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
His parents need not have worried about his work ethic. A polymath, Elba works as a DJ under the moniker DJ Big Driis, appears on Jay-Z’s 2007 American Gangster soundtrack and has just recorded Mi Mandela with Remi Kabaka and Maverick Sabre, a musical chronicle of what Elba experienced as he played Mandela.
“I loved the music in South Africa so much that I promised to go back and do something about it,” says Elba. “And I did. We put together a house band and I brought down other musicians and I’m excited about it.”
There’s talk of an Oscar nomination for Elba’s Mandela, but if it doesn’t materialise one feels there’s bound to be another chance down the line. A mesmerising screen presence, he makes film acting look and sound effortless: “Essentially, it’s the same business everywhere. Show up. Say your lines. Take your marks.”
But he would say that. Elba’s career, to date, has been characterised by stealth. The actor was working steadily on both sides of the Atlantic for some 10 years – in indie US military satire Buffalo Soldiers, in French comedy Belle Maman, in BBC’s Silent Witness – when his depiction of drug kingpin and aspiring businessman Russell “Stringer” Bell in HBO’s The Wire propelled him into stardom proper and onto People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People in the World poll.
“I don’t remember people recognising me when I was doing Family Affairs on Channel 5,” he smiles. “The Wire was massively gradual. When I was making it I’d come home and no one knew a thing about it. And no one remembers me from Ultraviolet or Silent Witness – this is 2004. Then The Wire caught up and suddenly everyone was surprised: ‘Oh, he’s British’. But I didn’t feel the effect of it until I had left the show.”
Elba has gone on to establish himself as bona fide Hollywood movie star though a series of eye-catching turns in Takers, Prometheus, Pacific Rim and the Thor franchise.
“It’s an interesting time at the moment,” he nods. “I’ve been an actor for 22 years now. I feel seasoned. But I feel like I’ve suddenly got a lot more to do.”
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opens January 3rd