In an emotive period for racial and political relations the world over, Idris Elba steps into perhaps the biggest role he will ever take on.
For a boy from Hackney, London, it was a job beyond his wildest dreams. Cast as the lead role in the Nelson Mandela biopic, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, it had been the surest sign yet that Idris Elba was well on his way to becoming a major Hollywood player.
Yet December 5, 2013, changed all of that. Not for good nor bad, yet the death of Mandela at the grand old age of 95 has put a new reflection on the biopic which is now set to become one of the biggest films of the decade. Events have been uncomfortably well timed for Elba, who shot to fame in Baltimore gang drama The Wire, and has since wowed UK audiences in BBC series Luther.
The 42 year-old is now firmly on the map of film producers Stateside, and his portrayal of the freedom fighter and South Africa’s first black President, whose influence as the most significant political icon of this generation can never be overstated. He has already been nominated for a Golden Globe, with the Oscars almost certain to follow suit.
Even before the sad news of Mandela’s death, Elba could barely contain his pride at being anointed with such a significant role.
“I’m very, very proud to have the role. I can’t put it into words. When I was growing up, he was this amazing, inspirational figure. His influence can’t be measured.
“I’ve been acting for 20 years, and this is the role of a lifetime. I really haven’t processed it in my mind but it was definitely a momentous moment. I thought it was a joke – I couldn’t understand why anyone would come to me. I didn’t think I was accomplished enough as an actor to play someone like Nelson Mandela and, that’s the truth, but I think I’ve surprised myself, just like I have surprised a few other people along the way.
“Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington – these people have given massive performances of this nature; perhaps it’s my turn. I actually didn’t respond to the offer for two or three weeks. I wasn’t sure if I had that kind of performance in me but I knew I had to do it. How could I turn down the chance to play Nelson Mandela? Then I got an email from Zindzi, Mandela’s daughter, who just said, “We’re thrilled… my father and I are thrilled.”
Without wanting to tempt fate in terms of what may following this momentous role, surely Elba now has the potential for further landmark roles. Bond, anyone?
“I’m not sure you can’t think of a greater figure to portray, especially for an African or black man. It has been such an honour for me, not just play Mandela, but to be the man who gets to play in the film which is the story of his life, not just one aspect of it. I get to play him from his twenties to his seventies, and as an actor you rarely get a chance to cover that kind of range in a man’s life.”
Playing Mandela comes with great responsibility: what emotions were going through Elba’s mind when he began working on the project?
“Oh it was very emotional on some days during filming. One very difficult day came when I went on the set and I had to do a scene in front of 600 Sowetan extras. I felt this immense and beautiful responsibility to be faithful to the grace and presence of the man. I gave everything I had to capture the soul of Mandela, to be able to tell a story that celebrates his achievements as well as his spirit.”
Mandela’s influence was arguably the turning point of South Africa’s modern history. Imprisoned for 27 years from 1962 for his political stance against Apartheid. He went on to become the nation’s first black President, inspiring a global wealth of black people to fight for freedom and equality.
“It would seem that I wasn’t completely right to play him,” admits Elba. “I don’t look like him, and one could argue that I was too young and not experienced enough. If I had an Oscar, people would say, ‘Yes, perhaps — perhaps — you can play him.’ But I’m essentially a television actor who has done some films, and this is a big trophy role to play.
“But I think the fact I don’t look too much like him isn’t too important. It’s the message that’s conveyed that is the vital part of doing the film justice… of doing the man justice.”
In a cruel irony, the news of Mandela’s death was announced in the middle of the world premiere of the film in London, giving the release of the movie a perhaps unwanted extra layer of poignancy. Does Elba know if Mandela managed to see the film before he passed away?
“Yes, he did. I know for certain that he saw footage from the end of the film where I’m playing him as an old man and he’s walking up a hill near his village. Mandela looked at the shirt and the way I was walking and said, ‘Is that me? Did I do that? How did you get me up there?!’
“What is really interesting is that people who know Mandela very well would come up to me and say, after they had seen the first few rough cuts of the film, ‘I love how you got Mandela to fill in there at the end.’ That made me very proud.”
Of course, so much of Mandela’s life was spent in prison in Robben Island where he was gruesomely tormented. The former president famously revisited his place of confinement on the eve of the Millennium to light a candle of reconciliation to his torturers. Did Elba actually visit the prison during his preparation for the film?
“I spent a night in the prison. I remember the guard was very nervous about locking me in. I was in there by myself and it was pretty harrowing. I had to really calm down. I did have a telephone and if I really wanted to get out, I could. But as soon as the guy left, I realised there was no signal!”
Were those scenes particularly difficult to film, knowing the shoot was in that exact spot where Mandela spent many of the most harrowing moments of his life?
“Some of the hardest moments came while playing the prison especially scenes involving the white actors who played the guards and had to display the kind of brutality that was inflicted on Mandela. That was tough on all of us, I think.
“I could see from the looks on their faces that the actors hated those scenes and were hesitant when asked to go as far as they needed to. But I just looked them in the eyes and told that they needed to go to their very core and dredge up any racism that might be buried deep within, and use that for those scenes. I told them that if there was any black person they hated that they should use that and let me hear it and feel it. I needed that intensity to help me get to where I needed to go with my own performance.”
Did Elba learn anything that he didn’t know about Mandela during the process?
“I was struck by Mandela’s absolute need for tidiness and order. There is no-one who can be tidier than him. His desk is always in perfect order and nothing could be out of place in his office. He is compulsively tidy!”
While the comparison is a loose one, Elba’s childhood held some of the challenges experienced by Mandela. Growing up in a rough area of Hackney, the actor had to fight against some of the toughest social obstacles.
“You learn to defend yourself and not be pushed around. When my family moved from Hackney to Canning Town I stood out because I was black and tall and I was immediately picked on by the best fighter in the school. It wasn’t easy for me and you learn from those tough times. I used to get into fights all the time with white kids and I got a reputation as someone who wouldn’t take any nonsense. I never looked for trouble, but you can’t back down from it either. But I was fortunate that my teacher, Miss McPhee, thought that I had talent and she pushed me towards acting.”
Now in his forties and on the back of a great performance in Mandela, Elba’s stock has never been higher, with The Wire star surely now on the cusp of the next phase in an already remarkable career. It’s not bad for someone who once works nights at the Ford motor factory.
“I’m hoping I get the chance to do more and more interesting films. I’ve been fortunate to get recognition from doing The Wire and Luther but people in Hollywood don’t necessarily remember my name,” he laughs. “Perhaps they will now… perhaps that will all change with Mandela.
“But I don’t necessarily want to be famous. I want to be known for great work. I want to be known to surprise audiences. That, to me, is what is really fulfilling.”