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Thursday 27 Nov 2014

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Small Island: Naomie Harris plays Hortense

Naomi Harris plays Hortense

Naomie Harris is an actress who made the crossover from child television star to Hollywood actress seamlessly, starting her screen career in well-loved children's television show Simon And The Witch, and going on to star alongside Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in two of the worldwide smash hit Pirates Of The Caribbean films.

Naomie, who stars as the proud, ambitious Hortense in the BBC One adaptation of Small Island, was drawn to the project through her love of Andrea Levy's award-winning, best-selling novel.

As Naomie explains: "Coincidentally, I was at the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction Award ceremony when Andrea Levy won. We all got given a copy of Small Island in our gift bags at the end of the night, but it took me a year to get around to reading it as the cover picture on the book looked very serious and I thought I don't want to read anything too heavy right now. When I finally read it I cried with laughter. Andrea manages to deal with a heavy period in history with a brilliantly light touch. Small Island is without a doubt one of my favourite books."

As well as being an engaging love story, the story also appealed to Naomie on another level, with its backdrop of the Windrush providing an opportunity to touch on a part of history little told. "The Windrush era is a very important part of British history as it helps us understand how and why we became the multicultural society we are today, and also helps us understand the history of race relations in this country. I wanted to be part of a drama bringing attention to that period of history."

Naomie, who counts Danny Boyle's hit zombie movie 28 Days Later and Michael Mann's Miami Vice amongst her film credits, explains that all is not what it first appears on the surface of her character Hortense, who is determined to fulfil her dream of leaving Jamaica and living in England. "Hortense is a very complex character. She appears outwardly to be incredibly proper and haughty, but inside she's really a naive and frightened child.

"She has lived most of her life wholeheartedly believing the myth that the British have all the answers and offer an example of the best and only way to live. So, she adopts all of these British mannerisms, and looks down her nose at anyone who doesn't do the same. But when she starts to realise that her faith in the British may well be misplaced, you see that without all her airs and graces she's very fragile, very innocent and actually has a very pure heart."

Playing a character so multifaceted made it a challenging but enjoyable role, and Naomie developed a real affection for Hortense. "I absolutely loved playing Hortense as there are so many sides to her, and as an actress I got to make choices about when to show those sides.

"I loved her haughty, manufactured way of being as I could have fun with how prim she is, and then I loved her journey in which the facade cracks and you get to see the true essence of who she is – and you realise that she's actually such an innocent."

Small Island is a story that will resonate with those who faced, or whose parents or grandparents faced, similar experiences to central characters Hortense and Gilbert (David Oyelowo) upon arriving from the West Indies to create a new life in England after the Second World War.

Naomie hopes a drama exploring this period will encourage audiences to think about their own heritage. "I think the piece will definitely help West Indians understand their heritage, and hopefully encourage them to explore this heritage further by questioning their parents and grandparents. By understanding our history we gain a greater sense of belonging, and self-acceptance."

The 28 Days Later star also hopes that it will throw light on the part the Windrush played in the beginnings of multicultural Britain. "I really hope that we as an audience see how far we've come in terms of race relations and have a deeper understanding of our history, which will hopefully make us more understanding and accepting of our cultural differences."

Filming the drama prompted Naomie, whose own grandparents have a similar story to that explored in Small Island, to contemplate her own personal and family history. "Being part of this project has definitely made me reflect on my own history. Hortense and Gilberts' story is very similar to that of my grandparents and while playing the part I couldn't help but empathise with what they went through - all the hopes and dreams they had, and when they got to this country they experienced such ignorance and hostility.

"It made me feel so grateful to them for the struggle and sacrifices they endured so that now I can have the freedom and ability to make all the choices I want today. During my grandparents time in this country their choices about professions, education, even where they could live were limited by their race, and also the fact that they were immigrants and so didn't understand fully how the country they'd entered worked."

For the Jamaican scenes in the drama the cast shot on location in Jamaica for a few days, which took Naomie back to her childhood. She says of the experience, "I haven't been to Jamaica for 17 years, so it was a very nostalgic experience working there, all the smells, the food... It brought back so many memories from my childhood. It's also always more fun filming on location because the crew and cast get to bond more, and we all chilled by the hotel pool after work."

Working with David Oyelowo, who is an old friend of Naomie's, made the shoot a particularly fun one – though it did lead to some awkward moments on set when it came to Gilbert and Hortense's more intimate scenes! Naomie said of working with him on Small Island: "This is my second job with David O now and he was a friend before we ever worked together, so it was very easy working with him. He has an incredible wit and so always keeps me in stitches... but filming our 'love' scene was one of the most embarrassing moments of my career…

"Normally, when you have to do a kissing or lovemaking scene, you don't know the actor you're playing opposite very well at all so it's easier, but with David I know his wife, his children and I also know he's a very devout Christian so I felt awful about kissing him – it felt like breaking an ethical code! I kept offering him my cheek to kiss instead of my lips until our director said: ‘Naomie, this has to be passionate!' I said: ‘But it's like kissing my brother, it feels all wrong!' – totally killing the moment for poor David!"

There were also some fun moments with co-star Ruth Wilson, who plays the strong-minded Queenie – and one off-duty night in particular that sticks in Naomie's memory. "Ruth Wilson was my neighbour when we filmed in Belfast so I got to know her pretty well. She's a phenomenal actress and a lovely lady!

"I'm obsessed with Lionel Ritchie so I got us tickets when he was playing in Belfast. Ruth says she had to focus on Lionel and not look at me during the concert as I went crazy! I knew all the words to his songs and sang along with tears in my eyes clutching my heart... very embarrassing!"

Summing up Small Island, Naomie concludes: "'Different, but the same' is the message of the piece for me – we have differences because of our cultural heritage, but ultimately our shared humanity makes us the same."

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