Idris Elba is an actor equally prolific on screens big and small. Last year, he won a Golden Globe for his work on TV’s Luther, following acclaimed work on The Wire, The Office, and numerous other shows. His big screen work includes roles in films as varied as American Gangster, The Losers, and Pacific Rim. After spending much of his feature film career in character roles, he gives a career-defining performance as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom from director Justin Chadwick (The First Grader). The film follows the relationship between Mandela and his wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) as it chronically suffers at the hands of an ideal for which Mandela is willing to die. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opens in limited release on Friday, November 29th. In anticipation, I recently enjoyed an in-depth and insightful chat with Elba about playing one of the most iconic world leaders of the 20th century. Here’s what Elba shared with me about filming on-set in South Africa, the on-screen relationship he shared with Harris, and filming Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Jackson Truax: You said that director Justin Chadwick told you what he wanted to do with the film, and that made you want to be involved. What was it that Justin said that made you excited about the project and about working with him?
Idris Elba: He offered a different perspective on the saintly Mandela that we all know. He offered something that I think hasn’t been seen… This was a very personal take on a part of Mandela’s life that we don’t know. We know he went to jail. We know he came out and became President. But what do we know about him as a younger man? So it was just a really interesting, sort of young, sort of energetic version of Mandela that really interested me. And then journeying that into the older Mandela… It was a showcase piece for any actor. It’s a gift of a part. But it really shed some light on a time that not many people know about.
JT: You’ve worked with a handful of some of the best filmmakers working today. What is it about working and being on set with Justin that makes him unique?
Elba: He’s so passionate… I don’t think I’ve ever met a more passionate director. He’s so passionate about every single detail… He calls it “360 sets,” which means no matter what you do, you’re still in the sets. So if you open a briefcase, and you’re pulling out a document, that document is from that time. And it’s relevant to that scene. That’s a 360 set.
JT: You played Mandela at about twenty at the beginning of the film, and were about seventy by the end. In some ways, it can be easier for an actor to go from Point A to Point B, but you went incrementally, year by year, throughout the film. What challenges did that present and how did you navigate that?
Elba: It was super challenging… We didn’t shoot any of it in sequence. So we just really had to map out what we were going to do… I kind of grouped all the days I was going to be the old Mandela. Where are we in those stories? And then I grouped all of those when I was going to be a young Mandela. And then the middle Mandela. I just kind of understood where we were in each place… So two days I’d shoot older Mandela, then I’d go back to younger Mandela. And because it was that way, although that sounds really difficult…I was thinking all the time, “Now, where am I? Where does the story start? Where am I heading? What happens next?” And so that was sort of how I navigated that.
JT: You were in South Africa for, I believe, six months shooting on location. How much of what we see in the film was created or recreated and how much of it was the real locations?
Elba: In Johannesburg…a lot of the infrastructure…was knocked down. They flattened it. So Winnie’s house, and Mandela’s first house, the whole thing was a set that was recreated… The Rivonia trial, we didn’t use the actual place. We used another place that looks like it… A lot of it was sets, and really, really detailed sets. There were some locations that were physical, but a lot of it’s gone now.
JT: To my knowledge, you spent a night in Nelson Mandela’s actual jail cell to prepare for the role. What did that give you as an actor?
Elba: It wasn’t his actual jail cell. Because that is part of the museum and they wouldn’t let me sleep there. They just about let me stay there. I stayed in what was known as the punishment wing, which Mandela had been sent to a few times. The punishment wing was just another wing. It was awful. It was haunted. It was one of the hardest nights for me. Because the place carries such demons in there. I’m not going to lie to you. But what it did, was just give me some context as to what he went through. I was in there only one night, but I just got the sense of having your freedom taken away. And in a place that’s not very pleasant. It really contextualized for me what it is I was going to have to do. And it also made me angry. While I was in there, I was angry. But in a way that I was determined to bring justice to his character. I really wanted to make this character real, as good as possible.
JT: You’ve said that you didn’t want to do an imitation of Mandela, but rather an interpretation. What was your interpretation and how did you build that version of his character?
Elba: Mandela, he’s known for this very saintly man. I wanted to interpret that to be a little more texturized and real. I wanted the audience to walk away thinking, “Oh my God, I just had a private conversation with Mandela.” That was what I wanted to do…. When people see him, he walks into a press room, press office, press conference… What is it like prior to him walking into a press conference? That interpretation for me was what I was trying to find… And also his younger life… He was a very eloquent man. He spoke very quickly. And he was quite shy when he was younger, even though he was quite eloquent and quite a formidable character. He was quite shy. I wanted to bring him out a little bit. Bring him out and make him a…a little more dynamic… The whole story is a love story. I wanted to show a man in love. And that required some interpretation.
JT: These biopics live and die on a writer finding the thematics of it, and the director carrying those through. The thematics of this film really are the love story, and your scene partner for all of these scenes is Naomi Harris. What was it that she gave you as a scene partner that helped your performance?
Elba: She was so real; always in the moment. She never lied to me on camera ever once, never. Even when she was off-camera, never lied. She gave me the moment every single time… She was unafraid to explore the chemistry with me. She was unafraid to take it there with me in some scenes. There was one particular scene where it was so hard for us to even speak to each other. And we improvised. But we improvised the silence… And she just went with it. While I’m carrying a lot of the film, she completely supported me the whole way. And carried that weight with me in those scenes. In fact, sometimes, carried more than me… Definitely, in portions of the film, she carries it. So it was really, really good to work with her. She was so dedicated to the role.
JT: The first scene after Mandela is arrested and is basically in a labor camp situation, was that something you were able to rehearse at all? Or did you try and save it to experience for the first while filming?
Elba: There was really, very little rehearsal, as far as Justin was concerned. The “360 set” idea was about just getting straight in there. You’re doing it how he would have done it…. They showed us how to break rocks. But we didn’t break rocks prior… That just made it feel in the moment, for me as an actor. It transferred to camera, I think.
JT: Although Nelson Mandela wasn’t involved due to ill-health, different members of the Mandela family had various levels of involvement in the film. Did you want to spend a lot of time with them? Or were there reasons that you didn’t want to?
Elba: I kind of split my time. I didn’t want to spend too much time with the family. Because I didn’t want anyone to tell me how to play their Dad. I didn’t want to get overly-influenced by that. But they were very, very generous, sporadically, with information. Especially the type of information I wanted. Because I didn’t want to know what he sounded like when he woke up. I wanted to know what was said about him when he left the room. I wanted to know what the anticipation was like when he was about to step in. I wanted to know what his sense of humor was like. What sort of things made him laugh. The foundation, although they could give me that stuff, I didn’t want it in too much detail. So I was really choosy about who I spoke to.
JT: Physically or emotionally, what was the most strenuous thing you had to put yourself through in the course of filming?
Elba: Emotionally, the time in prison. When he was losing his family one-by-one. His son died. His daughters were living by themselves… That was emotionally draining… That was tough stuff to play. Because it’s very deep and it’s under the surface. It was really, really difficult. Physically, I was in every scene every day, pretty much. So that took a toll on me. I was physically knackered. And we did some six day weeks as well. So that was pretty tough.
JT: The entire time you were working on the film, what did you see or hear or learn about Nelson Mandela or South Africa or apartheid that surprised you the most?
Elba: I walked into South Africa with a prejudice… Most people coming from England, we didn’t like what happened in South Africa. And I walked in with a prejudice. I realized, “Wow, that’s wrong at this stage.” South Africans are such warm and quite welcoming people… I really felt welcomed there. I didn’t feel a bitterness from anyone, to be honest… There’s still extreme poor. There’s still extreme rich. There is still some sort of apartheid. But it’s moved on from there in a really progressive way. And I was really surprised by that. I think South Africa actually is a really progressive country.
JT: Nelson Mandela is a part of very recent global history. It makes sense that young people should see the film. But for audience members that know this story or lived through the era of apartheid, why is it important that they revisit Nelson Mandela’s struggle vis-a-vis this film?
Elba: To keep the legacy alive… And to reinforce Mandela’s ideals. Because he is a unique human being. And this film will help remind people of that… Mandela sacrificed a shitload for what we have now… Let’s not take this for granted… The book’s a great book. It’s a dense read. Young people are not going to read that book, probably. But they will watch this film… There’s a beacon for individuality in this film… You and I can actually make some change.
JT: If everyone saw the film and it was widely acclaimed, earning Oscar nominations or wins for the film, the artists, or the cast, what would that mean to you personally, or to the people here or in South Africa that were involved in bringing the story to life?
Elba: For me, it would be such an honor to accept an award based on this film about that man’s story. It’s about him…. He deserves an Oscar. He deserves any sort of prize you can get after what he did. And I think for the people of South Africa…It would be absolutely amazing. Because it was financed there. It was made there. And the artistry comes from there. It would be such a big salute to their industry. I would love to carry that Oscar, or whatever it is, back to there and say, “Here, we did it.”