Photos, except for stills from films, by Roger Wong
For London-born actor Idris Elba it must have been a moment of incredibly mixed emotions. On Thursday December 5th, the London premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom took place, and Elba who stars in this biopic as the great South Africa leader, was there in the company of Prince Andrew, his wife and many British luminaries including Mandela’s daughters when it was announced that the 95-year-old long freedom fighter had finally died.
As the driving force behind the African National Congress’ campaign against the heinous policy of Apartheid, Mandela endured prison, illness, and deprivation to become a revered world leader and role model despised by the right wing everywhere. Once he became South Africa’s first post Apartheid president, he brought a redemptive philosophy and market-driven economic ideas to a country devastated by sanctions against its defunct racist government.
Based on the 1994 autobiography of the same name, the film chronicles Mandela’s life as this international icon and revered global leader.
Although the film — as written by Oscar-nominated William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables) — spans so much of the great leader’s life, it feels too much like a summation rather than an examination. Yet it works because of Elba’s expressive performance.
Transitioning from Mandela’s childhood as a herder in South Africa’s rural Cape region, to his days as the first black lawyer and Apartheid resistance leader, director Justin Chadwick highlights key moments as he evolves from revolutionary, to prisoner (he spent a good part of 27 years on the notorious Robben Island), to his nation’s first democratically elected Black President.
As the world now mourns Mandela’s passing and celebrates his legacy, Elba, in turn, enjoys praise and recognition achieved through years of hard work playing characters of importance with a sense of authenticity and gravitas.
With his impressive resume — The Wire, Luther, Prometheus, Pacific Rim, and Thor: The Dark World, among others — the 42-year-old actor is making his mark in more ways than expected. And finally after more than 20 years of film and television work, he has just been nominated for Golden Globes in both television, for the English legal drama Luther, and film for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.
Born of a Ghanaian mother and Sierra Leonean father, Africa courses through Elba’s blood which enhanced his understanding of Mandela’s struggle. Though he started by pursuing a career in music, his success in BBC television series led him to his successful film career.
The following Q&A is compiled from two recent appearances Elba made at the Soho Apple Store in promoting both Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and Pacific Rim.
Q: What was it like to take on the role of Nelson Mandela?
IE: It was tough, obviously. There were so many personal challenges that I had to get over. I didn’t believe in Idris playing Mandela. I was hooked up on the lookalike version of Mandela and I’m West African, not South African, so there was a whole different cultural thing that I was aware of. So, to be honest, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” I didn’t have the attributes.
When my agent called me about it, I put the phone down because I thought he was joking. Eventually I came around and Justin [Chadwick] came to see me when I was making Pacific Rim in Toronto. We sat down for three nights, hung out and talked about his version of Mandela. The idea was to highlight this younger, charismatic man who was the first black lawyer in Soweto with all the energy he had, which [Justin] wanted to bring across. He wanted to show you what Mandela was like when he was my age, 41, to give some context to where Mandela ends up. I was very much worried about this role.
Q: Playing an individual who was still around [at the time, ed.] and putting him on screen — what was that like?
IE: Everything around you was part of the film. 360 degree sets. The cameras essentially could shoot anywhere. It also meant that the extras who were part of those massive crowd scenes when we had to do those speeches… though half of them were too young to actually remember Mandela in his prime -- he’s very much ingrained into their system.
And they would not allow Idris Elba — the guy from [Tyler Perry’s] Daddy’s Little Girls [laughs] — to come on stage, do Mandela, and lie to them. That was not allowed. I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes in speeches or forget my lines. It was a challenge just because I knew he was a real man to them. I was really nervous about lying to them but I never had to because they gave me so much more energy than I could even possibly give them. That encouraged me and Naomi to really make those speeches as real as they can get.
Q: What was ultimately the biggest challenge?
IE: I think playing the range realistically from around 20, which was practically impossible, to around 70, and mapping out the whole journey. Things happened to his body, mind, voice, in that whole time and that was the biggest journey, trying to figure it all out in this six-month shoot.
And we shot out of sequence. Some days, or some weeks, I’d be the older Mandela and others, I’d be the younger Mandela. Pulling it all in and making sense of it was the biggest challenge for me.
Q: Was there any point during filming that changed you in any way?
IE: The film definitely changed me. Understanding who that man is deepened my own perspective of myself and the world. It’s hard for me to talk about it in a tribute sense in a situation like this because there’s so much to talk about. Hopefully that film impacts and educates the audience, but for me, it was a life changing film to make.
Q: You mention the voice, capturing that memorable Mandela cadence...
IE: It was a lot of studying. I’m a natural mimic. If I hang around someone for long enough, I start to understand what they’re doing with their voice and their cadence and speech. Ironically enough though, my dad’s voice is not too dissimilar. He’s from West Africa, which is a slightly different accent, Sierra Leone. People who come from Africa and speak English have such an interesting cadence — it’s broken up — so almost everything you say sounds noble. It’s amazing.
With Mandela, it was something that I was in tune to with my ears and I could sort of understand a little bit. When Mandela was younger, he had a very high-pitched voice, stuttered, and spoke very quickly. As he got older, he slowed it all down and realized the power of poise and silence and really settled into his chest with this really nasally sound. I just paid attention to all of that and tried to emulate it.
Q: You’re also a musician.
IE: I love African music. I’m West African. I love hearing contemporary new African music. When I was doing this fashion show, I picked some tunes from [Malian musicians] Amadou and Mariam.
Q: And you’ve deejayed as well.
IE: Actually, I play a lot of house music and this summer, I’m going to be in Ibiza, Spain, for the whole summer doing a residency. If you come out on a Friday or a Saturday, I’ll give you the works [laughs].
Q: When you signed on to do Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s project, did he assign you homework to get into what the film’s going to be?
IE: It’s more than just reading material. He took the actors, one-by-one, and we’d have these massive sessions with him talking about the history of where [the story] came from in his head. He took us through the history of the characters, the history of the robots. My character is dipped in Japanese culture so I had to learn a lot about that.
Originally in the script, the character was named Sensei, believe it or not. In the redraft, he was called Stacker Pentecost. I had to learn a little bit about Japanese culture in the way my character moved. When he was called Sensei, he moved in a kind of zen-like way but as he changed in the script, he became that guy.
Guillermo was very hands-on with actors, he’s got shitloads of information to tell you and he’ll tell you every little beat. When we’re shooting, Guillermo is very pedantic and detailed. If he puts it there and you move it here, he’ll be like, “Cut!” He’s that detailed.
Q: Well your character in the film is also very controlling.
IE: Yeah, I do whatever the fuck I like. In terms of that character, Guillermo gives you a lot of license but he’s also the boss. He knows exactly what he wants.
Q: Pacific Rim has a very international cast — Guillermo is Mexican, Charlie Hunnan, an Australian, and you being British, what is it like working with such an international group?
IE: That was part of the DNA of what Guillermo wanted to do. He wanted an international cast because the problems of the Kaiju is an international problem. So he wanted it to feel like [that] if the world had to come together, this is what it would look like. It wouldn’t be American or English, it would just be one army. I think that was imprinted in the DNA of the whole script and showed up in the end.
Q: Describe the choreography of doing scenes where you are piloting a giant robot and fighting aliens from the sea.
IE: Guillermo likes actuality so [though] there’s a lot of green screen, the actual mechanism like the robot’s head where the soldiers would be inside, was actually built on a soundstage. It was this huge replica of a robot’s head that sat on a gimbal and the gimbal would move according to how it would move if we were actually in the thing.
Then, they put us in this suit, which took about 45 minutes to put on, and then they put us in a harness and myself and the other actor would be in this treadmill situation and we had to move in tandem. That was the hardest shit to ever do. You got this thing moving, you got frames all around, wind coming at you, you felt like you were really in that thing.
It helped us as actors because we didn’t have to imagine how uncomfortable that would feel. We had it for real. It was a really good experience in that sense. In science fiction, a lot of films are made with CG but this film, a lot of the real stuff, you can tell the difference. There’s a lot of real sets and real shit going on.
