Idris Elba Interview For ‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’
‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ is based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education, struggle against apartheid, and 27 years in prison before becoming President and working to rebuild the country’s once segregated society. Spanning over seventy years, the film is the thrilling story of an ordinary man who rose to the challenge of his times and triumphed – an intimate portrait of the making of a modern icon. ’Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ is directed by BAFTA-winner Justin Chadwick (The First Grader, The Other Boleyn Girl) and stars Golden-Globe winner Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. Double Academy Award-nominee William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables) penned the screenplay. ‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ arrives in cinemas on November 29th in the US and January 3rd in the UK. The likes of Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz and Terry Pheto co-star.
Given that you are playing such a well known man, and considering all of the preconceived ideas people have of Nelson Mandela, how did you tackle that with your portrayal of him?
Idris Elba: That was a big thing. Everyone has a preconceived image of Nelson Mandela. When you think of Mandela you have an image in your head immediately, and I definitely felt the pressure of that. One of the things I discussed a lot was the fact that I look nothing like him, so I asked Justin, “How am I going to get around that? And how is the audience gonna get around that?” And Justin was really not concerned, he was like, “Don’t worry. I’m not worried about that. We are going to show the inner man. We are going to show his presence and that’s what you’re going to bring.” It took a little bit of schooling to get me to understand and trust trust as part of my performance – the fact that we’re not doing the “looky-likey” Mandela, that we’re doing Mandela as we see him and his presence.
There were various times that I felt overwhelmed, and it was a tough, long, arduous film to make. It was long hours and the fatigue can get overwhelming, but I was making a story about one of the greatest men that ever lived, so I never felt completely overwhelmed. I’d always feel that I was extremely fortunate in some way to fly the flag for what Mandela done with the film, so I’d have to get that in my mind. I was nervous but Justin really encouraged me, he helped me sculpt and measure out that performance.
I can imagine playing the younger Mandela, that was more of an opportunity to show a presence that isn’t perhaps as well known….?
Idris Elba: Definitely. I was very fortunate to play a younger side of him that isn’t as well known as his post prison life. It’s in books but it’s nowhere near as documented on camera. I had a great opportunity to create that younger Mandela, and it was very much about asking people how he made them feel as a presence when he was younger, what he was like. I wanted to find out what it was like at his law firm, what Soweto was like at that time, what did it mean to people that knew him to see him walking down the street. He was a beacon for hope even at that time, even before he got into the liberation struggle. So it was important that I stayed true to that. It’s all there in the books and in the history and in people. And it was very much about not being sanctimonious, it was about being honest – he was a little bit of a player back then (laughs), he was both saint and sinner. It’s important to show all of it.
Considering the legend surrounding him, people can forget that Nelson Mandela is a man, he’s a human being. This film doesn’t shy away from that….
Idris Elba: Yeah. I think we forget that, that he is human. We were very keen to portray Mandela as a man, as a human being – and that included some parts of his life that may not be as flattering as we might think. That was an important part of the performance for me. And I think we’ve seen the more saintly Mandela that we all know and love, and I think it was important for us to explore and take the audience on a journey prior to that. When you understand who he was, where he came from… he was my age when he became an activist, I’m 41, so it was around that time when he became an activist. He lived a very full life prior to that, and when you understand that, then you understand how long of a walk that freedom is. It’s a component that some filmmakers may have wanted to digress from, for obvious reasons. But I think Justin and William wanted to make that a part of this story and make it weighty. For me as an actor that was a challenge, I didn’t want to deface Mr. Mandela in any way, but I didn’t want to portray him in a way that wasn’t honest. I think we achieved it gracefully and honestly.
Besides listening to tapes, watching footage and reading the script and book, what did you do to capture Nelson Mandela’s essence? I understand your preparation was incredibly varied….?
Idris Elba: Yeah. The preparation was so varied, to embody him throughout his life. It was incredibly varied in terms of what I had to do. You’ve got the physicality through his life, to understanding him as a tribesman. There was a lot of things to understand. I read a lot and watched a lot of documentaries and footage, I spoke with his family. I spent a night in Robben Island prison, on one of wings – that was a really harrowing moment for me.
For me, stepping into the shoes of Mandela was aided by the fact that I was completely surrounded by an amazing set. My early preparations for Mandela involved me going to South Africa and staying there and gaining a better understanding and being an observer. I began to feed off that because everywhere your turn, anyone you talk to can talk about Mandela in some way and in some form. I would just soak that up, see who he was and what he meant to people. And then there was various stages along the way where I became more engrossed in more detailed preparation, but a lot of it was about the energy, you know?
There were some scenes that Justin would say, “I don’t want to rehearse this, I’m just going to walk you into a room and I want you to go for it. There’s four cameras on you, just go for it.” But it was an energy thing. I certainly plugged into the energy of Mandela and the way people respect him. That helped me craft my performance as him I think. I worked on the film for six months, it was continuous preparation.
Given that you spent so much time researching this man, what in particular have you gained a better understanding of due to this film and Nelson Mandela?
Idris Elba: When you work in the entertainment industry, having patience is something you need to understand (laughs). What I took away from my preparation for this film was a new understanding of the word patience, and also sacrifice. From Mr. Mandela’s life and family, and also the great country which is South Africa. I learnt a new understanding of those words. That’s really stuck with me. It meant so much to me to play Nelson Mandela, it’s such a massive opportunity to be part of a true legend’s life, and more importantly, the film re-educates people on this legend. I never met Mr. Mandela because he was very ill, so our interpretation of him was without his personal influence. But the script is such a good script, and obviously it comes from his book, and the book speaks for itself.
We start very much from when he was born and how he was raised. We go into his younger life and then into the life where he became this man that started to care…. he always cared, he always wanted to do good for his people, which is why he was a lawyer, but eventually wanted to do more. He realized he’d have to take this fight on. We go from there to his time in jail, extensively we look at what happened in jail and how he dealt with that. It’s interesting because the audience in real life, standing outside of Victoria they see the buses go away and they don’t know what it was like on the bus, or on the plane when they landed…. by that point everyone has gone home. But we take it from that moment and show you what it was actually like when the cameras turned off and they were actually on that boat. We show you that and that’s a big moment in the film. A big chunk of the film is in prison. Then we show him post prison as he enters into Presidency. It is a massive canvas.
When you were spending time in South Africa, what was the reaction of the people when you were speaking to them about playing this iconic figure, especially as a Londoner….?
Idris Elba: From my perspective, when I traveled into communities to speak and sit down and observe – and especially in Johannesburg where there’s a young energy, some of the people may I age or younger knew who I was and what I done, so when I would sit with them there was no doubt in them, they looked me in my eye and said, “Do you understand the responsibility you have here pal?” (Laughs) And although it was very much accepting of me doing it, they wanted me to understand the responsibility of that – and that speaks about the culture and the way that they hold this story dear to their hearts.
For me, I wasn’t expecting to be accepted as Madiba immediately, for various reasons, but there was certainly the willingness for us to go for it. But we knew that we had one chance, there was no messing about with this character and this story. That was made very apparent to me, and rightfully so, in beginning.
I think audiences are really going to enjoy your scenes with Naomie Harris, who plays Winnie. What was it like working with her?
Idris Elba: Naomie Harris is just a force of nature. She’s so good. She’s so focused, so collaborative and fearless. We’d go into those scenes, her and I, and just go for it. It would be as real as it could get. “You’re Winnie and I’m Mandela, right?” “Yep!” And bang. I really found it great to work with her.
Before this film I didn’t know to expect what it would be like working with her. I knew that she was an incredible actress but I didn’t know what to expect. Here we were and we were going to have to really bond and bring this relationship alive on screen and Naomie was so amazingly dedicated. The thing about Naomie is that I’m a nerd when it comes to acting, I can talk about, “Did you see what my wrist is doing when I’m doing this particular scene?” And Naomie’s exactly the same, she really breaks it down and she’s happy to do that with you. I thought she was so gracious…. some actors are selfish and scared and self-aware, but she puts all of that aside and embraces the challenge with you.
What effect do you want this film to have on people?
Idris Elba: Generationally, I want our children – your children, my children – to be able to go, “I can do that too.” And I want people of an older generation to be reminded of where we’ve come from and what’s happened in our past – why we should keep pushing forward for change. Just the sacrifice, I walked away learning so much about patience and sacrifice, like I said before. I think with this film, you see a man at the center of it that goes through that and it’s quite an amazing journey – to say the least (laughs).
I think younger audiences don’t get a chance to see a living legend every day, you know? This man is a living legend and heroes are far and few between now. I can’t imagine who, especially politically, who young people could consider a hero right now that is alive – or a hero that is real, as opposed to a comicbook, you know? I think Mandela speaks to that.
Nelson Mandela now means to me someone that really sacrificed his life for others, and in such an amazing and dramatic way. South Africa was a place where freedom was taken away from you because of the color of your skin, and this man and a number of men and women, wanted to fix that – and that’s courageous to me. I’m in the public eye, I don’t fight for anyone’s freedom – I should and I could because I’ve got some sort of power, and I think Mandela has really taught me that. He shows that you can evoke change.
I heard that Nelson Mandela gave you a nice bit of praise when he saw a scene from the film….?
Idris Elba: Yeah (laughs). I haven’t heard that Mandela has seen the film yet, but I’ve heard that he’s seen a scene. It’s a scene near the end of the film where Mandela’s walking up a vale and these kids run by. We shot that at the end of the day one day. We had a helicopter to shoot it and we had the sun going down and we had to shoot it very quickly. I think we did it about four times, and the very last take we use the entire take. And Mandela got to see this on an iPad and apparently he asked if that was him. He was like, “How did you guys do that? This is TV/movie magic, is that me?” And producer Anant Singh said, “No no no, that’s not you, that’s Idris playing this.” That’s awesome (laughs).
‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ arrives in cinemas on November 29th in the US and January 3rd in the UK.
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