Interview: Naomie Harris talks ‘The First Grader’

A still of Naomie Harris in 'The First Grader'. Courtesy Maple Pictures.

British actress Naomie Harris has what most would consider to be a very well balanced acting career. Moving from larger budget blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (where she played Tia Dalma) and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, to smaller, more intimately shot favourites like Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and 28 Days Later, Harris has seemingly avoided any sort of typecasting throughout her career. This week, she appears on screen as real life Kenyan teacher Jane Obinchu in director Justin Chadwick’s film The First Grader, a moving true story of how 84-year-old Kimani Maruge (played by Oliver Lintondo) decided to use Kenya’s recently implemented national education system to finally learn how to read. The project would end up becoming a major labour of love for everyone involved, and while on a press tour that swung through Toronto (where it was the runner up for the coveted People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival), Harris sat down to talk about the differences between working on smaller films and making big budget blockbusters, her acting process, and what it is like to be an actual teacher.

Before production began, Harris had never heard of the story of Kimani Maruge, a former Mau Mau freedom fighter who suffered in British captivity during Kenya’s fight for freedom, and how Jane Obinchu stood up for her elderly pupil despite constant opposition and threats from the community at large, but the story hooked her almost immediately.

“I just read the script and I was just wowed by it. I thought it was just an amazing story. We kind of know about the British colonial past. I mean, I didn’t know particularly about the British in Kenya, but you know that Britain has colonized many different countries and they didn’t do it in a particularly genteel way, so I wasn’t really shocked by that. But what I did find amazing was this man transforming his life at 84 years old. I thought that was really incredible, and this woman, Jane Obinchu, took a stand for this man’s right to have an education, and I thought that it was so super inspiring. It made me question what I would be willing to put myself on the line for in that way and whether I was brave enough to do it, and it touched me that someone could stand up like that. She risked her marriage, her career, and she got death threats. It was actually harder hitting stuff than what is seen in the movie because we couldn’t really show some of the things that happened because it could get the government in trouble. Then there’s the actual politics behind it.”

In order to play Jane Obinchu, Harris would be placed into an actual classroom full of real students at a private school where the film was shot despite having no real teaching experience. The children on screen are not actors in any way, leading Harris to actually act more like a teacher than as an actual actress.

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Andrew Parker

About Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker writes for numerous blogs and publications, including Notes From the Toronto Underground and his more personal pop-culture blog, I Can't Get Laid in This Town. He is also the curator of the Defending the Indefensible series of films at the Toronto Underground Cinema.