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Despite her 20-year career on the big screen, rarely has Naomie Harris been cast in roles that display her innate tenderness. She first broke out in Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic zombie thriller 28 Days Later, and roles in blockbuster action films — in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and in the recent James Bond films as the flirtatious, assured MI6 agent Eve Moneypenny — soon followed. Not since Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture-winning Moonlight, however, wherein she played the tragic, drug addict mother to Chiron, has Harris been allowed to display her full dramatic range.
This year, however, has been different. On top of starring turns in No Time to Die and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, she reteams with her Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali in Benjamin Cleary’s melancholic sci-fi drama Swan Song.
In Cleary’s film, set in the not too distant future, Harris portrays Cameron Turner’s (Mahershala Ali) wife Poppy. The couple live an apparent dream life: They have a precocious son, live in a well-to-do neighborhood, and love each other immensely. A dire secret, however, is hiding in plain sight: Cameron is dying. Rather than tell Poppy she might lose him forever, he seeks an alternative solution. A tech company run by Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) can transplant his memories into a cloned body, and his clone will take his place, while the real Cameron will die in obscurity with his wife none the wiser.
While Swan Song does find dramatic urgency in Cameron’s moral dilemma — should he tell his wife? — and in the bevy of painful memories he must relive to enact a heartbreaking separation from his family, it’s the tenderness between Harris and Ali that elevates the film beyond its intriguing sci-fi premise. Harris especially taps into an emotional fissure that’s the complete opposite to her prior roles: There’s gentleness, a funniness and coyness within Poppy, along with a real hurt contouring Harris’ performance.
Following the film’s premiere at AFI Fest, we caught up with Harris to talk about reuniting with Ali, how she sees Cameron’s moral dilemma, and what makes true love work. We also discussed her Five Favorite Films, during whish she expressed her adoration for comedies and musicals.
The Sound of Music (1965)
Oh my gosh. I think I was like 13 when I first watched it, and I love musicals. I was just absolutely in heaven. And Julie Andrews, she’s just amazing. I loved all the songs, and I thought it was a really beautiful movie. I’ve watched it 13 times, I think.
Would you ever want to do a musical?
I would, if I could sing and I could dance. That would be helpful. But unfortunately I can’t do either of those, so no. [laughs] But I would love to be in a musical. If someone could train me up or dub my voice and put their two feet where my feet go. That would be amazing.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
I really love Jerry Maguire. I think it’s a fantastic comedy filled with some amazing truths and life lessons. The performances are also incredible.
When was the first time you watched Jerry Maguire?
I don’t really remember the first time I saw it. I know it was at the cinema. That’s for sure. That was back in the day when you pretty much watched everything in the cinema. It was great to have an experience with an audience, and I think that’s the best way. I love watching comedies with an audience. It’s a shame that we do more and more watching on our own, because there’s something so wonderful about sharing that experience with other people.
My third would be Parasite, which is much more recent. I absolutely love that movie because there are just so many different twists and turns. The ending is entirely unexpected and it’s so creative in the way that it’s shot and written.
Parasite winning Best Picture felt like our last collective feel-good moment.
That’s so true, actually. Maybe that’s another reason why I like it. I associated it with happier times. With freedom.
Sam Mendes’ film was amazing, which I think was partly based on his grandfather’s story or something like that, right? That was absolutely incredible. I loved the way that was shot. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary. That opening sequence with that one take and most of the movie was shot just in one long take. Along with all of those stunts, I thought it was absolutely incredible.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
And then I love Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen and I thought it was a really fantastic adaptation. And Kate Winslet, I believe was in it as well. And Emma is so great.
Emma Thompson’s a great comedic actress. Do you gravitate toward comedies?
I love comedies. I really do. I wish that I was more comedic. I’ve just finished a TV show where I get to be a little bit comedic, so it’s really great. I’m always like, “I’m not funny at all.” I think people find me funny in real life. My family and friends do find me very funny. But in acting somehow I always end up playing the super serious roles.
