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Published:May 12th, 2011 19:28 EST
naomieharris100_nationalgeographicentertainment

Naomie Harris Goes From 'Pirates- to a Real-Life Role in 'The First Grader'

By Paulette Cohn

The First Grader is based on the true story of Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an 80-something Mau Mau veteran of the fight for his country`s freedom, who decides to learn to read when he hears that Kenya is offering free education. Naomie Harris (Tia in Pirates of the Caribbean) plays the school`s head teacher Jane Obinchu, who supports his struggle to gain admission against opposition from authorities and parents who don`t want to waste a precious spot on a man with not many years to live.

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Now, the 34-year-old actress talks about her time in Kenya with the kids, how it changed her life and how proud she is to be part of a film that could change lives.

Had you ever heard this story before you read the script?

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Naomie Harris: No, I had heard of this story beforehand. I didn`t know, I am ashamed to say, 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 was reading the script that I was educated about that.

How much background research did you want to do playing a role based on a true story?

Naomie 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.

How hard was it to walk away from the kids in this movie after you spent so much time with them? 

Naomie Harris: It was really, really hard. Justin Chadwick [the director] 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 at the most, or a week. Three weeks seemed really excessive. He was, "I want you to really connect with the children."  So, I went over reluctantly, because I didn`t need three weeks to connect because I have a young brother and sister. My brother is 15; my sister is 12. My dad is a teacher and I go to his school and I work with the children. I was, "I will take a day and I will 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 because they are shy, they are very, 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 you 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 leaving them after that.

The six weeks that you were there, did it change their lives? Did you bring in food?

Naomie Harris: Not me personally, but the production company provided them with pens and papers and books. They normally get the one meal a day, but we provided them with breakfast, lunch and, I think, an afternoon snack, as well. It was a lot more food than they would normally get. It is almost as if the more you provide, the worse you feel, because you know while you are there they are going to get all this stuff, but when you go, they are going to have gotten used to that and they are going to go back to the way they were before. It is kind of a weird situation to deal with because you don`t want to disrupt things so much, so when you take away that infrastructure, they are left with absolutely nothing.

Does it make you want to be like Angelina Jolie and go around the world and help children?

Naomie Harris: In some respects it does [make me want to be a crusader], but that isn`t really my calling. I love acting and that is what I want to do. But it made me proud to be a part of this project because Justin, in particular, and also David Thompson, Sam Feuer and Richard Harding, the producers, had this whole ethos " a lot of times when you are making a film, you go into a community and you destroy it, or you violate it, in order to take what you need and make a great film. That is considered absolutely fine. Their ethos was different. They said, "We want to make a film that will enrich the life of this community. We don`t want to destroy the community in any way."

The school that we filmed in had no electricity, no running water and was very under privileged. So, as a legacy, the production company when we left completely redecorated the school, so it isn`t as you see in the film. They added electricity, gave them running water and they set up three charities so we could all contribute in order to provide scholarships for the children. It is incredible to be part of something where you know you actually helped people`s lives and left them in a better position than they were.

What was meeting the actual Jane like? What did you take away from it for your character?

Naomie 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 feel really about that. So she didn`t come until late on in filming and she watched me do a scene with the kids and she was, "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 kinds of essences I brought into my character, but if you saw us side-to-side, I think you would say the characters are very different people.

What are we going to see you in next?

Naomie Harris: I don`t know. I finished Frankenstein and so, I don`t know. I would like a bit of the summer off.

The First Grader, written by Ann Peacock and directed by Justin Chadwick, opens on May 13. The film from National Geographic Entertainment was produced by Richard Harding, Sam Feuer and David M. Thompson.