Naomi Scott on Charlie’s Angels and Finding Her Place in Hollywood
The British actress who’s scored roles in blockbuster films opens up about her unlikely journey to the top.
It’s barely lunchtime and Naomi Scott is already showing me pictures of her eczema, scrolling through an entire photo album of the skin condition that leaves her itchy, bloody, and raw. “Before, I would just say, ‘Hide it, hide it all,’” she says, hitting play on a phone video where her assistant Tiff is carefully bandaging her bleeding head. Naomi looks miserable and exhausted. We watch for a few seconds, Naomi chirpily keeping up a running commentary: “When people think of eczema, they think, ‘Oh it’s just a little rash,’ or ‘Babies get eczema.’ It’s like, no girl!”
This isn’t how I expected to spend an afternoon with the Charlie’s Angels star, but, then again, Naomi is nothing if not an unexpected breath of fresh air. For a bona fide Disney Princess — the British-Indian actress played Jasmine in this year’s Aladdin remake — she has zero airs or graces. When she introduces me to her husband, Jordan Spence, a professional soccer player, she jokes that he’s the one who gets model-scouted when they’re out. “People are like, ‘Who’s that?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, just look through me,’” she laughs. “Just little short, stumpy me, like — ” she waves frantically as if trying to get someone’s attention “Heeey!”
But that all comes later. Right now, Naomi is adamant — adamant — that I must see these pictures. She pulls up one photo where her face has broken out into angry, scaly patches. It looks painful, I observe, hyperaware that this is probably the least helpful thing to say to someone with a serious medical condition. Naomi waves away my embarrassment. “I think it’s kind of important to just not hide all the imperfections. You know, it’s part of who I am.”
That’s Naomi all over — she couldn’t be anyone else if she tried. The 26-year-old reeled me in through sheer force of personality the second she plonked herself next to me on the sofa like a long-lost girlfriend. Aladdin director Guy Ritchie had a word for her charisma: “intergalactic.” It isn’t just her huge, expressive brown eyes or her habit of doling out high fives every time she agrees with you. It’s superpowered relatability — Naomi is you on a very, very good day. You dialed up to 11. No, 14. At least.
It’s no wonder that Charlie’s Angels director Elizabeth Banks cast her as Elena, the wide-eyed tech whistleblower who falls in with the spy organization — a perfect proxy for the audience as we rediscover the Townsend Agency, 16 years after the franchise’s last outing in cinemas. “She really does empower you to make your own choices,” Naomi says of Banks’s direction on set alongside costars Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska. “That’s great because you’re not looking for someone to tell you what to do all the time.”
Growing up in Essex, an English county better known for reality TV like TOWIE (think: Jersey Shore with more nail bars), Naomi was a self-confessed “floater” who didn’t quite fit in at school. “I was sometimes a little bit out of the loop and didn’t have a group or a clique,” she tells Teen Vogue. “Where I found my home was more like swing band practice. Or in drama. Those were the places where I felt comfortable.”
Her father is a pastor at a local church, which she still attends with Jordan. “We met when I was 15 or 16 at church. It was one of those things where we were friends, and then we dated for four years, and we’ve been married for five years.” In regard to the stereotype about being a preacher’s daughter, I had to ask — was she rebellious at all? “I think that I was more focused on what I wanted to do,” Naomi says diplomatically. “So I felt like I didn’t have time for that stuff.”
What she wanted to do was sing. Naomi had grown up listening to gospel, but it’s a mark of how laid-back her church is that No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” was the first solo she performed there. “I must have been like 11 or 12,” she says. “That was the first time my parents said, ‘Oh, hmm, okay.’”
As a teenager, she threw herself into music auditions, including ones where she barely had any idea what she was auditioning for. At 17, she even tried out for a girl band in front of a panel of industry experts including Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz. “I was like, eh?” All the other hopefuls were in their 30s, “wearing knee-high boots, very much giving you ‘I’m going to be the next Pussycat’ [vibes].” Naomi turned up in a cardigan with no makeup and sang Stevie Wonder. “I remember someone coming out after me and being like, ‘Everyone loved you — you’re just way too young.’”
Even now, Naomi is working on music. Her last few singles have more in common with the chill-out R&B of Jorja Smith and Jessie Ware than big Disney show tunes, although any fans of the Aladdin soundtrack will know that she’s capable of those too. “I think it has been a real blessing in disguise that I haven’t pressed that button of exposure,” she says of her near miss with pop superstardom. “I feel so blessed that I was kind of protected from that.…Now, I am in a position where I know what I want to say, I know who I am.”
In 2011, Hollywood beckoned with a starring role in Terra Nova, the Fox sci-fi series executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. “I left school in the middle of my A-Level [exams]. I went to see the headmaster and he was great — big up to him — he was like, ‘I think you should go.’” Terra Nova got canceled after a season, and thus began a period of what Naomi describes as being the “nearly girl”; missed opportunities, roles she desperately wanted ending up in someone else’s hands. In one particularly heartrending instance, she went to the cast and crew screening of The Martian only to realize her scene had been cut (“I don’t blame them, I was probably horrific”).
Her multiracial background — Naomi’s father is white and her mother is Gujarati by way of Uganda — also confused Hollywood. “There’s a thing of someone [being] like, ‘She’s not white, she’s not black, she’s not Latina, what is she?’” Naomi says. “There were definitely a few leads that I went for where I think, ultimately, I was maybe the other choice, the ‘exotic’ choice, or the ‘other.’”
Naomi didn’t see many people onscreen who looked like herself growing up — hence her well-documented love of British-Indian coming-of-age film Bend It Like Beckham, Mulan (“personality-wise, I felt so connected [to her]”), and of course, Aladdin. When she visits home, she still beelines for her mum’s dahl and okra curry. “Don’t get me wrong, there were moments growing up where you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t really feel Indian enough.’ But now I’m at a place where I’m like, You know what? It’s okay. It doesn’t make me any less Indian, or any less half Indian,” she says. “My two favorite meals — one is my mum’s curry and one being a roast dinner. And that is me in a nutshell.”
Naomi’s ‘nearly girl’ phase ended once Disney came knocking in the form of Aladdin, but it also coincided with the worst period of her eczema. “I thought that maybe after filming it would all simmer down, but it erupted,” she said, showing me the scars and scabs on her knuckles. “It was all over my body, I was itching at night, and every night [there was] blood on the sheets.” She only stopped disguising it with makeup on the last press tour for Aladdin, telling herself, “Wait a second, Nay, you want to hide [it] because you’re playing into the same beauty standards.”
This unselfconsciousness — one that feels equal parts carefree and considered — is par for course for Naomi. I have friends with eczema, but I’ve never heard them speak this way about it — let alone share photos of them at their worst. She has a message for anyone in similarly debilitating circumstances: “I hear you. It’s not nice. You know those days where you want to stay in bed, where you can’t move your neck because it’s so sore — I’m with you. And I guarantee you, the more you own it, the more you feel confident.”
Why speak on it now? “This is something I wanted to speak on specifically for this interview because for Teen Vogue, for me, has a real ‘no B.S.’ honesty thing,” Naomi explains. “If I, out of all people, am honest about my imperfections, then I might just make…” she trails off. “I think of a 14-year-old girl and [how] it could make her feel just that bit better: ‘Oh, she has it and she plays Jasmine.’”
Hollywood’s a long way from a local church in Essex, but it’s hard to feel like her hometown wouldn’t be proud of her. “My mom always says, ‘Rather than be successful, I would rather you be significant,’” she says, before raising her hand in testimony. “That’s like, ‘yes mom!’”