Q: Did you rehearse much or just suit up, get in the gimbal and we’re rolling?
IE: We rehearsed it a lot. We rehearsed some of the set sequences because the robots fight in a certain pattern, whether it’s punching or kicking, and the actor in the suit has to do that at the same time when we put it together so we had to rehearse that a lot. It was really difficult.
Q: What did you think when you found out that your character was re-named Stacker Pentecost?
IE: First thing is that he’s religious and I’m thinking he’s some sort of a preacher or a guru. But the name was definitely the best character name I think I’ve ever had. Stinger Bell was a good name but Stacker Pentecost that’s the shit.
Q: In the film you do a “Henry V”-like monologue -- there’s a line where you say, “Today, we’re canceling the apocalypse.” You don’t get lines like that too often.
IE: When I read the line, I have to admit that it sounds better than it actually reads. When I read it, I was like, “What? Canceling the apocalypse? Who speaks like that?”
When you’ve got 600 extras, this body suit and armor, these big robots next to you with that haircut, you feel the words. The words suddenly came to me. Canceling the apocalypse, I felt it. When I read it, I was like, “I don’t know if I can say that.”
Q: Did you love sci-fi growing up? There’s a lot of anime work [referenced] here where you don’t necessarily need to be familiar with it but if you are, you get something extra out of the film.
IE: I was into Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, growing up. That was me and sci-fi. When I got [to do] this film, it was definitely an education for me. Graphic novels, the history; I remember Godzilla but that was about it for me. It was a process of learning how deep this world is with Guillermo.
Q: Then, there’s Thor: The Dark World. You reprise playing Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge which was severed in the first one, you were out of a job but Heimdall is back.
IE: Yeah, Heimdall is back and a version of the Bifrost is back.
Q: Did you get to keep his helmet?
IE: No, man. When I woke up in the morning, my neck was always crooked. I needed a massage. That helmet looks fantastic but is very difficult to wear.
Q: Even now, The Wire is still as important as it was when it came out and has become a touchstone for intellectual discussion on the medium [television]. Did you realize how good this series would be?
IE: In short, I didn’t. The way The Wire was pitched in the beginning was that it was a procedural cop show. When I read it, I realized there was much more to it but I didn’t realize how important it was to modern day television.
I didn’t realize it would end up being a reference point for the rest of my life but I knew that the writing was good. I knew we were going to see a part of the world that doesn’t get any shine and I knew the actors we put together were real and authentic and not just star driven.
The producers had a very definite vision for it. It took me a year because it was even after the first season that I realized that this show has got legs to a wider audience than I had first thought about.
Q: Was there an episode where you saw that it was more than what you originally thought was happening?
IE: When I was shooting, none of that realization came to me. It was literally two years afterwards when people are screaming, “Where’s Wallace?” I realized that it was really penetrating an audience.
Q: How many times a month do you hear “Where’s Wallace?”
IE: About four years ago, I would probably hear that about 58 times a month and now it’s about six or seven times. These are rough figures.
Q: And then there’s Luther. Can you talk about season three?
IE: Well Luther is back for season three. We open in London in July and then it’s September in America. I’m really excited about this season. The show has evolved. With first season, we didn’t know where we were, who Luther was. The second one, we started to understand that and in the third one now, we understand it a little bit more.
I’m really proud of it and, yes, Alice is back causing all kinds of trouble. Luther is evolving. It’s a different kind of Luther. In the second season, Luther was contemplating suicide every day and in this season, he’s moving on from that. I’m excited.
Q: When you worked on the creepy Obsessed, did you look at Fatal Attraction as a reference in terms of how you maneuver the characters?
IE: I don’t think I did it consciously. In the back of our minds, we understand that Fatal Attraction is the archetype film in that category but didn’t reference it deliberately, even if it certainly was in the back of our minds as a benchmark of a great film that has been done. So, no is the short answer.
Q: Is there any credence to talks about you playing James Bond?
IE: The James Bond thing is a massive rumor that’s taken legs. I’m definitely glad to be an actor that people would like to see in that role but it isn’t going to happen at this point. If it did happen, that would be great.
