One could easily imagine that on this day, the first scorcher of the year in London, while surrounded by tropical plants in a greenhouse-slash–photo studio, that British actress Naomie Harris and I were actually in Los Angeles. But her London-ness shines too brightly for me to forget my true location. You can tell from the obvious things: Her charming north London accent is still very much present, even after multiple stints of immersive accent coaching during her 33-year-long career. Subtle signs also give it away to a fellow Brit like me: Nothing speaks to the archetypal London woman’s inherent casual:fancy ratio like her unpolished nails and flawless skin, or that she’s wearing a pair of flat white patent Christian Louboutin brogues (“I’m just all about comfort”) with a simple LBD from H&M and a little medallion necklace from Missoma.
These understatements go a long way to explaining how she remains under the radar here, hopping on buses, riding the tube, and very rarely being hounded by paparazzi. “If you’re just moseying around like a regular Londoner, then no one really hassles you, right? If you’re in sunglasses and get out of a big flashy car then people will take notice.” It makes sense then that the possibility of being a permanent fixture in Los Angeles was never on the cards—Harris hasn’t lived there, nor has she ever felt remotely tempted to. “I need a lot of grounding because there’s so much travel with work,” she says, confirming the British capital she grew up in is still home. “You’re constantly on a plane, and that’s not to complain or anything because I’m super lucky, but I feel like when I get back home, I want to be surrounded by my friends and my family and to reconnect with people I really love.”
In just one conversation there’s talk of Jamaica, Atlanta, Detroit, Georgia, Paraguay, L.A. Even the most seasoned and appreciative traveler, such as Harris, could find that peripatetic lifestyle draining. One way she stays level is by bringing a little bit of London with her wherever she goes: Harris’s family and friends travel to each and every location she films in. Earlier this year, while working on her new feature film, Black and Blue (where she plays a rookie cop on the wrong side of both the police force and a criminal circuit—in theaters October 25), 15 of her nearest and dearest traveled all the way to New Orleans to stay in a huge house together.
Having started in the industry as a child actress and being a self-confessed “hard taskmaster” whose intense characters (such as Winnie Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom and drug-addled mother Paula in Moonlight) can take months to fully shake off, it was perhaps no surprise that at some point the super-conscientious Harris would hit a wall. “I was burnt out, really,” she admits, in a candid, matter-of-fact way few celebrities offer. “After award season  and after I’d done the whole Moonlight thing, then I went on to do Rampage with Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, and spent, I think, four months filming in Atlanta. And I just got back and was just like I’m done. I’ve lost my passion for this career I’ve been doing since I was 9 years old, and I’d never done anything else.” And so, “absolutely exhausted,” and upon the recommendation of a rather sensible doctor who didn’t resort to prescribing medication to simply mask the problem, Naomie instead switched up her lifestyle entirely, taking an eight-month break from work and the adrenaline overload, leading to her very own Eat, Pray, Love kind of journey.
Although Harris felt compelled to explore possibilities for a prospective plan B career (and she had already garnered a degree in social and political sciences from Cambridge University in 1998, just in case), it was a monthlong Ayurvedic retreat in India—and the adjoining digital detox—that moved the needle. Candlelight meditation, yoga, massages, being completely and utterly uncontactable… It’s no wonder Harris has already revisited this haven and plans to again. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who just works myself into a grave and then suddenly I’m having panic attacks or, you know, I’ve developed an illness because I wasn’t listening to the signs in my body,” she says. She now follows up this solid groundwork with twice-daily meditation and a “literally life-changing” stream-of-consciousness writing exercise each morning, inspired by the book, The Artist’s Way—something that she urges me to do too, such is her evangelism. “I’m so grateful that I did take that time out because, honestly? I came back and I had such renewed passion for [my career] and such gratitude.”
Harris has always been in demand, but since her Oscar-nominated turn in Moonlight in 2018, a step-change was almost instantaneous. “It was a tiny little movie I was doing because it was a passion project—I was paid virtually nothing,” and yet the impact of this industry accolade “changes how much you get paid, it changes how many roles you’re offered, it changes the respect that you’re given in the industry, it is huge. I’ve been going in this profession for a long time, so it’s even more shocking because you really notice the massive change as a result of that.” The nomination itself was—alongside an OBE awarded by The Queen in the same year—a true pinch-me moment of her career thus far: “I was just like Oh my God, am I really here?” she says, recalling that a few years prior she had been invited to the Academy Awards and worn a Vivienne Westwood gown rendered from recycled candy wrappers as a sustainable red carpet statement, and had never imagined she’d be back with a nomination. “I would say this is the busiest time in my career,” Harris says of her schedule right now, dismissing the notion that her age—42—has had any negative impact whatsoever, as it might once have done in the Hollywood of yore.
