Oliver Litondo and Naomie Harris in The First Grader Naomie Harris Interview For The First Grader

In a small, remote mountain top primary school in the Kenyan bush, hundreds of children are jostling for a chance for the free education newly promised by the Kenyan government. One new applicant causes astonishment when he knocks on the door of the school. He is Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an old Mau Mau veteran in his eighties, who is desperate to learn to read at this late stage of his life. He fought for the liberation of his country and now feels he must have the chance of an education so long denied – even if it means sitting in a classroom alongside six-year-olds. Moved by his passionate plea, head teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), supports his struggle to gain admission 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. ‘The First Grader’ is out in the UK June 24th. Check out what Naomi Harris had to say about the film below.

There are many wonderful messages in the film – hope, tolerance, tenacity. I wondered which message resonated most with you?

Naomie Harris: The message that really resonated with me was about the possibility of change and growth at any age. I believe we live in an incredibly ageist society, it’s almost like if you’re past 35 you’re over the hill. It’s so nice to have a story about a guy who’s 84 and says, “You know what, this is when my life begins in fact, I have the possibility to make this incredible change, to learn how to read and write, and I want to actually go on to become a Vet as well.” I think that is a wonderful message, at any age things are possible, to realise your dreams.

The children are so charming in this film, how challenging was it working with such a large group of children, who hadn’t acted before?

Naomie Harris: I was brought in two weeks before we started filming, Justin Cadwick (director) wanted me to be introduced to the children as their teacher and not as an actress, so I was known as Teacher Jane. I had to have the Kenyan accent, I had to have some bits of key Swahili in order to be able to communicate with them because most of them didn’t speak English that well. I had to come up with lesson plans for 80 children, who’s age ranged from 5 years old to the oldest who was 21 – that was incredibly challenging. I’m not a teacher and keeping the attention of 80 children was really really tough, it gave me an immense amount of respect for teachers. My Step-Dad is actually a teacher so he came up with some of the lesson plans for me and helped me, I was having desperate calls to back home for advice (laughs). He was fantastic. It was a wonderful experience, but definitely very challenging.

Naomie Harris in The First Grader Naomie Harris Interview For The First Grader

Were you lucky enough to have someone like Teacher Jane in your life?

Naomie Harris: I had an amazing teacher called Mr Murdoch, he’s the reason I ended up going on to university. I wanted to leave school and go straight into acting. But because of Mr Murdoch and his passion he inspired me to go to university. I’m forever grateful to him. He was the one who said you know you have the potential to go to Cambridge so you should work and do that and that’s what I did. I studied Social and Political Sciences.

Has the incredible thirst and desire shown for education in the film made you look back at your own education?

Naomie Harris: I think working with the children and being around their thirst for knowledge, it made me….I was always a nerd at school, a bookworm (laughs), so I didn’t look back and think, “Why didn’t I work harder.” Because I think I worked a bit too hard actually (laughs). It did make me look at my brother and sister and made me think how incredibly privileged they are, even though education over here isn’t perfect, they have all these resources that they completely take for granted, for instance just having pencils, a huge variety of pencils. The children at that school have to have 1 pencil that they have to cherish for a whole term. It made me think of how privileged they are, and how important for them it is to realise that it’s a gift to have what they have. I came back with that mission to teach them (laughs).