What Naomie Harris Had To Do To Be So 'Black And Blue'

Oct 23, 2019
Originally published on October 23, 2019 6:10 pm

The new movie Black and Blue is a thriller about a woman who tries to straddle a divide between two groups of people: African Americans and the police.

The New Orleans police officer who tries to bridge these worlds is Alicia West, played by Naomie Harris. In the movie's opening scene, she's going for a run, wearing a hoodie, when cops stop her for questioning. It turns rough, but while they're searching her, they find her police badge.

Black and Blue is an action movie, but it's also set with timely social context. "[Director] Deon [Taylor] says that this movie is candy with medicine in it," Harris says.

This is a very American story — and yet Naomie Harris, who carries it, is British. In an interview, she described her preparation for the part, playing her first leading role and how she relates to the themes of police violence and mistrust.


Interview Highlights

On how issues around race and police violence translate from the U.S. to the U.K.

I was definitely very aware that it is a uniquely American story. And so I had to deep dive and do all of my research and so on so that I honored that experience and could play it as authentically as I possibly could. But sadly, the American experience is not exclusive to America. We have the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.K., and we have a breakdown of relations between the police and the black community within the U.K. as well, and many unexplained deaths of black people — perfectly healthy black men in particular — that have been arrested and then ended up dead in police custody. All the issues you have in America — I think they're much more extreme here [in the U.S.], but we have them in the U.K. as well for sure.

On working with co-star Tyrese Gibson

I was incredibly lucky because Tyrese, who obviously co-stars in the movie, is from South Central LA. And he was like: The experience that Alicia had growing up, and the kind of community she came from, is exactly the community that I came from. And so I'm going to help you, and I'm going to be there for you and explain any cultural differences that you don't get. ...

One of the moments that really stuck out in my mind was when [Tyrese's character] calls the police for help in the movie. And they come, and they actually handcuff him, and harass him. And he was saying that that is an experience that he's seen happen many times before, and how frustrating, belittling, anger-inducing that is as a black man who's called for help, and then actually ends up being treated as though they are the criminal.

On playing her first leading role in a movie

So I always said I didn't want to play a lead, because I've always found it quite stressful. ... I always said, you know, "I don't want the weight of a whole movie," because it's kind of stressful enough coming in and doing your part. And I just enjoyed this collaborative experience of being a part of this whole process. I didn't want to have the entire spotlight on me. I mean, it's very typical of my personality, because I'm much more of an introvert than an extrovert, bizarrely enough, given that I'm in this profession. ...

It's funny because you know, you read the script, you think, "Oh that's great, oh my gosh, it's so exciting, it's brilliant." And then it's not until you actually start filming it and you realize, "What, I've got to be running every single day? I've got to be scared every single — I've got to be jumping through windows? You know what I mean?" ... Every day, running, jumping, terrified. I actually signed a contract which said that they weren't even going to get me to run. So I did no preparation — physical preparation for the role, because I was like: Somebody else is going to be doing all the hard lifting for me, and I'm just going to act it. And then you get there, and you are confronted with the amazing Deon Taylor, our director, who, you know, just smiles at you and just says, "Hey, Naomie, would you mind just running from here to there? I mean, that's all we're asking. Would you mind?" And you go, "Yeah, sure Deon." And the next day it's like, "Would you mind running from here to two miles down the road?" ... Suddenly I'm sprinting, jumping out windows, jumping off things, being hit, thrown across the room, in chokeholds. It was rough, but it was an intense experience. ...

At the end of the movie, I was like, "I love playing leads!" I want to play leads all the time now. ... My misconception was that it was actually more stressful playing a lead, but actually it's less stressful, because you're on all the time. So you don't have time to wait around in your trailer getting nervous and worrying about the scene and getting all head up about it. And also because you are the lead, you get to set the rhythm for the whole piece, and the tone, and just the vibe on set. So it becomes your family, your thing that you've created, and it just really feels very special. And I really just got over my nerves. Because usually, before I'm acting, before any scene, I'm nervous, you know? But I wasn't nervous during this because I was there every day. These were my friends, these were my family.

