Idris Elba: Mandela, the Real Guy


Idris Elba prefers the direct approach. He blusters into his Soho hotel suite wearing jeans and a beanie and, dispensing with the pleasantries, says, “Do you like this film? Do you hate this film? Is it sycophantic, the film? When you walk away from the film, do you get the sense that you learned anything about Mandela?”

“The film” is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom 

The epic adaptation of the South African icon’s autobiography. I say, yes, I liked the film and, yes, I learned a lot about the former president—not so much the facts of his story as the shades of his character. And, no, the film isn’t sycophantic; Mandela is by turns shown to be a two-timer and a hothead, as opposed to a saint. So, no, I didn’t hate the film.

It’s surprising that Idris is so worried when everyone is applauding his barnstorming and potentially Oscar-worthy performance as Mandela, which holds the whole film together.

“You know, I was really, really sensitive [about the role],” Idris admits. “My agent called up to ask if I wanted to play Mandela and I put the phone down on him. I was like, no way. Mandela? Couldn’t do it.

“Then I thought to myself, called him back and said, ‘Can I be honest? If it’s a grey-haired version of the fist-pumping Mandela, I’m not the actor to bring in. I’m not Morgan [Freeman, who played Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus]; go with Morgan. And he said, ‘Well, that’s not the version they’re doing.’ ”

The film that director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) wanted to do was one that looked at Mandiba (Mandela’s clan name) as a younger man; a version that, in Idris’s words, “challenged who people think Mandela is”.

Chadwick flew to Toronto, where Idris was filming the Hollywood blockbuster Pacific Rim, to try to persuade him.

“He said to me, ‘Idris, I don’t want you to look like Mandela, I want you to be Mandela.’ It was a massive moment. Justin and I will be friends forever because of that moment. Because we both realised that we were about to embark on something that was very challenging for the two of us. I’m a youth from Hackney. I’ve worked my a*** off to get here. You’re asking me to play Mandela—do you think I’m gonna play a f*****g Disney Mandela? Don’t ask me to do that, yeah?”


Becoming Mandela

The role was not just daunting in itself for Idris (“I don’t look like Mandela—and I don’t sound like him”), but a significant career step too. The 41-year-old is well known for the BBC1 series Luther and his breakthrough performance as the drug dealer Stringer Bell in US cult crime drama The Wire, but he hasn’t yet been universally recognised as a leading man. He will be now. His Mandela is a performance of simmering potency and authenticity, particularly as Mandela grows older, quieter and more stately.

Idris says that he modelled the latter part of his portrayal on his father Winston. Then he goes quiet.

“I have to tell you, I’m grieving. My dad died six weeks ago. This interview is the first I’ve done since, and I cried my eyes out this morning coming here. I’m not gonna lie to you. I bawled because I just…my dad was the one man I knew that was that age when I was playing Mandela. He had a big silver-grey afro. We all loved him. I can’t talk about this film without referencing him.”

Winston was a Sierra Leonean who moved to east London after marrying Idris’s Ghanaian mother Eve, and worked at the local Ford plant.

“I’ve never met Mandela in my life. Never met him while I was playing him. So for the older Mandela, I used me old man. That’s what my dad is like. The dignity, the poise.”

His late father wasn’t his only reference point. Idris travelled to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned, and demanded to be allowed to stay in a cell for a night. Perhaps pointedly, he was put in the punishment wing.

“They shut the first key, clink. ‘All right, see you later, mate.’ Shut the second door, clink, the third door, clunk. And as they got further away in the distance, I’m like, This is real. They even left a light bulb on, as they did for the prisoners.”


What was going through his mind?

“I’ll tell you what was going through my mind is that I’ve got a kid who lives in Atlanta. [His daughter Isan, who lives with her mother. Idris also has a house there.] If anything was to happen to her that night, there’s no way I can go there. I’ll tell you what else was going through my head: Idris, this place is haunted. Loads of people died here.”

It sparked off a thought process in him. He realised that when Nelson Mandela was convicted in 1964 at the Rivonia Trial, along with seven other ANC leaders, “Even though he was sentenced to life in prison, he was actually killed in that courtroom: the man he was was killed. I know: I spent one night in there and I was like, Blood-y hell.”

Every now and then, revisiting the role or to accentuate a point, Idris drops into Mandela’s familiar steady, nasal delivery. It’s a completely convincing leap for a boy from east London to the Eastern Cape, but he says he finds it easy.

“I’m a mimic. All my life, you know, only-child syndrome. Over-productive mind. I just listen to everything in such detail that I can recreate it.”

He has a musician’s ear and he makes music too. He is famed for his DJ sets (as DJ Big Driis), but he’s also a songwriter and producer. Indeed, he says that music was an essential catalyst for his transformation from Idris to Nelson.

“I listened to music while I was playing this character all the time-—old South African traditional work, Mahotella Queens, stuff that Mandela was listening to during his life. In the movie, there’s a lot of that music. I had a lovely driver during filming and we used to talk about music all the time. He would play every-thing I liked from reggae to Congolese music. Now that helped me get in the spirit of Mr Mandela. I’m s**t in the mornings, but when I hear music, it always lightens my mood.”

During four hours of prosthetics each day, he’d not only be listening to recorded music but writing his own songs too. During that time he produced an album’s worth of material. Not an official sound-track, but just for his own consumption. He plays me some of them, because “I don’t know how to explain how I play someone like Mandela, but I can do it musically. I’m putting this album together called Me and Mandela, which is a testament, a love letter from me to Mandela, and the songs are as varied as the man is. This album is an expression of my journey as an actor.”


Modern day South Africa

Watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, with its evocations of the hill tribes of the Eastern Cape intercut with the iniquities of 1950s Johannesburg, you can’t help wondering about modern South Africa. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society, in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity,” said Mandela in his statement from the dock during his trial. Idris spent six months in Johannesburg filming—does he think that ideal has been achieved?

“Modern-day South Africa is much more of a melting pot than anyone would realise. I have no issue walking around the country right now. I don’t mind it at all. I love it. There’s an optimism, even within the townships. As an outsider you go to South Africa with a prejudice of what happened there, the history and that, but it turns out the people there don’t have that—and that’s directly from Mr Mandela. The black people don’t have it, that prejudice. Of course, there’s some resentment, but they’ve moved on in the most healthy way.”

How does he feel it compares to his home country? “You know, in the UK we’re very diverse, it’s a very integrated country, but I actually feel South Africa is even more integrated. I love London and the diversity of it, but I tell you what: in South Africa I’m listening to the news and I’m watching a white South African speaking Zulu! Imagine if you heard a white newscaster over here who said, ‘And today, another man was killed because [switching to fluent street slang] he started to run ting and we didn’t know wat was going on. So that man’s gonna get murdered for dem ting.’ It would never happen.”

Idris returned to Johannesburg for the film’s world premiere in November. He couldn’t wait to go back—having previously been made to feel so welcome.

“I explained to them when I originally got to Jo’burg that I was so scared I wasn’t gonna be accepted as the guy to play Mandela. But they really opened their arms and said, ‘Idris, you’re our guy,’ even though I’m not from there.”

Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie—played brilliantly in the film by Naomie Harris—was particularly friendly. Idris invited the 77-year-old, as well as her daughters Zindzi and Zenani, out to dinner during filming. “She just saw me and went, ‘My husband!’ and gave me a smacker.” Winnie later told him, “Play [Nelson] like a man. All that fist pumping, woo woo Mandela stuff?…No. Play him like a man. Play the real guy.”

Perhaps she was aware that, in Idris Elba, they had an actor who could do nothing but.

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