Naomi Scott, From Normal Girl to New Superhero
Through her pastor parents, her Essex marital home and a role in Elizabeth Banks’ upcoming reboot of Charlie’s Angels, this Indian-Brit actor is constructing the kinds of role models she once longed for
On the shelves of toy shops across the world, 30cm-high replicas of Naomi Scott are rubbing tiny plastic shoulders with Ariel and Barbie, thanks to the actor’s empowered take on Princess Jasmine in Aladdin this year. In the flesh, she prefers a tracksuit to glittery organza and ribbon accessories; it’s part of her considerable charm that she can hit the red carpet in a bubblegum-pink gown the length of a city block one week and be serving tea in a hoodie at the Woodford panto the next. She’s the Disney princess who knows the offside rule and cheerfully chats to journalists about her eczema, the actor who’s never set foot in an acting class (unless you count the school play), and the Hollywood protégé who has made her home thousands of miles from Tinseltown.
The 26-year-old has been on set since her teens, but it was the audition for Aladdin that landed her on giant billboards along Sunset. After beating thousands of hopefuls, the Indian-British actor negotiated the film’s fairy-tale tropes with none of the queasy belly-dancing seductions of 1992’s animated version, playing a grown-up princess less interested in finding a husband than wielding her political voice. True, we’re not talking The Vagina Monologues – this is the Disney juggernaut, after all – but when you think of the millions of little girls (and boys) who make up Disney’s target audience, the message that there’s more to life than marrying a prince – flying carpets, pet tigers and becoming a sultan, for a start – had a powerful reach.
In 2017, the year Scott auditioned, 70.7 per cent of the top film roles in Hollywood were white. Which makes it all the sweeter that, today, when we meet over coffee in Soho, Aladdin has just hit $920 million at the global box office, burying the notion once and for all that diverse casting can’t bring in the megabucks. “Not bad, is it?” she says with a laugh. “In auditions in the past I’ve had those comments – ‘She’s kind of exotic, we don’t really know what she is…’ Or certain people saying that when it comes to a lead in a studio movie, this girl is going to sell better than that girl. But that idea is now being challenged. We’re seeing movies with female leads making millions of dollars, movies with predominantly black casts making millions, and that’s exciting.” This year, a clutch of recent castings – including Halle Bailey as The Little Mermaid, and Captain Marvel’s Lashana Lynch reportedly in the role of a black, female 007 – suggest Hollywood is inching forward. “It’s going in the right direction,” nods Scott. “A business like that takes time to change. At first it will be a reaction to what’s happening in the culture, as time goes on you’ll see – maybe the execs need to be more diverse, the people making the decisions need to have different perspectives.”
“I know, it’s hilarious. I’m doing a lot of reboots. It’s like, ‘We need to reboot this film with a brown person – Nay, you free?’” – Naomi Scott
After our interview today, Scott is off to record the overdubbing on her next blockbuster – this autumn she’ll be following her emancipated take on Princess Jasmine with a modernised Charlie’s Angels for the Time’s Up generation. “I know, it’s hilarious,” she says. “I’m doing a lot of reboots. It’s like, ‘We need to reboot this film with a brown person – Nay, you free?’” The franchise has moved on from the skateboarding Farrah Fawcett, and the somewhat dopey McG-directed effort of 2000 (which focused a little too frequently on Cameron Diaz’ behind). Actor/director Elizabeth Banks helms 2019’s more woke reprise, with Kristen Stewart, Scott and fellow Londoner Ella Balinska as the tenacious trio of crime-fighting detectives. “I think women can do anything,” Stewart says pointedly as the trailer opens, before punching a misogynistic bloke three times in the face.
“It’s a movie about women at work,” says Scott simply. “Team players who uplift each other.” It’s adamantly not, Banks told The Hollywood Reporter this year, about “their boyfriends they didn’t see enough, or the cats they didn’t feed, or the mother they didn’t call”. In fact, it was Scott’s work ethic on the big-screen adaptation of Power Rangers in 2017 (she played the pink superhero, defending the earth from Banks’ cackling sorceress Rita Repulsa) that caught the director’s eye. “She knew how I worked and conducted myself on set, and that’s really important because you’re going to be in the trenches with these people,” Scott says. On Banks’ film, shot between Germany and Istanbul, there were weapon and stunt training sessions and not a slow-motion beach-running sequence in sight. “As a kid I just yearned to do this type of role,” enthuses Scott. “Me and my friend would always play spies, but seeing a woman on screen solving her own problems, being a badass, a superhero, was so rare. I actually felt emotional when I saw Robin Wright and Gal Gadot go at it in Wonder Woman. Regardless of the kind of movies you like, that’s empowering.”