Q: When you develop accents for a role, do you have to think about it?
IE: People say that my American accent is so good but the truth is I that lived in America for four years before I ever got a role playing an American. And when I got here my accent was awful. I couldn’t get a job for shit. I went up for Boris Kodjoe’s role in that film Brown Sugar but my accent was awful.
Now, when I speak to English actors that want to do American, I ask if they’ve ever spent time in America or if they know any Americans or know any history about America. If they don’t, that is where you fail immediately.
If you understand a culture, you understand the way they speak, how they communicate, and then you understand how to manipulate your mouth to talk like them. I always thought it was just something easy to learn phonetics by listening or learning from a voice coach, but for me, it was more about understanding the culture to be able to speak that way.
When I’m doing a film, for example, Nelson Mandela, that role and accent is so well known but I had to understand who his people were, who his family was, the tribe that he comes from. If I can understand that then I can understand the way he speaks. There’s a lot of work that goes into accents. I’m doing a film in England where I’ll be playing someone with a real street Eastern accent. That’s not my real accent so I have to put some thought to that to make that sound convincing.
Q: Were you excited when Guillermo said it’s fine if you sounded British?
IE: As soon as you tell someone you have an accent, they say, “Oh yeah. I hear it now.” Now, my work is doubled. I have to work extra hard to make it sound convincing.
Q: What’s the difference between doing American or British films?
IE: European dramas tends to be a lot darker than American ones. Crime thrillers and English drama has a history with whodunits and over the years, they’ve gotten darker and stranger. In America, it’s starting to head that way.
Drama producers are given license to be a lot darker in Europe; they are more open minded to that darkness in drama, but America is still more set in its own [style] but it’s changing. Cable TV is definitely changing that. AMC, [and] Showtime make more provocative, darker and less safe drama. It’s about what audiences can take. English audiences can take a little bit more at this stage.
Q: How old were you when you started making movies?
IE: I started making films when was about 21 years old but when I was about 12 years old I decided I wanted to be an actor.
Q: In one of your best films, Sometimes in April, your performance about the Rwandan genocide is so raw and graphic. How did that affect you and make you a better actor?
IE: I’ve said it to the press at the time, that film was one of the first I did after The Wire, and it absolutely changed my goals as an actor. I wanted to be a star but after I did that film, it was more important to play characters that moved me.
Rwanda was quite reluctant to see that film get made and shot there because that tragedy was only 10 years old. When we went there as actors, we felt a little disrespectful because there were people still dealing with the trauma to their families and their cities. It moved beyond just an acting job, learning an accent and learning a language, it almost became my duty to do it right.
The film takes a journalistic approach and is very hard to watch. It’s not like Hotel Rwanda, which is a good film, but a little more of a movie. It did change my roles in that I realized that I was fortunate to have been involved in shows like The Wire that keeps pushing the characters to say something and go through something.
Q: How often are you offered roles with complex characters that challenge you as an actor?
IE: Actually, I don’t get offered those roles a lot. But one day, this gentleman wrote to me and he [had] wrote this script called Legacy; he was a first time director, and sent the script. I loved it, we raised the money and made the film. That was the last time something like that happened. I’m an actor, I like to be challenged. There are great opportunities for me but not all of them are challenging.
Q: What are your favorite characters to play?
IE: Honestly, characters that take me away from myself as much as possible. I don’t want to recognize myself in it at all. I don’t have a favorite type but I think the more challenging, the more crazy the characters are, the better it is for me to play.
Q: Is there anyone you really want to work with on a movie that you haven’t yet?
IE: There are a million good actors and filmmakers I really want to work with but I haven’t been able to. I’m not just saying it because I’m in New York but Spike Lee is one. We’ve threatened to work together a number of times and I’m hoping that it’ll happen.
The good thing about stepping up the ladder as an actor is that [opening] those doors become easier. You tell a director that you really like their work and sometimes some synergy form there. I’m excited about that climb because I really get to choose the roles and choose the people I work with.