On corrupt cops, compared to those who just go along with corruption

I think [the latter] are the majority, to be honest. I think the bad apples are very few and far between. I think that most people engage in criminality by turning a blind eye. And actually, I think that's one of the strong themes of the movie: That actually, by doing nothing, you do a hell of a lot, because you're not standing up to what is wrong. ...

I think it says that the real challenge is getting over apathy. There used to be a time where, when the Black Lives Matter movement first started, where people were out marching and outraged, and now I think people are like, "Ah, this is the way it is." And so the aim of this film is also to reignite dialogue and get people outraged again and hopefully get them active.

Christina Cala and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The new movie "Black And Blue" is an action thriller about a woman who tries to straddle a divide between two groups of people - African Americans and the police who are supposed to be protecting them. The New Orleans police officer who tries to bridge these worlds is Alicia West, played by the actress Naomie Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK AND BLUE")

NAOMIE HARRIS: (As Alicia West) Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Up against the wall.

HARRIS: (As Alicia West) What's the problem?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Up against the wall.

HARRIS: (As Alicia West) Hey, take it easy, all right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Against the wall.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the movie's opening scene, she's going for a run. She's wearing a hoodie. Cops stop her for questioning, and it turns rough. While they're searching her, they find her police badge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK AND BLUE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Sorry about that. We're looking for someone that matches your description. You know how it is.

HARRIS: (As Alicia West) Yeah, I know how it is.

CORNISH: This is a very American story. And the actress who carries the film is British. Our co-host Ari Shapiro spoke with her about how she relates to the themes of police violence and mistrust.

HARRIS: I mean, I'm - I was definitely very aware that it is a uniquely American story. And so, you know, I had deep dive and do all of my research and so on so that I honored that experience and could play it as authentically as I possibly could.

But sadly, you know, the American experience is not exclusive to America. We have the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.K. And we have a breakdown of relations between the police and the black community within the U.K., as well, and many unexplained deaths of black people - perfectly healthy black men in particular - that have been arrested and then ended up dead in police custody and all the issues that you have in America. I think they're much more extreme here, but we have them in the U.K., as well, for sure.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Yeah. What kind of research did you do?

HARRIS: I was incredibly lucky because Tyrese, who obviously, you know, co-stars in the movie, is from South Central LA. And he was like, the experience that Alicia had growing up and the kind of community she came from is exactly the community that I came from. And so I'm going to help you, and I'm going to be there for you and explain any sort of cultural differences that you don't get.

SHAPIRO: Can you remember something specific that your co-star Tyrese Gibson told you about his experience growing up as a black man in LA that was very helpful to you in understanding your character in this movie?

HARRIS: I mean, one of the moments that really stuck out in my mind was when he calls the police for help in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK AND BLUE")

TYRESE GIBSON: (As Milo 'Mouse' Jackson) I called y'all.

HARRIS: And they come, and they actually kind of handcuff him...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK AND BLUE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Back up.

GIBSON: (As Milo 'Mouse' Jackson) What?

HARRIS: ...And harass him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK AND BLUE")

GIBSON: (As Milo 'Mouse' Jackson) I'm the one who called y'all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Police, if there's anybody...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Turn around, hands on the counter. Spread your legs. Spread your legs.

GIBSON: (As Milo 'Mouse' Jackson) I'm the one who called y'all, sir.

HARRIS: And he was saying that that is an experience that he's seen happen many times before and how frustrating, belittling, anger-inducing that is as a black man who's, you know, called for help and then actually ends up being treated as though they are the criminal.

SHAPIRO: These themes that we're talking about seem like they could fit into a very dower and heavy movie. And this film is anything but (laughter). So...

HARRIS: Yes. Deon says that this movie is candy with medicine in it.

SHAPIRO: This is the director, Deon Taylor.

HARRIS: That's right, yes.

SHAPIRO: It's a big step for you because even though audiences have seen you over the years in "Moonlight" and the James Bond films where you play Moneypenny - I first noticed your performance in the zombie film "28 Days Later" back in 2002 - but this is the first time you've played a leading role.