(Photo by Kimberley French/©Apple TV+)
Robert Daniels for Rotten Tomatoes: Swan Song reunites you with your Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali. In this, you play lovers as opposed to adversaries. What was it like flipping the script, so to speak, with Mahershala?
Naomie Harris: When I worked with Mahershala on Moonlight, we actually spent very little time working because I think we only had a day to shoot our scenes together. When we were doing all the publicity and the awards campaign for Moonlight, we spent months with each other. But with the actual filming, there was very little time. It was really interesting to be asked by Mahershala to be in Swan Song because I was really intrigued to see how we would work together. And the wonderful thing is, we work in a very similar way, because we don’t really like rehearsals, and we don’t really like talking about the script a lot. We both like to prepare on our own and then come together and see in the moment what the other person has done. We just feel like we create more magic and it has more spontaneity, and you find truth constantly in the moment rather than something you’ve kind of prepared.
Rotten Tomatoes: It isn’t unusual for a film not to be shot chronologically, but Swan Song is so non-linear, it must have been a particular challenge.
Harris: Yeah. I don’t know the last time or if I’ve ever had the opportunity to shoot linear. I think lots of filmmakers would like that to happen, but you know, just the scheduling and location availability and so on. You have to have a great director like Ben [Cleary] who keeps you on track, basically, and reminds you of where you are emotionally. It’s such a privilege when you have a director who’s also written the material, so he knows the material inside out. He’s lived with these characters. Ben was working on this project for 10 years, so he was amazing in terms of being able to guide us. But then we’ve also done our own research; we are able to chart for ourselves the journey of our characters. That’s one of the skills that you have to have in every project you do, because you are always flipping backwards in time.
(Photo by Apple TV+)
Rotten Tomatoes: At times, this movie reminded me of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, in the sense that a character’s health status is kept from loved ones so as not to hurt them. In this case, with Swan Song, it’s Cameron not telling Poppy. What’s your read on the film’s central dilemma?
Harris: It’s really difficult. I’ve changed my mind all the time about this because I do understand the decision that he made because of his particular circumstances: Poppy’s pregnant and then she’s also lost her brother as well. She’s been through a hell of a lot of grief, and she’s in this fragile state. Cameron just thinks that Poppy will not be able to cope with his death on top of everything else that she’s been through. That’s why he makes that choice for her. If it were not for those extenuating circumstances, then I wonder whether he would’ve made that choice. Because I think if Poppy had known she would never have wanted Cameron to die on his own.
Rotten Tomatoes: I personally don’t know what I would do.
Harris: It’s a really interesting dilemma. It’s the same dilemma that parents are faced with constantly, because it’s all about “how much pain do I save my children from suffering?” As a parent, you never want them to experience any [emotional] pain. But, actually, through that pain they learn resilience, and they learn self-sufficiency, and they also learn how to grow. So there’s a real gift in pain. When we are depriving someone of their pain, we deprive them of growth. It’s a really complex decision. You can change by the hour and feel very strongly about it this way, and then the next moment you feel very strongly in the opposite direction.
(Photo by Apple TV+)
Rotten Tomatoes: What do you hope people take from Swan Song?
Harris: I really hope that their hearts are touched and that they’re reminded about real love. Because I think so often what we’re presented with within movies is not a presentation of real love at all; it’s a lot of lust dressed up as love. It’s so wonderful to have a real relationship with two people who’ve known each other for a really long period of time, who know each other inside and out, their flaws and all, and they still love each other and are willing to put each other first, before their own needs and desires and their own happiness. That’s what true love is about. It is sacrificial. It is about putting the other person first. So I hope that this is a great reminder of what love is.
Swan Song is in theaters and available on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 17, 2021.
Thumbnail images by: ©20th Century Fox Film Corp., Andrew Cooper/©TriStar Pictures, ©Neon, Francois Duhamel/©Universal Pictures, ©Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection