Back to his Rootsmsafiri talks to Idris Elba as he returns to his African origins – playing Nelson Mandela in a new biopic that traces the early life of the continent’s iconic freedom fighter. Here he talks about his life, loves, and acting
There are only a handful of actors who spring to mind when the question of who has what it takes to play Nelson Mandela is raised. The prerequisites are straightforward – a well known face across the global acting world; someone who has the courage to take on the persona of one of the most influential leaders of recent times; yet at the same time a man who, away from the cameras, can reflect the modesty of the former South African leader. The sensitivity over Mandela right now is tangible across Africa and the rest of the world, and it’s perhaps a difficult time to be talking up the majesty of a box office smash. But in Idris Elba, the dashing British actor who achieved global recognition for his performances in American TV series The Wire and BBC detective drama Luther, the cinematic legacy of Mandela is in safe, assured hands. Indeed, 40-year-old Elba, born in the London borough of Hackney, says he has nothing but respect for Mandela and is honoured to have the chance to play him. “I’m very, very proud to have the role,” he says. “I can’t put it into words… An iconic person and, for me, it’s a defining moment in my career. It shows me I have set out to achieve something and reached that point, and that’s really powerful for me because I care passionately about what I do. It’s an honour, really, because he is such a great man. “I’ve always felt and I still feel that there were other actors out there who could have at least matched me on this. I thought it was a wind-up when I heard the news, and I was in shock for a couple of weeks… it took me that long to accept the job. But it’s something I’m going to look back on with great pride and affection, because I never dreamed I would be at a level where I could play Nelson Mandela.
“Even having the opportunity to go back to Africa, the motherland, has been important for me. I love the difference in culture – it’s a world away from London and the US, and that’s a great thing. It’s about embracing and respecting others, something we should probably all make more of an effort to do, at times.”
The movie, directed by Justin Chadwick (whose credits include The Other Boleyn Girl and British TV dramas Spooks and Bleak House), was filmed exclusively in South Africa. Based on anti-apartheid revolutionary Mandela’s autobiography, it’s a chronicle of his life from 1924 to 1994, from rural village childhood to inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Along the way it takes in his 27-year jail term, which included 18 years in the infamous Robben Island prison – painstakingly reconstructed in a Cape Town studio for maximum authenticity. And although on-set interviews were all declined due to a policy of secrecy, actors leaked that the atmosphere was creepy and eerie. But the film also promises to show sides of Mandela perhaps unknown to most of the world – a lover of fast cars and the fairer sex, a boxing enthusiast, a skilful lawyer and freedom fighter. And for onlookers who fear the pressure of box office dollars may stand in the way of the film’s accuracy, the project was made in full consultation with the Mandela family. Indeed, it’s the final realisation of an idea that has been in the making for over 17 years. And director Justin Chadwick recently commented that the film is the definitive portrayal and the greatest tribute to the man. A PERSONAL JOURNEY Elba’s own climb towards the top has been hard work. He is half Sierra Leonean, half Ghanaian, and his parents moved to London from West Africa. The actor grew up around the rough streets of Hackney, and worked in a number of blue-collar jobs – including as a nightshift worker at the Ford motor factory in East London – before finally finding his break in film. And these experiences taught him a lot – evidenced by his confidence on screen. “You learn to defend yourself and not be pushed around,” he says. “At a young age I moved schools and instantly had the situation where the biggest kid was looking to assert his authority on the newcomer… except I was bigger! I never wanted to get into that sort of warfare, but I was going to defend myself, absolutely, and I’ve always taken that mindset forward. There was a skin colour thing going on as well – it was still a convoluted time. But I quickly discovered it was all bravado. I could see passion – music, acting, performance. That’s what mattered to me and I hoped that one day I’d find the answers I was looking for.” Continuing his African heritage, in recent years Elba has executive-produced and co-starred in Legacy, a psychological thriller produced by Black Camel Pictures and directed by Nigerian/British director Thomas Ikimi; and starred in the Africa-set The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on Alexander McCall Smith’s book. He also appeared in the 2005 HBO film about the Rwandan Genocide, Sometimes in April. But the film depiction of Mandela’s autobiography is the cherished moment. “Sometimes you need to give yourself the credit that others do. It’s a difficult thing to do at times because as an actor and as a person I would never want to think my ego went before me – that’s a bad place to be. But at the same time I guess I needed to give myself credit. Unless I believed I was good enough for this I wouldn’t stand a chance of doing it justice. And when you get an email from Zindzi, Mandela’s daughter, saying how thrilled the family is that you’re doing the role… well, that kind of cements it. The problem of playing a character like this is that you have to feel you represent the person visually as well as in actions. That was a big challenge for me… feeling as if I looked like Mandela.” What’s certain, as if there was ever any doubt, is that Elba is about to land firmly on Hollywood’s radar – Long Walk to Freedom following quickly in the footsteps of CGI smash Pacific Rim. “I guess the respect is what you do it for, but the knowledge that deep inside you have succeeded will always outweigh praise from others or the assorted trappings that go with this industry. I have always had to fight for what I’ve had in life, so earning something the right way and doing it for myself has always been really important for me.” Nonetheless, the recognition comes thick and fast. Elba’s work has been nominated for Emmy Awards and won Black Entertainment Television Awards, as well as the Black Reel Awards for ‘best actor’. But it was the Golden Globe he earned for ‘Best Actor in a Mini-Series’, portraying Luther, that truly changed his life. “Yes, I think that was a real turning point. We knew we were on to something special but to have that effort recognised always gives everyone the impetus to keep going. It also enables you to be a bit more expressive, I think. If you’ve got a platform that you know people like then you can build and elaborate on that. If, on the other hand, you’re still unsure whether the platform holds then you’re going to be less ambitious going forward.” Lesser known is Elba’s ‘secret hobby’ – producing his own music and DJing in particular – although it’s not as secret as it once was. He’s collaborated with the likes of American rapper Jay-Z and British folk giants Mumford & Sons. An accomplished DJ, he started out with his uncle and used his turntable talents to pay the bills back in the early days. “I enjoyed DJing and making music, and still do. And I love the history and magnificence of music. It’s right up there with film in galvanising people’s minds. I listen to such a wide variety of stuff, but a lot comes back to the influence of African sounds, world music, pioneering producers who have emerged from the continent. There has always been that extra hook, that extra importance for me in music.” So can we expect to see Elba in the pop charts as well as movie charts any time soon? “What I really want is to converge my film and music work,” he muses. “I want to write the soundtracks for my films, and I want to make a musical!” Luther: The Musical? Watch