With just a month between when she was cast and the start of production, Moonlight actress Naomie Harris studied documentaries and “revealing” YouTube videos to play Paula, a crack-addicted mother living in an impoverished Miami neighborhood.
“I never really used YouTube before, but I found it incredibly useful during the research process because there would be literally everything you could possibly want,” Harris, 40, tells PEOPLE. “There would be incredibly intimate interviews with people who go with their camera phones into crack dens with crack addicts.”
Harris, who is nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for the role, says she supplemented her research with documentaries about addiction in Miami in the 1980s.
Harris also relied upon her experience as a former child actor while working with Moonlight’s 11-year-old star, Alex R. Hibbert, who plays her son Chiron in the film’s opening chapter. Wary of the emotional toll certain intense scenes could take on the young actor, Harris says she was careful to spare him when possible.
“As much as people say, ‘Well, it’s only pretend to have someone yelling at you full force,’ it’s terrifying,” Harris shares. “I actually asked for Alex not to be on set at those points, so I was actually yelling at a wall or yelling at a chair.”
Harris credits extraordinary hair, makeup and wardrobe with helping to cement her Oscar-nominated performance, explaining that Paula’s tiny shorts and mismatched slippers helped her understand “just how far gone she is.”
But Harris says she can’t rely on aesthetics alone for her performance. “You have to have done all of your research beforehand,” she explains. “I’m very sure I knew where Paula was at in each stage of her journey.”