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How 'Moonlight' actress Naomie Harris found herself in the role of a crack addict

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Naomie Harris stars as Paula in the new drama "Moonlight."
David Bornfriend/A24
Naomie Harris stars as Paula in the new drama "Moonlight."

The actress plays the drug addicted mother, Paula, in the new film. She talks about the challenges and rewards of playing challenging characters.

Set in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, “Moonlight” is a coming-of-age story of a young man discovering his sexual identity.

Like the play on which it’s based, the film is told in three parts, with three different actors playing the main character, Chiron, as he moves from being a boy, to a teen, to a man. His mother, Paula, also undergoes a transition from a responsible nurse to becoming addicted to crack. She’s played by one actress—a British one at that—Naomie Harris.

The Frame’s John Horn spoke with Harris about how she almost turned the role down, how she ended up connecting with a character so opposite of herself, and why it’s important for her to challenge herself as an actress.


On how she almost turned down her role in “Moonlight”

I read the script and I was so moved by "Moonlight" and I thought really wanted to be a part of this project. But I always promised myself that I was always going to portray black women in a positive light, because I think there are enough stereotypical, damaging role models out there. 

One of the places where I had drawn the line was that I said, "I'm never going to play a crack addict." And here was this extraordinary role, but [the character Paula] was a crack addict. So I had real problems about taking on this role. 

On how the director changed her mind

I spoke to Barry [Jenkins], and Barry said to me, "You know, Naomie, I'm a black man. I don't want to ask you to play a stereotypical role. I don't want to ask you to play another crack addict, but the reality is this is a very personal story to me. This was my story. This was my mother." Because Paula is a mixture between Barry's mother and writer [Tarell McCraney's] mother. 

They come from very similar background. Even though they didn't know each other they were a few blocks away when they were growing up, but they had these extraordinary similar lives. That's the story that's told in "Moonlight." 

I've never had somebody say to me, "Well, this is my personal story and I want to entrust you to tell it." I thought actually there's a different way of looking at this. Here's an opportunity to play a crack addict but in a completely non-stereotypical way, and in a very layered way with passion and understanding.

On why she’s interested in playing characters with personalities different from her own

I'm always interested in characters that are as far removed from me as possible. I like to lose myself in a part and also be terrified as well. I love the fact that when I start a project I feel like how am I ever going to reach this character? With Paula it was—you know, I don't drink any alcohol. I never have drunk alcohol. I don't smoke and I certainly haven't done drugs. And it was like how am I going to possibly jump into the skin of someone who has a full-blown crack addiction?

But that is what I love about acting and getting the opportunity to explore these other worlds and these other parts of yourself, because ultimately you're always drawing on yourself. You are the greatest resource you have as a performing. And finding those depths within yourself is a fascinating process and one of the reason why I love acting. 

On how she got into the mindset of playing Paula

The biggest moment for me was when I was researching about crack addicts — particularly women with crack addiction. What I discovered was the trauma that most of these women have been through. Some kind of sexual trauma, rape, what have you. It was such a traumatic experience for them that they had this kind of split within themselves. 

So they're always holding this trauma. They're always holding this pain, and at the same time they're trying to appear as though they have their life together. But this pain is almost something that's always present for them. So they're trying to escape that pain. That's what they use drugs to do, is to run away from that pain. 

I think that's really similar to me to what actors do because we're always trying to escape ourselves. Which is why we want to jump into different people's souls and play different characters. Why else would you do that if it wasn't because you were, on some level, uncomfortable with yourself. That for me was a great point of entry because I could really empathize with that and really connect with that. 

On how acting helps Harris become “more whole as a person”

That's what keeps acting a fascinating journey. What you're always doing is uncovering parts of yourself that are hidden that you never knew existed. Who knew that I had a crack addict in me? No one would have ever have thought it. I would have never had thought it but it's wonderful that I found that in me, because it's actually when you uncover these hidden parts of yourself, you become more whole as a person. 

The more you understand yourself, the more you understand human nature and humanity generally. It's hugely rewarding, but it's terrifying. And there are so many moments where I'm like, Oh my gosh! What have I done? Why did I take on this role? I can’t do it. I can’t, you know, get there. But the joy is when you finally do.

"Moonlight" is in theaters on Oct. 21. 

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