“You know, I miss the younger Naomie! I miss her because she was more open; she was more vulnerable and gullible. You grow up and you become a little bit more cynical and wary,” says Harris. “So I admire the young Naomie more than me today, really. She was pretty awesome! I didn’t think so at the time.” However, one part of the “old Naomie” that she’s more than happy to leave behind is the wardrobe. “I was so geeky!” exclaims Naomi with the classic British ease for self-deprecation. “Oh my gosh, I had no dress sense whatsoever. If you look at my earlier pictures… hideous.” The turning point came courtesy of a rather brutally honest friend, who ended up being Harris’s stylist for seven years after telling her, “Enough is enough—your style is really bad, and nobody is telling you the truth. I’m going to take you in hand.” Hard to imagine now, when we’re so accustomed to seeing Harris in divine designer pieces from the likes of Miu Miu, Chanel, and Gucci, and every editor I know admires her sophisticated but always slightly off-beat fashion choices. Starting her career “not having a clue with clothes” and feeling unable to speak up when uncomfortable in a look, Naomie now takes a far more empowered and liberal approach to her public wardrobe, working with multiple stylists (such as Federica Fanari and Law Roach) and using these as opportunities to reflect the real her, when she spends so much of her time being a canvas for other creatives.
“I am Miss Control Freak,” says Harris, who craves nothing more than to actually have a routine, a perfect example of which is exemplified in bringing along her own thermos to the shoot—hot water and lemon. “But I do think there are other ways of being successful, and I do see other people living a very different life and I’m extremely envious.” Her desire for “drudgery” as her friends call it, is something her inner circle finds amusing. Harris fully understands and accepts her given personality traits, owning her control freak status (“I’m not trying to control anybody else, I’m just trying to control me”) while still attempting to break free from it every now and then for self-improvement purposes. “I was from a very working-class background. My mum was on welfare when she had me—she was 19 years old, but she was always a striver,” she explains, welling up at the memories. “My mum just instilled this belief in me that you can achieve anything, but it requires hard work. I was always like I’m going to put in that work because I want to make my mum proud. She really did a phenomenal job, and I want to do the very best I can for her, for my family. This is the one life we get—let’s make the most of it. Let’s be the best we possibly can, right?”
Speaking openly about global environmental issues (such as sustainability in fashion) as well as those closer to home (supporting British charities like Intermission—a youth-based initiative using theater to get kids off the streets), Harris was also one of many influential women in Hollywood who signed the infamous Time’s Up petition last year. “I think that a lot of men are running scared. Men now, that would [have said] inappropriate things on set and behave in a certain way, do not feel that they have the right or the power to do those things anymore,” Harris explains. Having witnessed the kind of abuses of power the previously unaware public suddenly became privy to, Harris confirms the environment in 2019 has “dramatically changed” and that this movement was pivotal and powerful in creating the shift. Not only has this been the case for female actors, but the industry has also made strides when it comes to equality in general, with long overdue improvements for people of color. “The reality is that for so long lots of different ethnic groups have been ignored,” says Harris. “The heads of studios didn’t think they could make money out of black movies. Now they’ve realized that is absolute rubbish and you have something with phenomenal success like Black Panther, and it changes everything.” Harris believes roles for black actors are now more available than ever before, with the “black dollar,” as she calls it, being the driving force in a business that is essentially about the bottom line and hard economics.
Now in the middle of filming her third Bond movie, Harris’s debut in 2012 marked another right-on milestone in her trajectory: She was the first Moneypenny to be honored with a first name (Eve!) rather than being just Miss Moneypenny, and she also encouraged the press to stop using the term “Bond Girl” and favor “Bond Woman” instead. “I was 38 at the time and going into my 40s; we had Lea Seydoux in her 30s, and Monica Belluci as well (I don’t know how old Monica is, but she’s certainly fabulous and she’s not in her 20s), and I just thought it was inappropriate that we were being referenced as ‘Bond Girls,’” Harris says of the now-outmoded wording, adding that it was time to “fully inhabit womanhood.” Something we think she’s doing rather splendidly.
Black and Blue hits theaters October 25.