Poppy Dazzler - The actress who conquered Hollywood but remains unknown here


Last updated at 00:56 28 March 2008

Naomie Harris is a walking paradox.

She made her first impact on screen in Zadie Smith's White Teeth, saved the world in Danny Boyle's horror 28 Days Later, charmed Colin Farrell in Miami Vice, backed out of a nude scene with Jamie Foxx in the Pirates of the Caribbean.

She is one of Britain's hottest actresses and the latest to have slipped seamlessly into the frontline Hollywood ranks, following the likes of Rachel Weisz and Thandie Newton.

And yet, Naomie is still barely recognised on the streets over here.

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Enlarge   Swashbuckling: Naomie plays Tia Dalma in Pirates Of The Caribbean. The actress is making a name for herself in Hollywood.

Swashbuckling: Naomie plays Tia Dalma in Pirates Of The Caribbean. The actress is making a name for herself in Hollywood.

Now 31, Naomie has overcome all manner of adversity - a single-parent upbringing in North London's Finsbury Park, bullying at school, a miserable stint at Cambridge where she says she cried every day of her

three-year degree course - to become one of Britain's unlikeliest celebrities.

Now she is appearing in Poppy Shakespeare, a TV drama based on the best-selling novel by Clare Allan, which takes a look at life from the perspective of a patient in the psychiatric ward of a London hospital, and is being hugely hyped on Channel 4.

Naomie plays Poppy, the new and seemingly sane patient who arrives at the ward, dressed to the nines, insisting that she is not mentally ill.

When we meet, Harris is the opposite of Poppy - unadorned by make-up or jewels, comfortably dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt. But like Poppy, she knows what it's like not to fit in.

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Naomi Harris stars in Pirates of the Caribbean alongside Johnny Depp

Naomi Harris stared in Pirates of the Caribbean alongside Johnny Depp

"When I went to Cambridge University, Mum said I wouldn't fit in and she was right," she explains.

"I hated it. The people there were so different to me. They talked about Eton and skiing and here was I, this black girl from Finsbury Park. I just felt so lonely. There was only one other black person in my year; I was very unhappy and cried every day."

She saw two of her friends at Cambridge suffer from nervous breakdowns.

"When it came to the role of Poppy, I have a bit of experience in this area as two of my friends ended up in mental institutions after breakdowns.

"They ended up having electric shock therapy, which I didn't even realise was still done," she says.

"It was very harrowing to see them go through this.

"However, there was a positive outcome - one of them is now a teacher and has just had a child. And my other friend is now doing well, too. Through this backdrop, I felt I had enough experience to play a role like Poppy.

"I didn't need to go and visit that world again as I'd already had access to it."

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Smile! Naomie Harris (left) and Keira Knightley

Smile! Naomie Harris (left) and Keira Knightley

Paradoxically, it is probably because her choice of screen roles is so notably varied that she can pass virtually unnoticed today.

She has worked undercover in Miami Vice, played a neurotic assistant to Steve Coogan in A Cock And Bull Story and, perhaps most famously, the crooning gipsy queen, Tia Dalma, in the Pirates Of The Caribbean.

But the disturbing role of Poppy Shakespeare, seems to be one of her greatest departures from Hollywood so far.

In the drama, Poppy befriends N, who, as a 13-year veteran of the hospital, cannot understand why Poppy is unhappy attending the ward.

She agrees to help Poppy make a break for freedom by proving that she isn't mad. But Poppy has to prove she's sane by pretending first to be mad.

"Playing Poppy was very draining," says Naomie.

"I'm glad it was done in five weeks so I didn't have to live with that character for too long. Poppy's journey is intense. She's ripped out of the real world and shunted into this environment she doesn't want to be in.

"Even if it's only acting, it's disturbing and unsettling and it left me in a raw, emotional state after I finished work."

She was born and bred in Finsbury Park to a Jamaican mother and a Trinidadian father, who left before she was born.

Naomie has never known him since. Brought up by a strong single mother, the writer Lisselle Kayla, Harris says she was an adult virtually from the age of five.

Kayla came to England from Jamaica aged five and lived in a tiny room with her parents and three siblings.

She became pregnant with Naomie at 18 and survived on benefit in housing association accommodation, before taking a sociology degree at London University and becoming a writer. Her screen credits include BBC1 sitcom Us Girls and scripts for EastEnders.

When she was seven, her mother enrolled Naomie in North London's Anna Scher Theatre.

"It was like an oasis for me, to feel normal and have friends, when I didn't have that in any other area of my life."

She made her professional debut three years later in a whacky children's BBC series called Simon And The Witch, and later also appeared in Runaway Bay, an adventure show following a group of friends living in Martinique and the Caribbean, and The Tomorrow People a cult children's sci-fi programme.

This proved unpopular with jealous classmates at St Marylebone School for Girls where Naomie was bullied and where she didn't make a single friend.

She swore she'd leave after O-levels, but went on to do A-levels at Woodhouse Sixth Form College in Finchley. There, she met like-minded people.

