The First Grader star discusses her dream of making an 18th century Jane Austen flick with an all-black cast.
Since her breakout role in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later..., actress Naomie Harris has carved a global career in film, television and theatre. Her latest, The First Grader, is the inspiring tale of an octogenarian Kenyan who demanded the right to an education and subsequently became the oldest person to attend school in the country.
LWLies caught up with Naomie Harris recently to talk about the issues and themes raised by the movie and her dream of making an 18th century Jane Austen flick with an all-black cast.
LWLies: How did you land the part of Jane Obinchu?
Harris: Justin Chadwick, who I didn’t know before hand but he knew my work, asked me to come and meet for the role. He said he was a fan. It was an easy process. I was brought on quite late because originally it was supposed to shot in South Africa and one of the stipulations was they needed a South African actress. But it’s a Kenyan story and Justin wanted it to be filmed there. Because he did that he could cast who ever he wanted.
What grabbed you the most about the project?
There were so many things. I loved it was a film about Africa that was a positive message, life-affirming and universal. It was a positive message about education. So many times you get films about Africa, often wonderful films, but they’re usually about genocide and poverty. So it’s great to have a feel-good film coming out of Africa. I loved the way Justin sold it to me. There was a small band of us, just nine people going over to Kenya and living with the community and working with them. I had to have my Kenyan accent before I flew over and I was introduced as a new teacher. It was like that television show, Faking It. I loved the challenge.
Had you heard of this particular story beforehand?
No. I’d never heard of Maruge. He’s an icon in Kenya. I didn’t know anything about the Mau Mau either, so it was a real education for me.
Do you think the diversity of Africa, often treated like one giant country instead of a continent, has been simplified by cinema and western filmmakers?
It’s one of the things Justin was wary of and I’m glad that he was. This idea of passing South Africa off as Kenya … they’re completely different landscapes and accents and look different. He was really firm about that. It gives the film an authenticity. And I do think that is often the case, ‘Africa is all the same’. It’s not the truth at all.
Did you meet the real Jane whilst you were out there and did it hinder your take on the character?
I did meet the real Jane but quite late into filming. I did that on purpose because I didn’t want to feel constricted in my performance. I wanted to be faithful to the script rather than faithful to the real person. There’s an age difference between us too. It was my job to make her work in terms of the script. Jane did come along and watch me and I was so nervous. She came up to me afterwards and said I was a really great teacher.
Can you see yourself as a teacher if you had to choose an alternate career?
I loved it so much. I could definitely have been a teacher in another life. It’s so fun … hard work, one of the hardest jobs there is, but the rewards and seeing the children once they get something, it really touches you.
The film’s message is centred on education but what else will people take away from it?
I love the messages of the film. In terms of valuing education, we sometimes take it for granted. It is a privilege: a real privilege. Without education you’re stuck and there’s no movement in your life. There’s also this idea of listening to the old. We live in such an ageist society where so often we dismissive of the old and they have so much to teach us. I think that’s a wonderful message as well. The way the past informs present… and standing up for what you truly believe in. How many of us do that? And put your life on the line. Jane did risk her marriage and she did receive death threats because she believed in this man’s right to an education.
Is something like this more preferable to work on than, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean films?
It’s not really about preference, but balance. You do the big budget stuff then want to do something small and something you’re passionate about and then go and do another big budget film. It’s like that. And they both have different things to offer. It’s not an either/or for me.
Do films like The First Grader have a more personal resonance than those big budget flicks?
Not necessarily. In Pirates my character, Tia Dalma, had no restrictions. She was not confined by the limits of reality at all. She could be whatever. She’s such a fantastical character. I loved doing that and it was meaningful for me. I only do things that have a personal resonance and that touch me or move otherwise there’s no point in doing it.
You must get offered all sorts of scripts. Do you have a set of criteria for choosing?
Not at all. It’s about creative needs and, 'What haven’t I done before?' I like to do different things and play completely different characters. If somebody is offering a role I’ve never done and drawing up skills that I’ve never used before, that’s really appealing to me.
Is there anything you want to do that you haven’t been offered yet or what about another horror film? It’s been 10 years since 28 Days Later...
I guess I’d do another horror film, I don’t know. There was so much blood in 28 Days Later... and it was really gory. What I’d love to do is – I’m totally in love with Jane Austen and have always been in love with Jane Austen, I did my dissertation at university on black people in eighteenth-century Britain – so I’d love to do a Jane Austen-esque film but with black people. There were black people around then when she was writing. I’d love to do that next.
Would you direct it?
No, no, no. I love working with actors but I don’t know anything about camera angles. I wouldn’t have a clue, in that respect. I am working with a friend, Damien Jones, and we have got a script. It’s getting closer and closer.