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
“Nobody knows better than me that I don’t really look like Mandela,” says Elba. “I was super- sensitive to the idea. And I really wanted to make an effort to convince an audience – all of whom are going to have at least some degree of familiarity. Everybody knows that hair and that voice.”
Though the film is reverential in tone, honest depictions of Mandela’s activities as a freedom fighter ensure that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is less hagiographic than previous screen incarnations of South Africa’s first black president.
“He’s a lawyer – a man of high society – who turns vigilante, who trained as a soldier, who went to Sierra Leone, my father’s homeland, to raise money for the cause. How brave is that? He was 37 when he became a radical. He was in jail by 43.
“So those six years are an interesting turnaround. We wanted to acknowledge them. We wanted to be as honest about him as we could be: honest about his marriage, his personal life, his achievements. It took him 27 years in jail to become the man we knew. It wouldn’t have meant anything if we started the film in jail.”
Idrissa Akuna Elbagrew up in East Ham with his Ghanaian mother and a Sierra Leonean father. He shortened his name to Idris while attending school in Canning Town, where weekly drama classes introduced him to his future profession.
“I was a shy guy. If there was a party, I’d be in the corner. I remember being about 18 or 19 and realising there was actually a living to be made out of acting. Up until that point it was one drama class a week at school where I had an amazing time. It’s only-child syndrome. We like making shit up.”
He left school wanting to be a DJ, but he eventually took a job alongside his father Winston at the Ford factory in Dagenham.
“My parents are working class immigrants. By the time I was 17, they had been here for 20 years and all they did was work. So they expected me to be the same. My dad said: ‘Come with me to work and we’ll get you some real money. A cheque. Actors wait around forever’.
“I did that. And I saved the money so I could step away and have time to audition. And I got into it quite easily you know. I got my first job as a stagehand easily. I got my first play easily. And just kept working from there.”