Idris Elba: In Mandela’s footsteps
Idris Elba was keenly aware of the responsibilities required in playing the role of Nelson Mandela. “It’s like: what? You’re going to play God now. It’s not so easy to turn around and say: ‘Okay. I’m God now’,” he tells Tara Brady
Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
I meet Idris Elba in London just hours ahead of the premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a big screen adaptation of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography in which Elba takes the title role.
Minutes before the gala screening begins news trickles through to an audience that includes the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Mr Mandela’s daughters, Zindzi and Zenani: Nelson Mandela is dead.
As it happens, when I playback the interview, there’s already a sense of requiem: Elba talks about the similarities between Mandela and his Sierra Leonean father, who died just a few months ago. He remembers seeing Mandela on the wall of his childhood home in east London.
“My dad was fascinated with African leaders,” says Elba. “There was a picture of Mandela in my house since long before he got out of jail.”
Unsurprisingly, the actor was keenly aware of the responsibilities required by such a role.
“It’s like: what?” he says. “You’re going to play God now. It’s not so easy to turn around and say: ‘Okay. I’m God now.’
At 41, Elba is strikingly masculine, slyly humorous and effortlessly cool. Today, bass notes carry his soft voice across the table in a crowded lounge. He prefers to do his interviews this way: “I don’t like sitting in hotel rooms for interviews. It drives me nuts. I need to have a real conversation.”
True to his word, he converses rather than answers: “You know grapes contain this compound called Resveratrol?” he says, as he offers a fruit basket. “They’ve turned it into an anti-ageing formula to rejuvenate your skin. But I’d rather just eat grapes.”
He smiles: “Cheaper than Botox”.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom truncates nine decades of Nelson Mandela’s personal history into a two-hour film. Idris Elba brings charisma and imposing physicality to a role that encompasses 50 years and seismic changes.
“The younger Mandela is a very different man to the one who left prison,” notes Elba. “That’s a fact. So I had some license for interpretation in those early scenes. But the ageing process was all about the details. You needed to get to a point when the audience would say: I recognise him now; that’s the Mandela we know.”
Nelson Mandela, he says, represents a “very big pair of shoes to fill.” But standing at 6’ 3”, Elba had to rethink his movements in order to approximate the older, frailer Mandela.