Harris, the latest actress to play her. As the publicity behemoth cranks into gear for the new movie Spectre (in cinemas now), Harris refuses to play the game of who will replace Daniel Craig, repeating at every opportunity that “he is the ultimate Bond” and she can’t imagine any other man in the part.

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Casting Harris as Moneypenny could have been interpreted as a radical move by Bond director Sam Mendes. The actress is a black woman raised in a single-parent household in north London, whereas M’s loyal secretary has usually been pure Home Counties. But scratch the surface and the two women have much in common. They’re devoted to their jobs and possibly a bit prim. I can’t imagine either of them indulging in louche Bond-like behaviour such as drinking martinis and sleeping with strangers.

Harris’s first appearance as a Bond girl was in the opening sequence of Skyfall. She’s aiming a very large rifle at two men fighting on top of a moving train. One of them is James Bond. The voice of Judi Dench as M orders Eve to “take the shot” even if it means killing 007 as well. It was a tense moment for the audience and for her character. In a big reveal at the end of the film, Eve has been given a desk job and surname: Moneypenny.

When I express concern that Moneypenny appears to have gone backwards from being Bond’s equal to a secretary, Harris assures me this is not the case. “By the end of Skyfall my character realises that she doesn’t have the stomach for killing people and being shot at. I imagine her to be someone very academic and thorough, better suited to being behind a desk doing research. She’s happier now, she’s found her feet and anyway she’s not M’s secretary; she’s more like an advisor.”

Harris as Eve Moneypenny

And yet, for Skyfall she spent two months learning to handle guns and drive stunt cars, whereas for Spectre Sam Mendes offered her a typing course. So exactly how much typing does she do on screen? “If you see me at a computer screen, it’s because I’m accessing top secret files,” she assures me.

Of course, our main impression of Moneypenny from past Bond films is of an attractive bluestocking spinster with whom 007 flirts mercilessly. “In this film I see them as friends,” explains Harris. “She’s the only person Bond can trust. In Spectre, Bond is on a mission but we don’t know who’s sanctioned it. He may have gone rogue. Everyone thinks he has lost his mind because of M dying. Moneypenny is the only one he can confide in about the true nature of his mission and she helps him.”

Her relationship with Bond may be purely platonic, but Harris is a particularly sexy Moneypenny. She’s 39 but could pass for ten years younger. A self-confessed health freak and teetotal, throughout our interview she sits straight-backed sipping a mug of hot water with a slice of lemon, which explains her fantastic figure and unlined face.

I ask her about the longevity of the Bond franchise. Skyfall was the highest-grossing film of all time for the UK box office, incredible when you think 007 was invented by a former naval officer just after the Second World War. Harris credits producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson for keeping it relevant while maintaining the essence of Bond.

“You need the cars, the gadgets and the humour but you also have to move with the times. A large part of Spectre is about surveillance, how much are people delving into our private lives, collating information without us knowing. That’s a huge debate around the world today and it’s all reflected in the film.”

Harris says she makes up a back story for every character she plays. So what did she come up with for Miss Moneypenny? “I imagine she comes from the Home Counties,” she elaborates, “is very bright, a tomboy and much closer to her father than her mother. He was in the military and she wants to impress him. She was recruited by MI6 at university and the only person who knows what she does is her dad.”

In contrast, the most important figure in Naomie Harris’s life is her mother, whom she mentions frequently throughout the interview. Lisselle Kayla, who came from Jamaica, was just 19 when Naomie was born. She brought her up alone, while putting herself through university and later working as a writer on Grange Hill and EastEnders. The actress has only met her father, who is from Trinidad, twice in her life.

Harris went on to get a degree from Pembroke College, Cambridge in social and political sciences and then studied drama at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Achievements of which she is very proud.

