Among this year’s crop of Oscar nominees, Naomie Harris is probably the only one who spends lots of time in a flotation tank.
The London-born-and-based actress, who’s had a trans-Atlantic career since the early Aughts, says it’s her secret to surviving the endless plane rides. “As soon as I land, I go to a flotation tank. It’s like a sensory-deprivation tank with salted water and it’s all in the dark. That resets my body clock so I don’t really get jet lag.”
She’s even quick with the local recommendations. “There’s two in Venice and one in West- wood. I usually float for an hour. Some of them have two-hour sessions, but I’d go with one hour for your first float.”
Despite her down-to-earth demeanor, Harris is not exactly an unknown in Hollywood; her breakout role came back in 2002 when Danny Boyle cast her as the female lead in the acclaimed zombie apocalypse drama “28 Days Later.” Since then, she’s appeared in multiple installments of Hollywood franchises such as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” as a pirate, and in the recent James Bond films, playing MI6 operative Eve Moneypenny.
But it was her role in Barry Jenkins’ indie film “Moonlight,” in which she plays a Paula, the crack-addicted mother of a boy struggling with his sexuality while growing up in the Miami housing projects, that earned her her first Academy Award nomination at the age of 40, for Actress in a Supporting Role. The film has gained steady momentum since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival six months ago, being lauded as a character study of figures seldom seen on the big screen. On this day, she’s just attended the Oscar nominees luncheon at the Beverly Hilton, and is about to break for a couple of hours before her next “Moonlight” screening and audience Q&A.
“I think people are connecting with it because it appeals to our universal yearning for the sharing of love with another person. I think it’s also something we try and cover over, that life teach- es us that we have to somehow suppress, and the movie almost strips away all those layers,” she says.
“It was hard,” she says of playing a woman who’s flawed and not always sympathetic, but Harris called it “a gift.” “How often do you get to play someone who’s as multidimensional as that? As an actor, that’s what you are craving.”
Harris prepped for the role — which she shot in just three days — by meeting with an addict and watching documentaries and interviews on YouTube. “It’s an incredible mine of information, these interviews people do, who’ve gone into crack dens and spent a lot of time building up that rapport with addicts. They are very insightful,” she notes. She knew she nailed it when Jenkins, who based the film partly on his own experience with a mother who abused drugs, said, “Good job.”
Just as “28 Days Later” opened doors for her in Hollywood, her Oscar nomination is leading to more offers to work with top directors and actors, much of which she’s not at liberty to discuss just yet. But she’s a pro, having acted professionally since age nine. “I’ve never done anything else and I’ve never wanted to,” she says. She even studied social and political sci- ences at Cambridge just to gain some life experience, graduating but never intending to take it up as a vocation. “I was too young at that point to play the adult roles and I was too old to play the kids’ roles, so I was in that weird transition phase where I needed to grow up. It was a difficult time for me being away from home,” she says. “But it’s also something I’m incredibly proud of, and if I had my life over again, I would definitely do it again.”
Harris, an only child, still lives in London, just eight doors down from her mother, a television scriptwriter, with whom she’s incredibly close. But she feels at home in Los Angeles on the few occasions when she’s here. “Very few people grew up here, so I find that everyone is a newbie at some point, and because of that, people are incredibly open to welcoming strangers and they understand what it’s like to be here for the first time and navigate this business,” she says. “When I first came to Hollywood, I met Kerry Washington and she let me stay at her home. Emmanuelle Chriqui, the same, and she’s been my friend ever since. Harris, who works with two young stylists, Nola Singer and Laura Jones, has also had an exceptionally strong red-carpet track record over the course of this awards season, logging a near-flaw- less lineup of looks from major houses like Dior, Gucci, Valentino, Elie Saab, Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Rodarte, Proenza Schouler and Carolina Herrera. She’s also worn her share of up-and-comers: Brandon Maxwell, Self-Portrait, Rosie Assoulin, Monse and Cushnie et Ochs. She calls a white side-slit Alexandre Vauthier dress she wore to an IWC gala in Geneva her favorite look of the last month.
“In everyday life, I wouldn’t say I’m very fashionable. I’d just say when it comes to the red car- pet, I like to pull out all the stops,” she says. “I feel like fashion has the ability to reflect your personality so I do take my choices about what I wear quite…not seriously…but I do consider them. I really like using the red carpet as a platform to highlight someone else’s work. I get letters from designers who say, ‘I’m so grateful you wore our dress, it made such a big difference to us,’ and I love being able to do that for somebody.”
What about doing it on a contract basis? Harris is said to be near announcing a formal relation- ship with a brand, but as of this writing, it’s not yet official. “I think so long as your values are in alignment with that house and it’s a product you can speak passionately about, then yeah, absolutely, I’m fine with promoting anything I believe in. If not, that’s a problem because it creates an internal struggle, which is never good.”
En route back to London, she stopped in New York to attend the Calvin Klein runway show. “It’s completely fun because fashion shows are a performance. It’s amazing because there is so much money, time, manpower and creativity that goes into making these shows — and they are over in five minutes. But I find it so glamorous and ex- citing and I love attending,” she enthuses, “It’s really nice to be part of something where you get to sit back and just be entertained rather than being the one up there. I take pictures and think, ‘Oh, that’s a look I’d love to wear.’” (At Calvin, she posted a video of a model walking in a shiny yellow raincoat, a color that she seems to favor.)
While the fashion world anticipates her Oscars gown, that finale will cap off the red carpet moments for a while. In two months, she’ll be back on set, filming the video game movie “Rampage” with The Rock in Atlanta — but not before taking a nice long vacation.
“As soon as the Oscars are over, I’m taking a month holiday to Mexico and hopefully New Zealand,” she says. “It’s a real privilege to be a part of awards season but it’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure, so it’s nice to be able to go somewhere that has nothing to do with work. It gives you the opportunity to suck up life again.”
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