Actress Naomie Harris: From First Grade to ‘Frankenstein’

Naomie Harris in 'The First Grader'

Naomie Harris is busy these days.

The 34-year-old British actress, best known for her roles in 28 Days Later and the second and third installments of Pirates of the Caribbean, finished her final performance of Frankenstein, opposite co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, on stage at the National Theatre in London on a Monday. The very next day, she boarded a plane for the U.S. to promote her latest movie, The First Grader, which has just opened here.

“I love this movie,” she said during an interview last week in Manhattan.

First Grader is an inspirational, true life drama about an 84-year-old Kenyan man, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo), who fights for his right to sit alongside small children in a first grade class to learn to read and write. Harris plays Jane Obinchu, a teacher who aids him.

“It’s a small movie, and we don’t have the budget to take out print ads or run TV commercials, so I’m doing my best to promote it and talk it up,” she says.

The movie was shot on location in Kenya, in a rural area not far from Nairobi. “I love Africa,” says Harris, who has worked previously on location in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.

The shooting schedule was 36 days, but Harris arrived early to spend two weeks trying her hand at actually teaching the classroom full of children (none of them professional actors) who would play her pupils on screen.

“I’m used to being around kids – I have a sister and a brother who are 12 and 15 – and my stepfather is a teacher, and I love children, so I thought it would be fine,” she says, and then laughs. “I got there and got in front of those kids and there was nothing happening at all. Because of the language barrier and because it’s disrespectful there for Masai kids to look an adult in the eye, it took two weeks just to coax their personalities out of their shells.”

The London-born actress said she was attracted to First Grader as soon as she read the script.

“I’d just done Ninja Assassin, a big Hollywood movie that was shot in Berlin, and I wanted something that was going to be more fulfilling creatively,” she says. “This was an indie film, and there’s an intimacy to movies like this. There were only nine of us who flew over from England for it.”

Frankenstein, adapted from the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, marked Harris’ first stage role in years and a reunion with Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, who cast her in her first major film role, in 28 Days Later in 2002. “I’m so grateful to Danny Boyle, who took a risk on me then,” she says. “And 10 years later, he took a risk on me again.”

In Frankenstein, Harris played Elizabeth, the fiancé of Victor, the scientist who assembles the monster. Cumberbatch and Miller switched off playing the roles of the creature and his creator. Of having a different leading man nightly, Harris says, “In the beginning, it was hard. It was difficult finding your feet, getting in a rhythm, but once you did, it was great.”

She enjoyed teaming up again with Cumberbatch, with whom she co-starred in the 2009 BBC miniseries, Small Island (based on Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel). “When we did Small Island, he hadn’t done Sherlock yet,” she says, but is quick to add that the success of the BBC detective series hasn’t gone to his head: “It’s nice to see that he hasn’t changed, and he’s such a brilliant actor.”

She said Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes fame meant hordes of fans, mostly female, crowded the stage door every night after Frankenstein in hopes of a glimpse of their idol.

“It was crazy,” she says, adding with a laugh, “We called them ‘the Cumber-bitches.’“

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What’s your favorite Naomi Harris movie or TV appearance?

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Frankenstein trailer for National Live production:

Small Island trailer: