NEW YORK — Naomie Harris is personable, eloquent and very, very pretty, with dewy skin and legs longer than the West Side Highway. But her physical attributes aren't why she wound up secretly smitten with James Bond in the latest film, Skyfall.
"I was never cast for hotness. I was cast because they wanted to create this specific character. The hotness factor was never a part of the audition process. All my costumes were practical for a woman in the field," says Harris. "The sexiness of Eve comes out through her wit and intelligence, rather than her wearing slinky dresses."
As a field agent with a crush on 007 (Daniel Craig), Harris, 36, gets stirred and shaken aplenty. And along with Bérénice Marlohe, the French actress who toys with the British secret service agent in Skyfall, Harris — on paper, at least — joins the ranks of such mythically fanciful Bond girls as Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), May Day (Grace Jones) and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).
But not so fast. Both actresses say they the wanted the roles because they were substantial, as opposed to merely sensuously superficial, as some have been in years past.
For Marlohe, 33, "it was very important to get rid of this 'Bond girl' title. It's very abstract, and you can't build anything on that. It was important to create a real human being and a real person and a real story in the real world. It's what makes her modern," she says.
Indeed, director Sam Mendes cast both women precisely because they're earthy, as opposed to otherworldly.
"I was trying to create as much as possible characters that weren't at all what they first appeared," says Mendes. "Traditionally, there are two Bond girls — one is homespun, if you will, and one is exotic. It's a tough one. You have to work hard to give the women in the movie a journey. They are expected, just like gadgets and beautiful locations are expected, to be part of the film. I was helped in that by having two calm and independent women. They are low-key. They are very bright. They don't make a fuss. That immediately endeared them to everyone on set."
In person, both women exude intelligence and confidence. Harris graduated from Cambridge and studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, breaking through internationally in Danny Boyle's 2002 zombie flick, 28 Days Later. Marlohe plays the piano and studied at the French arts school Conservatoire de Paris for a decade.
But Marlohe could, perhaps, work on her comic timing. She says that when she met with Mendes, she cracked a bad joke about not being interested in the part, her first in a major international production.
"I was afraid he would take that as me not wanting the job. But he understood. I was extremely happy and peaceful," she says of getting the role of Sévérine.
And satiated. Mendes confirms Marlohe's claim that she can chow down like a lumberjack. "She has an enormous appetite. She eats constantly.She is unspoiled and un-actressy. She makes no fuss. I teased her about the fact that she had no qualms about going in when the food came around," says the director.
Film Naomie vs. real Naomie
As for Harris? "She gets the award for the biggest discrepancy between what you see on-screen and off-screen. She's very gentle and loving and a bit of a ditherer in life. On-screen, she's the reverse: confident and active," says Mendes. "Naomie has earned her spurs in movies. I saw her in Danny's movie 28 Days Later and later on stage in his production of Frankenstein. I called him up and asked if she was nice.He told me that she's delightful. She's an amazing, balanced, calm girl. I had to cast someone who was a match for Bond."
This time, Harris' Eve goes on a journey that makes for a surprising conclusion in the film. Her character isn't your typical Bond vixen: She's fearless, yes, but also a little hapless as an agent and more comfortable being a desk jockey.
"When I was cast, they said they wanted to have a modern Bond girl and wanted to take the character in a new direction. They wanted her to be an equal to Bond. So I felt I had a lot of scope, a lot of room, to create the character," says Harris. "You really felt that you were free to create a character in any way you wanted. It's the most freedom I ever felt. That's one of the reasons the franchise survives so well. It's what they enable you to do."
Not 'arm candy' anymore
According to Michael G. Wilson, who has produced Bond films since 1979's Moonraker, Andress emerging from the water in Dr. No established the iconic image of the quintessential bombshell Bond girl. Since then, there have been hits and misses. The high point? Green as Vesper Lynd, who cracks Bond's heart wide open.
"Over the years, when you had wonderful women playing the parts, the leading roles were always quite interesting. Probably around the time of Octopussy, it got to be arm candy," says Wilson. "There were some times we didn't cast it too well. You have to admit that. In the last few films, we've tried to get away from arm candy. I think the women and the roles written for them are getting better and more challenging. We have to get actresses who can do the job. Sophie Marceau came along in The World Is Not Enough, and she was great. Eva Green in Casino Royale was just spectacular."
The current Bond ladies aren't sure what's ahead for them. They're adjusting to the attention being lavished on them, courtesy of the film, and the seemingly endless press responsibilities that come with being in it. Marlohe hopes Skyfall leads to more American film roles.
"As an actress, I felt way more confident on seeing such talented actors working because they are so able and they're not afraid to question themselves. Being around them made me feel more confident," she says of sharing screen time with Craig and Javier Bardem, who plays the film's villain.
And Harris loved being able to delve into her more adventurous side by playing Eve. "I always think of myself as someone who runs away from danger. She runs into it, and she loves it," she says. "I had to do a lot of physical stuff. It was two months of training before we started. I normally don't do any exercise at all. I was having to exercise five days a week, two hours a day. I did combat and yoga and running. I was covered in bruises. In the beginning, it was hell, and then you get through the pain barrier and you start enjoying it. You feel more alive."
So is she still a gym rat? "It's done. It was so easy when I had this trainer wake me up in the mornings. Now I would have to do that to myself and I can't. The bed's too cozy."
Eve could probably relate.