It’s not often that an actress has a chorus of voices telling her how to portray a character. But that was Naomie Harris’ experience when she agreed to portray Winnie Mandela in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (out November 29). “I had so many people telling me how she should be played—from the producer to the extras on set,” Harris says. “Everybody had an opinion about how Winnie should be played. And I get it, she’s an icon.”
Harris finally got a clearer idea of Nelson Mandela’s former wife when she met her while filming in South Africa. Here, she shares how she prepared to play Winnie, how she got over her nerves of working with co-star Idris Elba and her impressions of South Africa.
ESSENCE.com: How does one prepare for such an epic role, playing Winnie Mandela?
Noamie Harris: Well, you just do a ton of research. I watched documentaries about the apartheid era. Lots of them. I watched uncut footage of her being interviewed. I talked to lots of people who knew her. And I sat down with her. That’s when things started coming together because the thing about researching Winnie is that you get such polarized views. My challenge was to put all of that information together to make a cohesive character. Meeting her is when it all fell into place in terms of understanding who she is. I said to her, ‘How do you want to be portrayed?’ And she said, ‘All I ask is that you portray me faithfully.’
ESSENCE.com: Did you recall your first memories of Nelson and Winnie Mandela?
Harris: Not of Winnie, but Nelson. I remember the “Free Nelson Mandela” concert in London and asking my mom what it all meant. I remember her telling us not to buy fruits in a certain supermarket because they were from South Africa and we were trying to support the sanctions against South Africa.
ESSENCE.com: Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zindzi recently called Idris Elba an honorary Mandela. Do you feel like an honorary Mandela yet?
Harris: [Laughs] No, but I was told I was an honorary South African. I really appreciate it.
ESSENCE.com: Idris said that you blew his socks off while filming this movie. What are your impressions of him as an actor?
Harris: He’s absolutely amazing. The thing I really love about him is that he really held my hand through this whole experience. We didn’t do an audition together so the first time I met him was in rehearsals in Cape Town and it was really intimidating because he seemed to have the voice down, and the accent. I was like, ‘Wow, he’s so much further than me’ so I was seriously intimidated. After the rehearsal he came up to me and said, ‘I’m terrified. Are you?’ It was really beautiful and it really, for me, sums up Idris. He’s so willing to be vulnerable, and he’s so open and generous. He’s there for you as an actor. He’s so fantastic as Mandela that watching him perform, helped me to be better.
ESSENCE.com: On a lighter note, you get to have a lot of intimate moments with Idris—something a lot of women would love. Do you see him as a sex symbol the same way we do?
Harris: [Laughs] I can’t see him that way. I know he’s hugely handsome and charming, but to me he’s like a brother. In fact, he reminds me a lot of my younger brother. They have the same physique and the same charm. My brother’s exceptionally handsome in the same way Idris is. Essentially, you can’t fancy the guy you’re filming with.
ESSENCE.com: You spent a good amount of time filming in South Africa. What were your impressions of the country?
Harris: It’s absolutely beautiful. But I still feel there’s a lot of racial tension. There’s been an incredible amount of progress, but there’s still further to go. What I will take away from the country is the warmth of the people. I was really blown away by that. The fact that we were there—two British actors playing iconic figures in their history. And while there was some stuff written in the beginning about why they weren’t particularly happy about the fact that we were British, once we started filming, they really got behind us. Even when I was filming, extras would come up to me and say, ‘You know when you said that word, it wasn’t quite right.’ And it wasn’t critical at all, it was like, I’m here to help you. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that anywhere else in the world.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opens in theaters November 27.