Brit Actor Wins Global Recognition & Award Noms as Well
by Brad Balfour
For London-born actor Idris Elba it must have been a moment of incredibly mixed emotions. On Thursday December 5th, 2013, the London premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom took place. Elba, who stars in this biopic as the great South Africa leader, was there in the company of Prince Andrew, his wife and many British luminaries — including Mandela’s daughters. Then what had long been feared was announced: that the medically frail 95-year-old freedom fighter had died after a long illness.
As the driving force behind the African National Congress’ campaign against the heinous policy of Apartheid, Mandela endured prison, illness, and deprivation. When finally released, Mandela become a revered world leader and a role model despised by the right wing everywhere. Once he became South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president, he brought a redemptive philosophy and market-driven economic ideas to a country devastated by sanctions against its defunct racist government.
Based on the 1994 autobiography of the same name, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom chronicles Mandela’s life as this international icon and revered global leader.
Perhaps because the film — as written by Oscar-nominated William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables) — spans so much of the great leader’s life, it feels a bit too much like a summation rather than an examination. Yet it works because of Elba’s expressive performance.
The movie transitions from Mandela’s childhood as a herder in South Africa’s rural Cape region to his days as the first black lawyer and Apartheid resistance leader. Director Justin Chadwick highlights key moments as he evolves from revolutionary to prisoner (he spent a good part of 27 years on the notorious RobbenIsland) and eventually became his nation’s first democratically elected Black President.
As the world now mourns Mandela’s passing and celebrates his legacy, Elba, in turn, enjoys praise and recognition achieved through years of hard work. He is known for playing characters of importance with a sense of authenticity and gravitas.
With Elba’s impressive resume — The Wire, Luther, Prometheus, Pacific Rim and Thor: The Dark World, among others — the 42-year-old actor is making his mark in more ways than expected. Finally after more than 20 years of film and television work, he has just been nominated for Golden Globes in both television, for the English legal drama Luther, and film for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.
Born of a Ghanaian mother and Sierra Leonean father, Africa courses through Elba’s blood which enhanced his understanding of Mandela’s struggle. Though he started by pursuing a career in music, his success in BBC television series led him to his successful film career.
The following Q&A is compiled from two recent appearances Elba made at the Soho Apple Store in promoting both Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and Pacific Rim.
What was it like to take on the role of Nelson Mandela?
It was tough, obviously. There were so many personal challenges that I had to get over. I didn’t believe in Idris playing Mandela. I was hooked up on the lookalike version of Mandela and I’m West African, not South African, so there was a whole different cultural thing that I was aware of. So, to be honest, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” I didn’t have the attributes.
When my agent called me about it, I put the phone down because I thought he was joking. Eventually I came around and Justin [Chadwick] came to see me when I was making Pacific Rim in Toronto. We sat down for three nights, hung out and talked about his version of Mandela. The idea was to highlight this younger, charismatic man who was the first black lawyer in Soweto with all the energy he had, which [Justin] wanted to bring across. He wanted to show you what Mandela was like when he was my age, 41, to give some context to where Mandela ends up. I was very much worried about this role.
Playing an individual who was still around [at the time] and putting him on screen — what was that like?
Everything around you was part of the film. 360 degree sets. The cameras essentially could shoot anywhere. It also meant that the extras who were part of those massive crowd scenes when we had to do those speeches. Though half of them were too young to actually remember Mandela in his prime — he’s very much ingrained into their system.
They would not allow Idris Elba (laughs) — the guy from [Tyler Perry’s] Daddy’s Little Girls — to come on stage, do Mandela, and lie to them. That was not allowed. I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes in speeches or forget my lines. It was a challenge just because I knew he was a real man to them. I was really nervous about lying to them, but I never had to because they gave me so much more energy than I could even possibly give them. That encouraged me and Naomie to make those speeches as real as they can get.
What was ultimately the biggest challenge?
I think playing the range realistically from around 20, which was practically impossible, to around 70. Mapping out the whole journey. Things happened to his body, mind, voice, in that whole time. That was the biggest journey, trying to figure it all out in this six-month shoot.
We shot out of sequence. Some days, or some weeks, I’d be the older Mandela and others, I’d be the younger Mandela. Pulling it all in and making sense of it was the biggest challenge for me.
Was there any point during filming that changed you in any way?
The film definitely changed me. Understanding who that man is deepened my own perspective of myself and the world. It’s hard for me to talk about it in a tribute sense in a situation like this because there’s so much to talk about. Hopefully that film impacts and educates the audience, but for me, it was a life changing film to make.
You mention the voice, capturing that memorable Mandela cadence…
It was a lot of studying. I’m a natural mimic. If I hang around someone for long enough, I start to understand what they’re doing with their voice and their cadence and speech. Ironically enough though, my dad’s voice is not too dissimilar. He’s from West Africa, which is a slightly different accent, Sierra Leone. People who come from Africa and speak English have such an interesting cadence — it’s broken up — so almost everything you say sounds noble. It’s amazing.
With Mandela, it was something that I was in tune to with my ears and I could sort of understand a little bit. When Mandela was younger, he had a very high-pitched voice, stuttered, and spoke very quickly. As he got older, he slowed it all down and realized the power of poise and silence and really settled into his chest with this really nasally sound. I just paid attention to all of that and tried to emulate it.