Scene and Heard: Naomie Harris

Fri Dec 13,2013

‘People are not black and white. We live in the grey.’

Naomie Harris, who plays Winnie Mandela, tells us about the challenges of playing a complex woman and the need for giving history’s women a voice.

In MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, although we trace Nelson Mandela’s journey, the film really focuses on Winnie’s narrative as we get to see her evolve. Was this an intentional move – to highlight the woman behind the man?

Naomie Harris: Yeah it was. It was Justin Chadwick, our director’s, decision to do that. Because [as] you know the film’s been two decades in the making with 34 drafts, and when Justin came aboard, it was a very political movie. It was all about the men sitting in a room and talking about how we are going to dismantle the apartheid era. And Justin said, okay look, that’s not what the heart of this story is about. The heart of this story is a love story that has endured for decades and we have to put that at the heart of the movie and that’s what people will connect with, and [they] will understand how the wider political scenario and situations are played out in their relationship. So that’s what he did. Which meant Winnie finally had a voice and had an opportunity to have her story told in this movie which I’m so grateful for because I think, so often women are written out of history and here’s an example where we have an opportunity to understand a woman’s journey and a woman’s contribution.

How did you initially feel about portraying Winnie Mandela as you learned of the controversy surrounding her character?

NH: It wasn’t the controversy that really worried me. As an actor, I’m not acting as a spokesperson for Winnie and I’m not justifying her actions and the more complex the character or the role is, the more interesting she is for me to play. What did offer a challenge for me was the fact that people had such differing views about who she was. Some people wanted to make her into this kind of saint – this Mother Africa figure – and others completely demonised her. To pull together from all of that a cohesive view of who she is was really challenging because I didn’t want to fall into those extremes because they are not true. People are not black and white. We live in the grey. Winnie is a mixture of both of those, she has to be. And I wanted to show her in her entirety and come up with an honest portrayal of her.

Did you struggle with relating to her character as you found out more about the crimes she was accused of?

NH: I found it very difficult in the beginning. I thought, how am I going to find that side of me because I have to portray this woman, and to portray anybody, you have to find a level of compassion and understanding and connection with them and so that was really difficult – in the beginning. But then I thought, okay, if I am going to portray her at this point in her life, I have to understand her journey to get here – what were the challenges, what were the incidents along the way that forced her to become this warrior woman. And once I pieced together the journey, I found real compassion, real understanding and a real connection with her. And as I said, my job is not to justify her actions, but I could at least find an explanation for them.

What was it like for you when you were shooting the film in South Africa?

NH: People would tell me very intimate stories about things that happened to them. It just brings history to life in a way that a history book can’t – to have someone look you in the eyes and tell you their personal experience,  it just affects you in a completely different view which is the kind of emotional response you need in order to be able to portray these characters. 

How did you feel when you saw the family’s response to the film?

NH: I was relieved and honoured and over the moon really, to turn up at the South African premiere and have Winnie in tears and deeply moved by the performance and for her to say it’s the first time to say she’s been captured on film is such a huge honour.

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