“I actually felt emotional when I saw Robin Wright and Gal Gadot go at it in Wonder Woman. Regardless of the kind of movies you like, that’s empowering” – Naomi Scott
Back in Nineties Hounslow, where Scott was born to a Gujarati-Indian mother and a British father, on-screen role models were thin on the ground, until Gurinda Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham hit screens. In the football-obsessed teenager Jesminder, who lived in a semi-detached under the Heathrow flight path, Scott found a kindred spirit – she had kicked a ball around in those same fields. “I’d never seen a movie about an Indian-British girl, from this not-very-glamorous place that I was from,” she says. “It was so rare to see anything like that.” Within her own family, though, the women provided a formidable example: her grandmother, born in Uganda to Indian parents, left the country during Idi Amin’s brutal regime in the Seventies, and journeyed to England with her ten children. “My nan, in all her strength, came to England and said to her daughters – there were nine of them – ‘You can marry whoever you want.’ She knew the parts of her traditions that weren’t healthy, and she was able to be forward thinking, which is incredible. My aunties really embody that now – they’re all over the world, doing all sorts of things, and they’re so representative of who my nan was, and what maybe she wasn’t able to do. And that extends to me.”
Scott’s parents are both pastors and she grew up listening to gospel, immersed in the rich musical life of their church. The family swapped Hounslow for Woodford when she was eight, and The Bridge Church, a multicultural community that gathered in a local school hall, became the home-from-home where Scott found her voice. “I had friends at school, but I was never in a group. There were times when I wouldn’t have anyone to hang out with, so I’d walk around the whole lunchtime acting like I had somewhere to go. Poor me!” she jokes. “But that’s why I liked going to band practice or choir, because everyone was nice to each other there.” She was 11 when she belted out I Say a Little Prayer and realised, along with the rest of the congregation, that she could sing. A few years later, former Eternal member Kéllé Bryan happened to drop by the church and encountered a 15-year-old Scott onstage. “I was singing Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You, with a really bad MIDI backing track,” she remembers. Bryan signed the teenager to her talent agency on the spot and Scott threw herself into auditions – often without a clue about what she was auditioning for – with the same ebullient energy she brings to set now. “It was when record labels were auditioning people to be in girl bands or boy bands, and I was always the youngest one there. There’d be these women in heels and I’d come in, in a big, baggy T-shirt and my little boots, singing a soul song,” she remembers. “There was one time – this is so cringe – we had to freestyle in front of the judges. I danced to Summertime by Wiley, and as I whipped round at the start, I whacked myself in the face. I remember thinking, just carry on, carry on… Didn’t get that job.” But she did get the odd advert (“I think there’s a Dutch insurance commercial somewhere out there”) and then her first encounter with Disney, the sketch show Life Bites, which Scott filmed around her GCSEs – she would sit her exams at dawn, and then go to work. The teen film Lemonade Mouth followed, a kind of Breakfast Club-meets-School of Rock, before she disappeared through a crack in space-time to 85 million years in the past, in the Spielberg-produced sci-fi series Terra Nova. So what did her parents think about their daughter skipping AS levels to battle CGI carnotaurus in Australia? “I’ve seen two extremes,” Scott replies. “There’s the classic ethnic thing of, ‘What is this acting? Doctor, no?’ And then there are the pushy parents – and trust me, I’ve seen some of those in LA, it’s not nice to watch. But my parents are super-chill, and they’re not in awe either. We’d just sit on my bed and talk everything through before we made any decisions.” If the spotlight hasn’t dazzled her, it seems partly thanks to her parents and the faith she’s grown up with, less a limiting force than a grounding that has ensured the madness of the past year was never going to end in paparazzi snaps of Scott falling out of a nightclub at five in the morning. Anyway, that’s more like her call time these days. “I think when you’re not allowed to question, that’s when you rebel. I was always very open with my parents, I could always talk to them, so I didn’t feel constricted. I definitely have that adventurous spirit. I want to try things, that’s me. But then there are certain things that I just know in my head – that’s not good for you.”
