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Wayne Independent - Honesdale, PA
  • Idris Elba on playing Nelson Mandela in 'Long Walk to Freedom'

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  • When “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the warts-and-all dramatic look at the life of Nelson Mandela, premiered earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, the charismatic British actor Idris Elba (Stringer Bell on “The Wire”), who stars as Mandela (also known as Madiba), was there with the film, talking about how he went about portraying the early days of the South African president.
    The film is currently scheduled to open across the U.S. on Christmas Day (though the release date might be moved up). Due to the death of Mandela last week, it was decided to run the interview, which was conducted on Sept. 10, now.
    You never got to meet Nelson Mandela because of his health problems during production. How did you go about capturing the essence of the man for the role?
    We built Orlando (where Mandela and his family lived in Soweto) on a stage, from every single detail. So Idris stepping into the shoes of Mandela was aided by the fact that I was completely surrounded. It was a 360 set. My early preparations involved me actually going to South Africa and staying there and understanding and just being an observer. I began to feed off that. Everywhere you turned, anybody you talked to could talk about Mandela in some way or form. So I would really just soak that up. We were working with people there who had been through the struggle. But there were also people who were younger than the struggle, and had just heard, and their reference of Mandela is a different reference. So it was an energy thing. I just plugged into the energy of Mandela and the way people respect him. And I think that helped me craft my performance.
    Were you at all nervous about playing such an iconic person?
    When I traveled into communities to speak, and just sit down and observe, especially in Joberg (Johannesburg), where there’s a young sort of energy, some of the people there knew who I was and knew what I’ve done. And they would look me in the eye and say, “Do you understand the responsibility that you have here, pal?” Although it was very much accepting of me doing it, they wanted me to understand that responsibility. And that speaks about the culture, about the way they hold the story dear to their hearts. I wasn’t expecting to be completely accepted as Madiba immediately, for various reasons, but there was certainly a willingness for us to go for it. But we knew we had only one chance. There was no messing about with this character and this story. That was made very apparent to me in the beginning.
    In the early parts of the film, Nelson Mandela is shown as no saint, particularly in terms of his first marriage, to Evelyn Mase. Did you have any qualms about including those aspects of his character?
    Page 2 of 2 - We were very keen to portray Mandela as a man, as a human being, and that included some parts of his life that might not be as flattering as we might think. That was an important part of the performance for me. We’ve seen the saintly Mandela that we all know and love, but I think it was important for us to explore and take the audience on a journey prior to that. I’m 41, and it was around that age that he became an activist, but he’d lived a very full life prior to that. And when you understand that, you understand how long of a walk that freedom is. For me, as an actor, that was a challenge. I didn’t want to deface Mr. Mandela in any way, but I didn’t want to portray him in a way that wasn’t honest. I think we achieved it gracefully and honestly. It was important that we had both sides of the character, the good and the bad.
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