Idris Elba tells Shereen Low why playing Nelson Mandela was a dream role and how the great man’s family has given Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom the thumbs up.
It was an ironic twist of fate. Hours after Idris Elba walked up the red carpet for the UK premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, it was announced that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had died.
Elba, who portrays the late South African President in the film, issued a statement saying: “I am stunned at this very moment. We have lost one of the greatest human beings to have walked this earth, I only feel honoured to be associated with him.”
Ironic timing aside, taking on the lead role in Justin Chadwick’s drama was always set to be huge for the actor.
Already known for playing troubled detective DCI John Luther in the BBC series and drug kingpin ‘Stringer’ Bell in US show The Wire, 41-year-old Elba’s now making his mark on the world stage and his performance has met with awards buzz.
But, he says, this wasn’t on his mind when he signed on.
“If I’m really honest, every role I make, I feel like I put my work in. It’s on someone else to say this is career-defining, and I take that as a compliment, but ultimately I try and work hard in every role I do.
“But would I like an Oscar? Yeah man!” he adds, with a deep laugh.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, adapted from the late statesman’s autobiography of the same name, spans Mandela’s journey from his early years as a herd boy in rural Transkei to a lawyer in post-war Johannesburg, through to his 27-year-long imprisonment and inauguration as the South Africa’s first democratically elected and black President.
It also focuses on the changing relationship between Mandela and his second wife Winnie, played by Naomie Harris.
Elba admits he didn’t take Chadwick seriously when he was initially approached for the role, which Denzel Washington was originally earmarked for.
“I didn’t really believe him to be honest. I thought it was a joke. I thought, ‘What? Who? No! Really?’” he recalls.
Then, the reality of who he was about to play sunk in.
“It is very daunting. It was a massive undertaking, but it was a gift of a part. I don’t look anything like Mandela. To play someone who is great, and to have the whole 52-year span to play the character is a gift, so I really enjoyed that,” he says.
Elba never had any doubts about whether he could do it.
“I had the conviction of Mandela behind me. His story is so amazing. If he could live that life, then I could make his life on film.”
While he never actually met Mandela, Elba won over the former President and his family, including his ex-wife Winnie and two of his daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, who gave their backing to the film.
“Winnie’s amazing. She calls me ‘Husband’,” says the London-born actor with a smile. “Winnie, Zindzi and Zenani have been really helpful from day one.”
So what’s their verdict?
“They love it,” Elba says. “I’ve seen it with them twice now. They are very moved by it, it’s very personal to them and there are some high emotions.”
As a father himself, the twice-married actor reveals the prison scenes in Robben Island were particularly harrowing.
“One of the scenes I will never forget is when Mandela is in prison and he finds out his son Thembi has died in a car crash and he’s not allowed to go to the funeral. It broke my heart,” he recalls.
“I’ve got a daughter myself [Isan, 11] and if anything was to happen and I couldn’t get there, I’d be heartbroken, so that was one of the toughest scenes for me.”