Elba rises to the daunting challenge of playing Mandela

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
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IT was an ironic twist of fate.

Hours after Idris Elba walked up the red carpet for the UK premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, it was announced that Nelson Mandela had died.

Elba, who portrays the late South African President in the film, issued a statement saying: “I am stunned at this very moment. We have lost one of the greatest human beings to have walked this earth, I only feel honoured to be associated with him.”

Ironic timing aside, taking on the lead role in Justin Chadwick’s drama was always set to be huge for the actor.

Already known for playing troubled detective DCI John Luther in the BBC series and drug kingpin ‘Stringer’ Bell in US show The Wire, 41-year-old Elba is now making his mark on the world stage and his performance has met with awards buzz – so far, he’s up for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award.

He’s also hotly tipped for a Best Actor nod at the Oscars (nominations are unveiled on January 10). But, he says, this wasn’t on his mind when he signed on. “If I’m really honest, every role I make, I feel like I put my work in. It’s on someone else to say this is career-defining, and I take that as a compliment, but ultimately I try and work hard in every role I do.”

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, adapted from the late statesman’s autobiography of the same name, spans Mandela’s journey from his early years as a herd boy in rural Transkei to a lawyer in post-war Johannesburg, through to his 27-year-long imprisonment and inauguration as the South Africa’s first democratically elected and black President.

It also focuses on the changing relationship between Mandela and his second wife Winnie, played by Naomie Harris. Elba admits he didn’t take Chadwick seriously when he was initially approached for the role, which Denzel Washington was originally earmarked for.

“I didn’t really believe him to be honest. I thought it was a joke. I thought, ‘What? Who? No! Really?’” he recalls. Then, the reality of who he was about to play sunk in.

“It is very daunting. It was a massive undertaking, but it was a gift of a part. I don’t look anything like Mandela. To play someone who is great, and to have the whole 52-year span to play the character is a gift, so I really enjoyed that,” he says. “South Africans weren’t allowing me to lie and pretend or mock this role. That was what made my challenge even harder. Ultimately, it gave me a real benchmark to work towards.”

But Elba never had any doubts about whether he could do it. “I had the conviction of Mandela behind me. His story is so amazing. If he could live that life, then I could make his life on film.”

While he never actually met Mandela, Elba won over the former President and his family, including his ex-wife Winnie and two of his daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, who gave their backing to the film. “Winnie’s amazing. She calls me ‘Husband’,” says the London-born actor with a smile. “Winnie, Zindzi and Zenani have been really helpful from day one. Winnie’s very insightful about how she wanted to see this film come to life. She had seen loads of films about Mandela and she wanted the real Mandela, the real depiction of her family on screen.”

So what’s their verdict?

“They love it,” Elba says. “I’ve seen it with them twice now. They are very moved by it, it’s very personal to them and there are some high emotions.”