With Daniel Craig in Skyfall

When I point out that Ian Fleming is thought to have based the character of Miss Moneypenny on a couple of formidable women who’d worked in wartime intelligence, the actress seems genuinely intrigued and pleased. “That’s fascinating. I think I’ll look into that and use it in my next interview!” Harris has a reputation for being diligent about her research and says she was a real swot at Cambridge, preferring to study rather than party with her fellow students.

She spent much of her spare time on the Skyfall shoot researching the life of Winnie Mandela. She was in Turkey filming when the call came through with the offer to star in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opposite Idris Elba. She started two days after the Bond shoot had ended.

As one of Britain’s most accomplished black actresses, Harris was an obvious choice to play Winnie. She’s won awards for her roles in the TV adaptations of White Teeth and Small Island and has appeared in Hollywood blockbuster franchise Pirates of the Caribbean playing a voodoo witch. But she says the Bond films have put her in a different league.

“It’s changed my career. I just finished filming another spy film Our Kind of Traitor [a John le Carré adaptation] opposite Ewan McGregor and Damian Lewis. I wouldn’t have got that role if I hadn’t done Bond. Financiers look at you differently because you appeal to a much wider demographic. It’s all about numbers.”

At the mention of Damian Lewis, I do a quick calculation in my head and work out that Harris has worked with three of the lead actors tipped to replace Daniel Craig as Bond: Lewis, Idris Elba and Benedict Cumberbatch (with whom she appeared on stage and stars with in Andy Serkis’s upcoming live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book). No wonder she has to be diplomatic when asked about the next Bond!

Where does she stand on the debate about there being too many privately educated actors from posh backgrounds? Julie Walters and James McAvoy have expressed concern that an acting career is becoming an option only the wealthy can afford. You’d think a working class girl from Finsbury Park might share their views.

“I had to find £32,000 to pay for drama school,” she states, obviously having given the matter considerable thought. “There was no way my mother could afford that, so I raised the money by working and writing letters to hundreds of charities asking for help. It was a huge challenge, but so is an acting career. Everyone should be able to go to university and I’m appalled by the high fees but drama school is different.”

I put it to her that she has also benefited from a certain amount of good luck. “Certainly, getting cast by Danny Boyle when I was nine months out of drama school in 28 Days Later was a huge break for me and then getting the role in Frankenstein (below) even though I hadn’t done any theatre. Danny took a big risk putting me on the stage of the Olivier. I owe him a lot.”

Does she agree that there are more interesting roles for black actors in the United States than there are in Britain? Look at the careers of Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo – they’ve all taken off since they went to America. “If you want a film career, you have to go to the US but I think that’s the case whatever ethnicity you are. Look at Tom Hardy and Emily Blunt. But if you want a career in TV or on the stage, you can definitely have that in this country. There is so much more colour-blind casting in the theatre these days.”

She says it was thanks to colour-blind casting on stage that she got the Bond job. Danny Boyle was directing Frankenstein at the National Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and he cast her as the love interest. Sam Mendes went to see the play, asked her to audition.

“I went along for a laugh. I never thought I’d get it. Bond girls have always been in their 20s, so I thought I was too old and I didn’t think I had the right… assets!” she says laughing and cupping her hands in front of her chest. Of course at that point she didn’t know she was in the running for Moneypenny. When she was told on the third audition, she was sworn to secrecy and didn’t even dare tell her agent. Did you tell your mum? “Yes, I told my mother, but no one else!”

Throughout our interview, Naomie Harris is polite, warm and incredibly self-controlled, measuring her words carefully, clearly aware that anything she says about the new Bond film could be a potential headline. The Bond franchise is a powerful organisation. Everyone who works for it has signed a contract in blood not to give the plot away or comment on future casting. Like Moneypenny, Harris is nothing if not loyal, discreet and elegant.

The 23-disc James Bond Collection is £44.99 (usually £59.99) incl p&p. Call 0844 848 7300 quoting RT1328 or visit radiotimes.com/bond43, where individual 007 DVDs are also on offer 

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Spectre is in cinemas now; Bond night is on BBC4 tonight (Wednesday 28th October) at 8.00pm