Blood and Oil - Executive stress in a murky industry

After cutting her teeth on Zadie Smith and tasting blockbuster success, Naomie Harris is coming of age in a revealing drama about the oil trade in Nigeria. By Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

Naomie Harris has been Britain's "hottest young actress" for the best part of this century – since 2002 in fact, when she was plucked from a long, dispiriting period of post-drama school unemployment to play Clara in Channel 4's adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth. More recent headlines, especially after roles in Miami Vice and two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, have tended to stress the "better known in Hollywood than in her native Britain" angle, although that may just be starting to change. Homegrown dramas such as the BBC's Poppy Shakespeare (in which Harris took the title role) and the Ian Dury biopic, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (where she played Dury's girlfriend Denise), were followed by Jamaican schoolteacher Hortense in BBC One's adaptation of Andrea Levy's Small Island. It was this performance that last week won the 33-year-old actress a Royal Television Society Award, Harris composing her acceptance speech in the car beforehand.

"I didn't want to get caught out again like when I was nominated for White Teeth and hadn't prepared a speech," she says. "All these people got up and they had these amazing speeches and made everybody laugh and I just remember sitting there and dying and just praying I didn't win."

Her prayers were answered: Harris didn't win an award for White Teeth, and it's taken another eight years to finally deliver her carefully chosen words. By coincidence, or indeed perhaps not, her latest role is in a BBC Two drama scripted by another of this year's RTS Award-winners. Guy Hibbert saw his Five Minutes of Heaven, starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt as men on opposing sides during Northern Ireland's Troubles, scoop the Best Drama award.

In Hibbert's new drama, Blood and Oil, Harris plays a hard-headed oil company PR executive, Alice, who is sent to Nigeria to accompany Claire, the wife of a British oil worker who has been kidnapped in the Niger Delta region. Oil workers are kidnapped all the time in this beautiful but dangerous part of the world, but soon released after the requisite ransom has been paid. But for Alice and the oil company, what seems like another straightforward yo-yo kidnapping turns out to be anything but.

Jodhi May plays Claire, a performance of sustained emotional distress that must have been hard for Harris to act against. "Not at all. Jodhi was fantastic," says Harris. "She's just so brilliant at doing that emotion, and her pain was so real... I felt it, playing opposite her, it was really traumatic. It's great to have two strong female leads and that's still unfortunately very rare."

"I prefer writing for women rather than men," says Hibbert, still jet-lagged from a trip to China, where he has been researching his next drama for the BBC. "So often people start from a male point of view, particularly on a political drama. Also I'm married to an actress (Lia Williams), so I always like to try write for women... "

Blood and Oil is part of a long tradition of liberal campaigning dramas in which naive Westerners are pitched into internecine Third World trouble-spots – films like the 1982 Costa-Gavras movie, Missing, in which American businessman Jack Lemmon travels to Pinochet's Chile to discover what happened to his activist daughter, Sissy Spacek, and the 2005 movie of John le Carré's The Constant Gardener, in which career diplomat Ralph Fiennes delves into the murky intersection of big business and Kenyan politics to seek the truth about his murdered wife (played by Rachel Weisz). Indeed, in Hibbert's as-yet-unwritten Chinese drama, the heroine will be a Chinese woman who was adopted by a British family and grew up in England.

"For most drama, when you go to a country that people don't really know about you have to have a way in that is accessible to a Western audience," says Hibbert, whose brief from the BBC for Blood and Oil was simply to write "something about oil". "I didn't want to do the Middle East – there was a (George Clooney) film called Syriana that was out at the same time that I started doing this. And then the Niger Delta came up – a part of the world that I knew absolutely nothing about, but a part of the world that is actually hugely wealthy in oil. And I thought, 'nobody knows anything about it' – and that's a great reason for doing a drama there."

Hibbert visited the region in 2006, but wasn't allowed back when he tried to take the director, David Attwood, there before the start of filming in South Africa. "It's too dangerous – you can't get insurance. All the oil workers had been pulled out of that region and were being put up in Lagos and then flown to work by helicopter every day. There were more kidnappings in 2006 in the Niger Delta than there were in Afghanistan and Iraq combined."

For Harris, the experience of making Blood and Oil inspired her to find out more about Nigeria, visiting Lagos for a holiday. She has also recently been in Kenya, making her next film, The First Grader, which is due for release in the autumn. "I'm very much project led," says the actress, who studied social and political science at Cambridge (an unhappy experience) before finding her metier at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school. "She's phenomenally talented," said Slumdog Millionaire director, Danny Boyle, when he cast Harris in his apocalyptic 2002 sci-fi drama 28 Days Later, adding that she deserved to be a star of Kate Winslet's magnitude, but didn't know whether this country would propel a black woman into that firmament.

"I think it's definitely harder to be black," says Harris herself. "But I also really believe in the power of the individual, what you set your mind to. Someone like Thandie Newton has carved out an absolutely brilliant career for herself, and Zoe Saldana (from Avatar), who's a huge star now... it just shows that black women are capable of having very successful careers."

And Harris has a pet project in which skin colour will interact with another of her ambitions – to star in a period drama. "I did a dissertation when I was at university on black people in 18th-century Britain and I have always loved Jane Austen novels... and so Damien Jones, who's the producer on Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, got some money from HBO and we have a scriptwriter on board to create a period drama with black people in it. Hopefully that'll get made within my lifetime." This is an actress who seems to achieve most things she sets out to do, so I wouldn't bet against it.

'Blood and Oil' begins on Monday at 9pm on BBC Two