‘Swan Song’ challenged actress Naomie Harris to be vulnerable

Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in ‘Swan Song.’
Apple TV+

An impossible decision must be made in Apple TV+‘s new feature film “Swan Song.” The film, which premieres Friday, stars Mahershala Ali as Cameron, a young father diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a limited time to spend on earth with his family. But he keeps it a secret.

What Cameron is hiding from his pregnant wife Poppy (played by Naomie Harris) and their son is the fact that he might have found an alternative answer where they won’t feel the impact of his loss through a cloning method of sorts. However, when faced with this radical method Cameron begins to unwind and discover more about love and grief than he ever bargained for.

This thought-provoking and emotionally charged film comes from writer-director Benjamin Cleary and also stars Awkwafina and Glenn Close. But the core of the story is centered on Ali and Harris as a couple, and the previous “Moonlight” co-stars are easily connected on screen.

Perhaps the more interesting aspect of this journey is the fact that Harris says she learned a lot from her character— so much so that it changed her views dramatically. Harris sat down to discuss more about making “Swan Song” and what audiences can expect from this compelling story.

Apple TV+

What interested you in this part?

There were so many reasons actually. I read the script and it really moved me; it made me really think and debate with myself about what I would do under similar circumstances. The other thing about it, I spoke to Benjamin Cleary our incredible director and writer — he is one of the nicest people on the planet and he’s also one of the most persuasive people as well. He just has this beautiful energy and it’s really seductive, he pulled me in and really made me want to be part of it. Then Mahershala (Ali) making the choice that he wanted to work with me again, I absolutely love [him] as a person. I only spent one day working with him on “Moonlight,” but I spent months with him just doing the publicity tour, so I know what a phenomenal human being he is. So, for all of those reasons I said yes.

With this film being so emotional and centered on you as a couple, did knowing Mahershala help with this role?

I definitely think it helped because we went into the project having a level of ease and comfort with each other that if we didn’t know each other we wouldn’t have — which is great because our first scene that we jumped into was our wedding scene, so it was great that we felt like super comfortable with each other. We had this camaraderie already, so we were able to dive deep into the material straight away.

What can you tell me about your character specifically?

I think what’s interesting for me about Poppy is that she really taught me so much. She took me on this incredible journey. I’ve always aimed to play strong characters, and I really judged Poppy in the beginning and thought she’s the weakest character I’ve ever played because she’s so vulnerable and open and soft… Through playing her, she taught me about the immense strength in vulnerability and that actually she may well be the strongest character that I’ve ever played. She taught me about being more vulnerable in my everyday life, being more open in my everyday life, [and] being more heart-centered in my everyday life. I love that in this profession every role teaches you something new and stretches you in a new direction, that’s the direction that Poppy really stretched me in.

I haven’t heard someone say a role has transformed their perspective quite as much as that before. Was that gradual for you with Poppy over time or from certain scenes?

It was definitely the whole journey of being with her throughout the movie and being in her skin and watching how she reacts to Cameron and reacts to certain situations… observing her selflessness and how much strength there is in that and putting a human being constantly first. [There is] strength in trusting other people that much and being open to loving them that much. When you are that open to another human being, it means you are vulnerable because you are vulnerable to their loss. But it also means they can touch your heart in a much more profound way than if you’re closed and supposed to be strong.

Taking all of that into consideration, this movie explores many powerful themes. What does “Swan Song” touch on with grief and love and how that intertwines?

I suppose I would say that the movie is an ode to love fundamentally. What’s so beautiful is that it’s not the normal love that we are presented with, we’re present with lust that is dressed up as love. But real love is something deeper and it’s much more connected and it is much more sacrificial. So, I think the movie is a great reminder that true love is about putting another human being first, and I hope that’s what the audience take away from the movie.

Apple TV+

You said something interesting earlier… You thought about what you would do if this situation were presented to you, what conclusion did you come too?

I think there are very specific circumstances for which Cameron is operating the way he does. He makes a decision because Poppy has lost her brother so she’s been through a lot of grief. Before that, and we don’t see this in the movie, but she has the backstory that she’s lost her mother and she’s pregnant as well. So there are a lot of reasons why Cameron feels like he has to protect her from this massive blow of losing himself. So, I really do understand why he makes those decisions, but for me personally, I think there is a lot to be learned from death. I think that pain is part of life, loss is part of life and when we protect other people from loss or pain we think we’re doing them a service — but actually, we’re depriving them from an amazing gift because there is growth that happens and comes with pain and loss.

Do you think going through a pandemic will drive the film’s message home even more?

I think it definitely will. It’s a film about love and connection and that’s what we’ve been deprived of. For those of us who have been enduring lockdowns, we’ve been deprived of physical contact at least with those who we love most and that’s been incredibly hard, and many people have lost people that they loved as well during this pandemic. So, it’s a great reminder about what is most important and the sacrifices that we’ve all had to make during this time period.

“Swan Song” premieres on Apple TV and in theaters Dec. 17.