TALENT: Naomie Harris
AN ACCOMPLISHED actress with numerous TV and film roles under her belt, Naomie Harris’s school days are a long time behind her. But in her latest role, the 34-year-old British actress stepped back into the classroom to play a strong-willed head teacher in the critically acclaimed new film The First Grader.
The heart warming movie tells the real life story of Kenyan-born Kimani Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo), who, at the age of 84, enrolled in the first grade of primary school in order to learn how to read and write.
A Mau Mau war veteran, Maruge once fought against the British for the liberation of his country. So once the Kenyan government promised free education for its citizens, Maruge became intent on getting his opportunity to learn.
Moved by his passionate plea, head teacher Jane Obinchu (Harris) supported Maruge’s struggle to gain admission to her primary school and together, they face fierce opposition from parents and officials who don’t want to waste a precious school place on such an old man.
Harris said the film made her realised just how ageist people can be.
“We do live in a real ageist society and it’s such a shame,” says Harris, who’s best known for her roles in the films 28 Days Later and Pirates of the Caribbean. “Learning should be a lifetime thing and we should always be open to learning. We have so much to learn from the older generation and it’s a pity that we’re so dismissive of them.
“You can have an impact at any age. I mean Maruge going into education at that age inspired a whole new generation of people to love education as well. He became the poster boy for education in Kenya and he also went to speak at the UN about the importance of education. So at the age of 84 he really made a difference. It proved that you can learn at any age.”
Sadly, Maruge, who holds the holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to start primary school, died before the cast and crew flew out to Kenya, where the film was set.
“He died just three weeks before we flew out, which was such a shame. But the production company bought him a plot of land, which he was buried on. I thought that was wonderful.”
Thoroughly enjoying her time in Kenya, Harris says the film gave her the opportunity to get to grips with the Kenyan accent.
“I’d never been to Kenya before so it was a huge challenge getting to grips with the accent. Trying to get it right before we even got to Kenya was really challenging. But thankfully, I was able to work with a Kenyan woman who was living in London and learn the accent by listening to her.
“I taped her and just listened to her, and then annoyed all my friends and family by doing the accent all the time! But I think it was worth it. We had a screening of the film in Washington DC that was attended by a lot of really important Kenyan people and they were all really convinced by my accent, so that was great!”
The film featured real schoolchildren, none of whom had any experience in acting. Though their innocence adds to the film’s authenticity, Harris admits that it was a challenge getting the kids to open up to her.
“The children were brilliant with Oliver. In their culture, adults are really respected. So for them to be able to accept Oliver and treat him like one of their own was a really big deal.
“But for me, initially, it was really tough because they wanted to respect me and revere me as a teacher. They were incredibly polite and obedient, so I had to work really hard to get them to trust me and open up to me and reveal their personalities.
“”We really need their fun and playful sides to shine through in order for the film to work because their joy is at the heart of the film.”
Despite the initial challenges, Harris says the experience gave her a real buzz and made her think about the joy of teaching.
“I couldn’t be a head teacher – too much paperwork involved! But I definitely thought [during filming], ‘I’d love to be a teacher.’ It is a really tough job.
“I see it a bit like improv, in that you have to be engaging and entertaining for children for so many hours each day. But when you get those moments where they understand a concept you’ve been trying to teach them, it is so rewarding.”
* The First Grader is in cinemas now through Soda Pictures