British actress Naomie Harris is best known to American audiences for her roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and in the big screen adaptation of Miami Vice, but the 34-year-old can currently be seen in theaters in the indie film The First Grader. The movie is an emotionally absorbing true story of an 84-year old Kenyan man who attends an elementary school when the country promises a free education to all its citizens. In the film, Harris plays Jane Obinchu, the teacher who changes the senior’s life and makes a difference in her native country in the process.
“I love playing strong women and I loved Jane’s strength. She was this incredible force that was willing to stand up against her local community, local authorities and even the Kenyan government for this man to get an education,” says Harris. “She risked her life, put her marriage, her life and her career on the line, all for what she believed in— that itself was extraordinary and inspiring.”
While many films about Africa orbit around the strife and disharmony on the continent, Harris felt an extra added bonus of being a part of The First Grader was that it allowed her to be a part of the quilt woven to shed light on one of Africa’s inspiring real-life stories. “So often we have films about Africa and they’re about poverty, genocide and those kinds of things,” she says. “It was just great to see an uplifting story representing Africa in a positive light and with a universal message everyone can relate to.”
After the death of her Pirates screen alter ego Tia Dalma, in which she “burst into a thousand crabs,” one movie we all know Harris will not be a part of is the new 3D blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The actress says she has fond memories of being a part of the successful Johnny Depp-led franchise, but feels good that she can move on in her work as a thespian.
“I did Pirates for two years and it was great and I had a fantastic experience. I felt very privileged to be part of it. The movies were a great boost for my career. It opened a lot more doors for me so I’m definitely glad I did it,” says Harris. “But it’s always nice to move onto new challenges and new roles. And stretch yourself in a different way."
That brazenness has allowed this character actress to disappear in a cornucopia of roles in film genres that have ranged from action to horror to romance. It’s a luxury and freedom that many international actresses have over those in image and PR-obsessed America. “In the states, actresses have to be more image-conscious so it makes it harder to do a wide breadth of roles,” says Harris. But in England it’s fine to go around, do a part and wear no make up. You are able to explore a wider range of roles. For me that keeps it exciting, because I wouldn’t want to play just one type of role.”
The First Grader is currently playing in select cities.
(Photo: Joanne Davidson/PictureGroup)