HARRIS: That's right, yeah.

SHAPIRO: What did it take to make that leap?

HARRIS: So I always said I didn't want to play a lead because I always - I've always found it quite stressful.

SHAPIRO: So it was a choice?

HARRIS: Yeah. I always said, you know, I don't want the weight of a whole movie because it's kind of stressful enough coming in and doing your part. And I just enjoyed this kind of collaborative experience of being a part of this whole process. I didn't want to, like, have the entire spotlight on me. I mean, it's very typical of my kind of personality because I'm much more of an introvert than an extrovert, bizarrely enough, given...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You're on screen seen by millions, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah, exactly (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Except it's funny. You say even without playing a lead, playing any role in a film is stressful. You chose to play a lead in a movie that is so stressful.

HARRIS: Oh, my gosh, it's so stressful (laughter). And it was - it's funny because, you know, you read the script, you think, oh, that's great. Oh, my gosh, it's so exciting. It's brilliant. And then it's not until you actually start filming it and you realize, what, I've got to be running every single day. I've got to be scared every single day. I've got to be jumping through windows - you know what I mean? It's like...

SHAPIRO: And is that what filming is like? Like, every day, you're running and jumping through windows?

HARRIS: Every day - running, jumping, terrified. I actually signed a contract which said that they weren't even going to get me to run. So...

SHAPIRO: Really?

HARRIS: Yes. So I did no preparation - physical preparation - for the role because I was like, you know, someone else is going to be doing all the hard lifting for me. And I'm just going to act it. And then you get there. And you are confronted with the amazing Deon Taylor, our director, who just smiles at you and just says, hey, Naomie, would you mind just running from here to there? And then that's what we're asking. Would you mind? And you go, yeah, sure, Deon. And then the next day, it's like, would you mind running from here to two miles down the road?

SHAPIRO: So you did no preparation and suddenly you're sprinting on camera with blanks being fired at you?

HARRIS: No. Suddenly I'm, like, sprinting, jumping out windows, you know, jumping off things, being hit, thrown across the room in choke holds. I mean, it was - yeah, it was rough.

SHAPIRO: But it sounds like...

HARRIS: It was an intense experience.

SHAPIRO: ...Maybe you proved to yourself that you can do something that was a little intimidating that you hadn't done up until now.

HARRIS: I did. You know, that's really interesting. Actually, that's a really interesting point. And I really did because at the end of the movie, I was like, I love playing leads. I want to play leads all the time now (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So what did you have wrong about it? Like, what was your misconception?

HARRIS: My misconception was that it was actually more stressful playing a lead. But actually, it's less stressful because you're on all the time so you don't have time to kind of wait around in your trailer getting nervous and worrying about like, you know, the scene and getting all head-up about it.

And also, because you are the lead, you get to set the rhythm for the whole piece and the tone and, you know, just the vibe on set. So it becomes like your family, your thing that you've created. And it just feels really special. And I've really just got over my nerves because usually before I'm acting, before any scene, I'm nervous, you know? But I wasn't nervous during this because I was there every day. These were my friends.

SHAPIRO: You're in the swimming pool.

HARRIS: You know, these were my family.

SHAPIRO: You're used to the of on the water, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: One of the themes of the movie is that while there are dirty, corrupt cops, there are also a lot of cops who just kind of go along with the corruption because...

HARRIS: I think that's the majority, to be honest. I think the bad apples are very few and far between. I think most people are - engage in criminality by turning a blind eye because - and actually, I think that's one of the strong themes of the movie, that actually by doing nothing, you do a hell of a lot because you're not standing up against what is wrong.

SHAPIRO: So what does that say about the challenges to actually making change?

HARRIS: I think it says that the real challenge is getting over apathy. You know, there used to be a time when, you know, when the Black Lives Matter movement first started where people were out marching and, you know, outraged. And now I think people are just like, this is just the way it is. And so the aim of this film is also to reignite dialogue and get people outraged again and hopefully get them active.

SHAPIRO: Naomie Harris, thank you for talking with us about your new film "Black And Blue."

HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.