"It was a different experience," she says.

"I had room to reinvent myself. I guess I've been doing that ever since."

An inspirational teacher called Mr Murdoch encouraged her to try for Cambridge University, despite her mother's warnings.

"At Cambridge, it was the weirdest culture. Everyone pretended they didn't do any work, yet it was so competitive. I went there because I loved my subject, sociology, and I thought: 'I'm going to find like-minded people and we'll sit up until two in the morning and talk about the meaning of life'. My expectations were too high."

The pressured atmosphere brought tears every day. She says she went through the entire three years with hardly a friend, "except an Asian girl who felt the same as me, so we'd sit and cry together".

"I was from a working-class family, I went to a comprehensive and suddenly I was mixing with public school people. I didn't realise how hard it would be to fit in - or that class would make such a difference.

"I felt sorry for them. They had a distorted sense of reality. Whereas I'd had so many life experiences.

"I think I was a late developer, and at Cambridge everyone was fascinated by boys and I wasn't. I never had guys after me. At that time, I used to not believe in sex before marriage - but I have changed my views since.

"Everyone was interested in smoking, drinking or taking drugs and I don't do those things. People used to drink until they threw up all over the college grounds. Where's the fun in that? It was one of the worst periods of my life."

However, she still left with a respectable 2:1 before joining the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where she finally felt at home with her contemporaries.

But once again, after two years' postgraduate study, her hopes were dashed when she found herself well educated, trained ... and completely unemployed.

"I spent the first nine months after leaving Bristol out of work getting really depressed," she recalls.

"I'd go to dinner parties with friends, and people would say: 'What do you do?' I just felt I had no right to call myself an actor as I wasn't working. But if I wasn't an actor, then what was I? Who was I?"

She didn't have to worry much longer because her big breakthrough came when she landed the role of Clara in White Teeth in 2002.

The film was based on the bestselling novel by Zadie Smith and became the most talked-about British TV programme of the year.

Co-incidentally, Smith and Naomie were contemporaries at Cambridge.

"Zadie was at King's and I was at Pembroke, but our paths seldom crossed. She was cool. I was nerdy. She was beautiful and clever and knew everyone. I'd have my head down, and there she was, chatting to her many friends."

Attracting critical acclaim, Naomie's performance as Clara, the daughter of an evangelist who undergoes two life-changing experiences in quick succession, was a triumph.

But she admits she had concerns about the role.

"I was afraid I'd not do the character justice especially as she was so different to me - or so I thought. When my friends watched it, they said there are huge similarities between Clara and myself. We're both searching for an outlet - me in my acting and Clara in her boyfriend."

More critical success followed when she landed the co-lead in Danny Boyle's horror, 28 Days Later after Boyle, more used to working with actors such as Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz, called her at home with tips on how she could perform better in her final audition.

Now Naomie has just finished filming her first romantic comedy, My Last Five Girlfriends, on top of blockbusters such as After The Sunset with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek and Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest with Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley.

She clearly manages to overcome her shyness with flashes of fearlessness because when it came to filming Miami Vice, she even presented Michael Mann, the grizzled veteran film director who's bossed around Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in previous films, with an ultimatum - that she wouldn't do the movie if it involved nudity. And she won.

She has now even learnt to like boys. Naomie will not talk about specific relationships but laughs off reports that she never had a boyfriend.

"There weren't really any visible men in my family when I was growing up, but of course there have been men in my life, wonderful men. I have been very lucky."

Particularly so with the famous men she has worked alongside.

She says Orlando Bloom - with whom she co-starred in Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End is, "gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous", while Johnny Depp is "wonderful and so down to earth. And Colin Farrell - who I worked with on Miami Vice - was the perfect gentleman. And Jamie Foxx was just amazing - he would sing to me and I would cry, as his voice is extraordinary."

Her main concern now that her career is on the ascendant is that she can somehow remain obscure - which shows a remarkable degree of optimism.

"Pirates definitely opened a lot of doors. It's easier to get work in the U.S. than Britain - not necessarily better work - just a lot more of it.

"I'm sure my career would have petered out if I'd stayed in Britain; there's just not enough work here. But I love coming back. It's business first and foremost in the U.S., and you're a commodity."

To make her point, she recalls: "I'd just finished a film in Hollywood and everyone was so lovely that I thought I'd made amazing friends."

So she sent all her co-stars - including Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek - letters and presents when filming finished.

Shortly afterwards, she was in a serious accident; her car flipped over in an LA canyon and caught fire. Naomie escaped through the roof.

"I was in intensive care," she says.

"All these people I'd written to knew about it, but not one sent me a card or called to see how I was. I was under no illusions after that."

As for her personal happiness, she admits she still has to make a conscious effort to keep positive.

"I try to be upbeat. I read this book which tells you to write down everything that you're grateful for each day. Now I'm constantly noticing all the little things that make me joyful."

•Poppy Shakespeare is on Channel 4 on Monday March 31 at 9pm

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