Naomie Harris may be best known to American audiences for her starring role in the 2002 sci-fi thriller 28 Days Later, but the British actress is a veteran of several U.K. television series and projects dating back to the late 1980s. Harris jets between her home base in London, England, to and from Hollywood and various film locales around the world for the increasing number of leading roles she began to win after 28 Days Later.
Born in London in 1976, Harris grew up in a single-parent household in the Finsbury Park section of north London. She is of mixed Jamaican and Trinidadian heritage, and never knew her father. Her mother had her when she was just 18 years old, and later went on to earn a college degree and enjoy a career as a journalist, television writer, and children's book author. As a child, Harris loved to perform in front of company. "My favourite thing was the creation story," she said in an interview with Marianne Macdonald that appeared in the London Evening Standard newspaper. "I had a children's Bible and for some reason I was obsessed with that." Recognizing her daughter's passion, Harris's mother enrolled her in a local children's drama school, "and it was like an oasis for me, to feel normal and have friends, when I didn't have that in any other area of my life," she recalled in the interview with Macdonald.
Harris made her professional screen debut in a British television series for kids called Simon and the Witch in 1987. She spent much of her school years at St. Marylebone School, a girls-only institution, but she had few friends and was sometimes teased about her after-school career. She had some other recurring roles in television series during her teens, but also did well in school and decided to pursue a degree in social and political science when she was accepted at one of Britain's most prestigious schools, Cambridge University. "I was the only Black girl in my class, and I came from a very working-class background," she told Essence magazine years later. "Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had been to boarding school and had huge amounts of money and privileges, and I just couldn't relate." Again, she made few friends during her time at Cambridge, and often spent her weekends back at home in London, in a household that now included a stepfather and a half-brother and half-sister.
After earning her Cambridge degree, Harris returned to her first passion, acting, and studied at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England for two years. She had a difficult time landing her first job, however, which made her increasingly "depressed," as she recalled to Fiona Morrow of the Sunday Times. "I'd go to dinner parties with friends and people would say: 'What do you do?' I just felt I had no right to call myself an actor because I wasn't working." Film roles came, albeit in a trickle. She did a movie called Crust in 2001, as well as a low-budget German thriller a year later, Anansi, which was filmed in the North African desert.
Harris's luck began to turn when she was cast as one of the stars of the made-for-television adaptation of Zadie Smith's bestselling novel White Teeth, which aired in Britain in September of 2002. She played Clara, the daughter of a West Indian family in 1960s London. The highly anticipated film version "opened with a sequence that boded well for the following hour," wrote Guardian journalist Rupert Smith, with the teenager played by Harris miming to British hit from the mid-1970s "while performing some of the best dancing ever seen on television." Smith and many other critics, however, asserted that the screen version failed to live up to Smith's original literary achievement.
Earlier, Harris had been thrilled to land the lead in a planned new film by director Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame, a post-apocalyptic thriller set in a plague-decimated England. In 28 Days Later, she played Selena, one of the two stars, along with another relatively unknown actor, Cillian Murphy. The pair team up with other survivors of a rage-inducing plague that turns its victims into zombies, and Harris's character does an admirable job defending herself with a machete in some harrowing action sequences. The film came and went in British theaters in late 2002, but upon its release in the summer of 2003 in the United States it became a surprise box-office hit. "In Boyle's film, with its meandering mood of bombed-out 'relevance,'" wrote Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly, "the thin characters are effective at the start but take you only so far," though Gleiberman did note that "the beautiful Naomie Harris has a nononsense allure."
Harris went on to appear in Trauma in 2004, opposite Colin Firth, and in a meatier role as a Bahamian cop in After the Sunset, which starred Pierce Brosnan, Woody Harrelson, Don Cheadle, and Salma Hayek. The latter film was a follow-up to Brosnan's 1999 hit The Thomas Crown Affair, but Harris's wariness about Hollywood was confirmed when she was involved in a devastating car accident just after filming wrapped. She and a friend were in a car driven by a third person which skidded off a Los Angeles freeway, and all three escaped through the sunroof unharmed as the car caught fire. She recalled that she had been so thrilled by the seemingly close professional ties forged on the movie set, and "I'd written everyone two-page letters afterwards, saying how I loved working with them," she told Macdonald in the Evening Standard interview. "Then I had this crash and I was in hospital, and nobody came to visit. That was a real wakeup call."
Harris's subsequent film projects are major ones: she was cast in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel slated for 2006 release, as well as the big-screen version of Miami Vice, also set for 2006. The latter project was to be directed by Michael Mann (Ali, Collateral) and would star Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as the stylish Miami 0cops of 1980s television fame. But Harris remains outside the Hollywood loop, preferring to live near family in London, where she has a home in the Highgate neighborhood. She is happy with being only occasionally recognized, she told Dee O'Connell in London's Observer; even when White Teeth was released and her face appeared on the advertising posters plastered all over London subway cars, she went unrecognized as a commuter. "I think this is a brilliant level to be at," she told O'Connell. "I wouldn't like to be any more well known than this."
At a Glance …
Career: Made television debut in the British series Simon and the Witch, 1987; made film debut in Anansi, 2002. Also worked at the Southwark Playhouse, London.
Addresses: Home—London, England.
Living in Hope, 2002.
28 Days Later, 2002.
After the Sunset, 2004.
Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 2005.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, 2006.
Miami Vice, 2006.
Simon and the Witch (series), 1987.
Runaway Bay (series), 1992.
The Tomorrow People (series), 1994–95.
The Project (movie), 2002.
White Teeth (movie), 2002.
Entertainment Weekly, June 27, 2003, p. 115.
Essence, Dec 2004, p. 128.
Evening Standard (London, England), May 13, 2005, p. 17.
Guardian (London, England), September 18, 2002, p. 22; February 22, 2003, p. 5.
Houston Chronicle, July 12, 2003, p. 9.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), Oct 17, 2004, p. 35.
Observer (London, England), October 20, 2002, p. 28.
New Statesman, November 18, 2002, p. 47.
New Yorker, June 30, 2003, p. 102.
People, November 22, 2004, p. 88.
Sunday Times (London, England), September 15, 2002, p. 16.
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