The English actress Naomie Harris describes the experience of filming the new Apple TV+ film Swan Song, a sci-fi drama in which she stars alongside Mahershala Ali, as “beautiful, if not the most magical environment that I’ve ever made of filming.” Doing interviews with actors during an upcoming film’s press junket, you tend to hear a lot of this type of praise, but never on this level—and with the amount of sincerity—that Harris delivered when I spoke to her over Zoom on a recent afternoon.
The London native, who was at home in the U.K. after filming a different television show for the past six months, detailed her experience working on Swan Song, which comes out on Apple TV+ for streaming today, in Vancouver with Ali, along with costars Glenn Close and Awkwafina (both of whom the actress didn’t meet in person until much later—the movie was filmed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic). The plot centers Ali, a family man named Cameron, and his wife Poppy, played by Harris. Cameron discovers he has a terminal illness, and grapples with the controversial decision to have himself replaced with a clone—a living, breathing, exact replica of himself that will carry on living his life once he’s gone.
The story stems from director Benjamin Cleary’s own life—a script he’s worked on for more than 10 years, according to Harris. “I think that’s one of the reasons why this movie affects people in the way that it does,” she adds. “I don’t think it’s just the message, just the performances, or what have you. I really believe that energy translates and goes into something. It’s not wasted. It affects people.” Below, Harris shines a light on her process working on films with Ali (spoiler alert: they never rehearse,) and how portraying Poppy changed her own life.
How did the opportunity to play Poppy in Swan Song come about?
Mahershala [Ali] had asked me to be in it, to take on this role. I was really flattered, because I worked with Mahershala on Moonlight and completely adore him, not just as an actor, but he’s such a phenomenal human being. He’s one of the kindest, most down to earth people. So I was half in already. And then I read the script and I was moved by it. It made me really emotional and I thought, if I’m getting emotional just reading it, then it’s going to affect an audience. If it’s thought provoking for me, it’s gonna be hugely thought provoking for an audience. I love to be part of movies that change your viewpoint on life, and Swan Song is definitely one of those movies. Then I spoke to [director Benjamin Cleary], who has so much warmth—he’s really sensitive and genuine.
How did working on this movie change your outlook on life?
The biggest thing for me was not even one of the themes of the movie, but [my character] Poppy herself. When I said yes to doing the film, I had a bit of a challenge with and an internal fight with myself over the fact that I’ve always chosen to play these really strong, strident, independent women. That’s a goal I set for myself when I started out in my career: those are the women that I was raised by, the women I was surrounded by, and I didn’t feel they were represented on screen. And then you have Poppy, who’s all heart-centered. She’s pure love and giving and connection. I immediately was like, oh my gosh, she’s weak. She’s a weak character, a weak woman. You can’t connect with anything that you judge, so I had to go on this really beautiful journey to connect with this character. It taught me so much about the strength of vulnerability. And actually, she took me on a journey to lead more in my own life with my heart.
I read a Swan Song review recently that said you and Mahershala Ali “simply continue to make magic together.”
I don't ever read reviews, so that's really nice to hear.
What do you attribute to this so-called magic? Do you two just click or is there something more technical that feeds your chemistry?
We like to work in a similar way. Neither of us like to rehearse, which is really unusual for actors. We don’t even really like talking about the script or talking about the scenes. We like to do our own separate preparation and then come together in the moment and just go for it. No ego, full vulnerability, throw ourselves in and see what happens. I think that is how you create magic, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. I have to be constantly on my toes, so does he. We are constantly creating whatever happens in that moment. And I think the camera picks up on that and it makes something special.
Was there a difference in the process between working on this film with him and the process for working on a film like Moonlight?
It was very similar, but in Swan Song, it was our choice not to rehearse, whereas in Moonlight there was simply no time for any rehearsals or for anything like that. And to be honest, that’s probably why Mahershala and I like to work in the ways that we do. Because most of the time. when you’re making a small budget thing, there is no time for rehearsal. So you get used to preparing in that way, on your own.
Although her husband Cameron is ostensibly the main character in Swan Song, so is Poppy. We learn a lot about her through Cameron’s story, and vice versa. Was the idea of their individual narratives being told through each other always written into the script, or was it something that developed down the line?
That was always Ben’s intention, but it was very liberally done. That’s one of the things that I really admired and respected about Ben’s process. He’d lived with this script for 10 years, and it’s obviously incredibly precious to him. He’s labored over each word, as every writer does. And yet when we got on set, he was very much like, If this doesn't work for you, change it. Do whatever works for you. We improvised a lot.
That’s so cool. If it were me, I would be so precious about it, like, “Don’t mess with the script! Don’t touch my baby!”
I know! I would be like, “Do you know how long he took me to get that one word on paper?!” But no, he was totally the opposite of that. And that’s what you want as a performer: liberation. I always say the script is the Bible—without that you have nothing at all—but then you also have to respect the expertise everybody around you is bringing. If you allow that and trust them, then they get to elevate on every level. If you are really tightly controlled about everything, you can only ever replicate what’s in your mind, and probably less.
I know you said you don’t read reviews, but Swan Song is generating some Oscar buzz. Did you have any idea that this movie, which was made with a relatively small-budget and has the feeling of an arthouse film, could be an awards contender when you first started shooting?
The reality is you never, ever know. I know a lot of producers in particular like to go into projects saying, This is gonna be an awards movie. This is the one. And the amount of times I’ve heard that and it doesn’t follow through... [Laughs]. So I just think you have to be led by your passion. Is this a character that I want to go on a journey with? Does it have a message that I think is important to tell, that’s gonna affect people? If it’s yes to those things, then get involved and do your very best. Everything after that is out of your hands.