She still attends church (when filming schedules allow) and she’s open about her faith in interviews. “This is my belief system and you have yours and we can coexist and accept each other for who we are. That feels correct to me. But I’m still figuring it out, I’m always going to be questioning. Me and my dad have long conversations. I’m interested in sitting down and having a nuanced conversation rather than shouting things across Twitter. The Church is often seen as an institution that’s there to keep people in a box. I think it should be the opposite. It should be a place you can be completely who you are and say, ‘Yo, I’m a mess.’ Where people can speak honestly, where everything comes from love, as opposed to judging you when they don’t even know you.”
“Church should be a place you can be completely who you are and say, ‘Yo, I’m a mess’” – Naomi Scott
If church was where she found her faith, her music, and ever her first agent, it also brought her together with her husband, the footballer Jordan Spence – the pair met there as teenagers. Scott was married by 21, and judging by the pictures she and Spence post on Instagram, they’re still besotted (although forever doomed to be trolled by obsessive Disney fans who can’t compute Princess Jasmine loving anyone but Aladdin). “We were really young when we got married. We talk about it now, and if a 21-year-old came to me saying, ‘I’m thinking of getting married,’ I’d say, ‘Er, no,’” she laughs. “But we’re so close, we’ve managed to grow together rather than grow apart. We’re very honest with each other – probably too honest! – and we figure it out. He’s amazing. If you met him, you’d know it’s not hard. I was the most chilled bride ever because I just wasn’t nervous about it at all.”
Sitting opposite Scott today – and occasionally nudging her with a deadpan aside when she barrels off on an enthusiastic tangent – is her maid of honour, cousin and now assistant, Tiffany Pope. The friends travel together, turning the red-eyes and airport lounges, hotel rooms and press junkets into a shared adventure. “We laugh so much when we’re together, she is a very funny little being,” says Pope, who remembers the pair putting on hours-long performances as kids, all instigated by Scott. “There are only two weeks between us, and we grew up pretty much inseparable.” Keeping her cousin by her side is a way for Scott to stay tethered to her roots as her celebrity escalates. “My family look out for me,” says Scott. “Working with Tiffany means there’s someone who can maintain my perspective, who can say, ‘Snap out of it, stop being silly.’ It’s having people around you who are going to be honest, who aren’t going to be yes-men,” she says, “and not living in LA helps.”
“[Kristen Stewart] told me how scary the paparazzi could be when she was younger. But she’s now got to a place with these really smart film choices, like Personal Shopper, and she’s like, ‘This is who I am’” – Naomi Scott
Home is a world away from Los Angeles – in Essex for now, although it’s been a nomadic few years. “We’re so used to going from place to place, with Jordan’s football and my acting,” she says. “When we get to the point of a settled family home, then I’ll buy a really cool thing from an antiques store, but for now it’s Ikea shelves.”
With what must be ample scripts arriving on her doorstep, a settled home isn’t likely any time soon, but Scott is clearly savouring the moment. As young as she is, she’s worked hard to get here and had her share of setbacks – her turn in Ridley Scott’s The Martian hit the cutting-room floor, a fact she only realised as she sat, dressed up, at the premiere. “My husband always says to me, it’s a marathon not a sprint. Especially with acting, there’s that pressure of looking to the left and right and comparing yourself, but even those girls you always see at the same auditions as you, they’re so different to you. You need to focus on what you have to bring,” she says. “I’ve had those moments where you think, ‘I wanna go now, I’m ready,’ but I look back and realise I wasn’t. Now I have perspective on things – now I’m a woman. At 17, 18, you’re a baby, you really are. Kristen [Stewart] is an absolute outlier, going through what she went through at such a young age. She’s told me how scary the paparazzi could be when she was younger. But she’s now got to a place with these really smart film choices, like Personal Shopper, and she’s like, ‘This is who I am.’”
“The one piece of advice I wish I could give my teenage self is: don’t be afraid to ask for what you want” – Naomi Scott
Stewart has emerged from her Twilight years redefining what it is to be a Hollywood star, in all her unapologetic, twitchy brilliance. And in her own way, Scott is doing the same. As if the blockbuster movies aren’t enough, she’s released two EPs (and is working on new music), directs music videos and produces. Hollywood will continue to come calling – and she hasn’t squandered the voice it’s given her – but La-La Land is not the beating heart of her universe. She recently posted a picture of herself aged 15 and grinning at the camera, with the caption: “The one piece of advice I wish I could give my teenage self is: don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.” She’s following that advice now, carving out an idiosyncratic, multifaceted role for herself that ducks definition and stays true to who she is.