The biographical drama The First Grader tells the story of Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an old Mau Mau veteran, and the Kenyan teacher who had enough compassion to help make his dream come true. In 2003, when a free education was promised by the Kenyan government to all who could produce a birth certificate, an 84-year-old villager decided that he wanted to educate himself and learn how to read. Once he arrived at a classroom in a small, remote primary school in the bush, he met the school principal and head teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), who was quickly impressed by his tenacity and supported his struggle to gain admission at the school, even though they faced fierce opposition from parents and officials who didn’t want to waste one of the children’s precious spots on an old man. As he worked to overcome memories of living under British colonial rule and the harsh conditions of the British detention camps, the students formed friendships with Maruge and his determination allowed him the chance to learn that he so longed for.
At the film’s press day, actress Naomie Harris talked about meeting the real Jane Obinchu, researching the history of this story, how spending so much time in Kenya inspired her, and what it was like to work with real school children as her co-stars. She also talked about the direction her career has taken, reuniting with 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle to do Frankenstein on the stage (opposite Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternating in the lead role), and how she’s hoping to take the summer off. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
NAOMIE HARRIS: No, I hadn’t heard of this story beforehand. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t about the Mau Mau and the whole Kenyan history, with the British colonizing them. I didn’t know anything about that, at all. It wasn’t until I was asked to be a part of the project, and then read the script, that I was educated about that.
How much background research did you do for this?
HARRIS: You want to do as much as you need, to get the truth conveyed and make sure it is grounded in reality and that you know what you are talking about. For Jane Obinchu, she would have known the historical background, but she wouldn’t have known that much about it. It is really Maruge and being part of the Mau Mau, and that is part of his history.
What was meeting the actual Jane like? What did you take away from it for your portrayal?
HARRIS: I played one other role, where the person I was playing was alive – Denise in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. It was really intimidating. I met her before I started, and she had very strong ideas about how she wanted to be perceived. I can’t impersonate someone. That is not what I do. I can only take someone’s essence and create a character out of that. So, I felt really scared about meeting Jane, and I kept trying to put it off because if she came in and said, “That is not actually me,” or “That is not how I am,” I would have felt really bad about that. But, she didn’t come until late into filming. She watched me do a scene with the kids and she was like, “You’ve really got it. You’ve really captured my essence.” It was such a relief. Jane is a very strong character. She is a lot older than me. She is a fighter. She is a survivor. She has a big heart and is compassionate and dedicated to her job, so those are the essences that I brought into my character. But, if you saw us side-to-side, I think you would say we are very different people.
The character Jane Obinchu is such a strong character. She fights for what she believes in. Do you have anything in your life that makes you that passionate, and that you want to fight for?
HARRIS: I really don’t know. What I admire about Jane is her strength and her conviction, and the fact that she was willing to lay her career on the line, her marriage and, at some point, her life, to guarantee that Maruge gets his education. I don’t know that I could have been as strong to do that. I hope I would have been, but I don’t know. There is certainly nothing, at the moment, that I would lay my life down for.
HARRIS: It did. I have filmed in Africa quite a bit now. What I generally get from being in Africa is a sense of warmth and openness. As a stranger, you are always welcomed into people’s homes and people are always offering you food. That generosity is incredibly touching. Also, what I got from it is that, in Western society, we look at education as a bit of a chore. It’s like, “Ugh, I have to get to school and do my exams.” I am sure I have been guilty of that myself. When you go somewhere like Kenya and you see how the children don’t have pencils and pens, and all of these things are considered luxuries, and what a privilege they see education as and how hungry they are to learn, I wanted to give my brother and sister long lectures. That definitely stayed with me.
How hard was it to walk away from the kids, after you spent so much time with them to film this?
HARRIS: It was really, really hard. (Director) Justin Chadwick asked me to come out three weeks before the shoot began, which is very unusual when you are filming. Normally, you come out three days before you start filming, or a week at the most. Three weeks seemed really excessive. He said, “I want you to really connect with the children.” So, I went over reluctantly. I didn’t think I needed three weeks to connect because I have a young brother and sister. My brother is 15, and my sister is 12. My dad is a teacher, and I go to his school and work with the children. I was like, “I will take a day and be fine.” Actually, I am so glad that I had that time because they are completely different children to the children that I have known. They are shy, they are very gentle, and it takes them a long time because it is so disrespectful to look an adult in the eye. It is not in their culture. You certainly don’t answer back or engage in dialogue with an adult, and certainly not a teacher. So, it took a long time for them to warm to me and to open up. It was really, really hard work. Once we got them to open up, it was such a privilege. When they do things like come and hold your hand, or stroke your hair, it just broke my heart to leave them after that.
HARRIS: We didn’t really sit around and rehearse characters together. It was more about building out our own personal relationship, which then translated into the relationship with the characters. That’s how it worked. With Oliver, it just comes easily because he’s such a lovely guy. What you see up on screen is his essence. He’s very warm, very generous, very open, very dignified and he’s just got a huge heart. It was easy, really.
What did you enjoy about working with Justin Chadwick?
HARRIS: What I really admired about Justin was his whole ethos. He wanted to contribute to this community that we were in. I also love Justin because he’s so incredibly passionate, sensitive, caring and supportive. I’ve worked with lots of different kinds of directors, and for a lot of directors, their way of getting a great performance is to be mean to people. Justin is just totally not like that. He’s all about nurturing people and creating a safe environment, so that if you mess up, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay. We’ll laugh about it together and move on. You felt really supported and free to experiment and give your best. That’s incredibly unique, and that is his personality, his gentleness and his compassion. Those essences are in the film, which is why it’s so moving.
Audiences got to know you from movies like Miami Vice and Pirates of the Caribbean. What has this ride been like for you?
HARRIS: It is much different, doing this kind of movie, because it is more like a family atmosphere. It is great to be a part of big-budget movies, but it is harder to feel like you are contributing, in the sense that it has such big machinery behind it. Whereas, in a little movie like this, there are only seven of us that flew from England, and the rest were all local hires. We really felt like we were immersing ourselves in the culture and the community, and we were much more collaborative, in the way that we made the film, so it is a really different experience. It was more rewarding.
HARRIS: Yes, it has been great. It is harder, in many respects, than I imagined. There is a lot of traveling. It is hard with that to maintain a family life with all the traveling, and there isn’t a sense of stability, but on the up side, the highs are amazing. I just feel incredibly lucky. I went to drama school and about 28 of us graduated. I graduated from drama school in 2000, and I would say about two of us are working and able to make a living out of it. It is a tough profession. To have the kind of success I have had is really amazing, and I am incredibly grateful.
Can you talk about your decision to return to the stage for Frankenstein? Is that kind of an experience really intimidating, or is it exciting for an actor?
HARRIS: It was incredibly intimidating doing a play, after 10 years of not having done a play, and also doing it on the Olivier Stage, which seats 1,200 people every night, and it was sold out, every single night. It was really, really scary. It was a challenging script. It was a challenging role. It was challenging that Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switched roles every night, so your character had to change to match the different characters, each time they changed. It was tough, but I learned a lot. It was an incredible ride.
What was it like to work with Danny Boyle again, in that capacity?
HARRIS: It was an amazing experience working with Danny again. He’s so inspirational, in terms of just how much passion, commitment, energy, enthusiasm and support he provides you with. And, he’s also just a genius as well. That was really amazing.
What are you going to do next?
HARRIS: I don’t know. I just finished Frankenstein, so I don’t know what’s next. I’d like a bit of the summer off. That would be