BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. When portraying South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela in the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” Idris Elba embraced the harsh realities of Mandela’s life and was determined to stay in character even when the cameras stopped rolling.
But the British actor knew his latest movie wouldn’t be believable unless his fellow actors could deliver a performance as raw as his own – so he pushed them to embrace uncomfortable realties, too.
Elba recounted one such instance when he was shooting scenes that focused on Mandela’s 27 years in jail under white minority rule. During the filming, he sensed that a couple of white actors were struggling to portray the brutality in which Mandela was treated.
“They felt bad. … I could see it in their eyes. I spoke to director (Justin Chadwick) and I said, ‘I need these guys to go back to their core. If there is any sense of racism in them I need them to bring it up. If there is a black person that they don’t like, let me hear it and feel it,’ ” said Elba. “That was important because it would come through in the performance, and suddenly it becomes the biopic that’s safe.”
“Safe” would not be the word to describe Mandela the man, or the movie. While it shows him as the genial peacemaker the world embraced when he was freed from prison and became South Africa’s first black president, it also shows him as a fiery and flawed revolutionary who sought to abolish apartheid through any means necessary as leader as the African National Congress.
“There are not many people who would step into the shoes of Mandela, particularly the way I was making the movie,” Chadwick said. “There was no room for any untruth. When you are standing in front of thousands of people portraying their leader that they know so well, you’d better be on it, and Idris was on it.”
Elba did not have a chance to speak to Mandela before he died. But he drew on the mannerisms of his late father to help him with his interpretation. He also spoke to a few of Mandela’s daughters and his second wife, Winnie, who was also a powerful figure in the anti-apartheid movement.
“She needed to see the complex man.”
Based on Mandela’s autobiography, the film has been in the works for years.
“I was like, ‘Damn, do I have this performance in me?’ ” the 41-year-old actor said. “Everyone knows what Mandela looks like and sounds like, and I’m not like any of that. It was a massive challenge, but it was time to grow up and really put my acting chops out there.”
Amidst the stormy relationship between Mandela and his first wife, Evelyn Mase, Elba was determined to depict the man beyond the saint.
“I was surprised he was such a playboy,” Elba said. “But he was one of the first black lawyers in Soweto (South Africa). This was sexy. We wanted be honest about that.”
“He is hugely charismatic,” said “Mandela” co-star Naomie Harris, who plays Winnie. “He is one of those guys who comes in and lights up a room. He’s very charming and makes everyone feel special.”
Elba’s magnetism is one reason that he’s been so popular. Besides starring in the BBC series “Luther,” he’s played key roles “Prometheus,” the “Thor” superhero series and “American Gangster.”
Elba’s breakthrough role was as Stringer Bell in HBO’s “The Wire,” playing the role of the ruthless drug dealer so authentically that some found it hard to believe he is British.
Elba said he reached a turning point when he was 29, and he found out he had a daughter on the way. “Then it was sink or swim,” Elba said of 11-year-old Isan, whom he calls his “foundation.”
“That was the hardest time,” he said. “There are all kinds of things that happen to you at that age as a man. You feel like you should be somewhere, and you’re not.”
Associated Press writer Nicole Evatt contributed.
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