Idris Elba had a string of starring roles leading up to his portrayal of Nelson Mandela. Yet his powerful fictional characters—Baltimore drug dealer Russell 'Stringer' Belle in the exceptional television series The Wire, his lauded military hero in Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim and his titular role as a genius London detective in the police series Luther—could never match the real life strength or complexity of South Africa's legendary leader.
The hardest thing was doing scenes in front of South Africans, who had either been there with Mr. Mandela or have a real perspective on Apartheid
Mandela was still alive when I spoke to the London-born actor in September at the Toronto Film Festival where Justin Chadwick's film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on Mandela's autobiography, had world premiered the previous evening. The 41-year-old actor was clearly overwhelmed by the reception to the film, even if critics had their reservations. Elba's portrayal, however, stood up to little criticism, with Variety calling it “a towering performance”. Certainly Elba's accent was more spot-on than Morgan Freeman's in Invictus, even if he was unable to shrink as Mandela grew older.
In our interview, seated on a panoramic Toronto hotel terrace as he needs a breath of fresh air, Elba looks very chilled out and is dressed in shorts (his thighs are like tree trunks). An accomplished DJ, he is naturally outgoing, flashes a killer smile and soon displays his sharp sense of humour. He oozes sex appeal and charisma and clearly is a star of the future, if not the present.
Since I haven't had a drink for days, I order a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc to sit in the sun with the actor, who whole-heartedly approves after clearly whooping it up at the premiere the previous evening.
How was the film's world premiere?
It was really, really moving. It was like church. Everyone was emotionally charged.
Was that the biggest moment of your career?
Yeah, definitely. I have never had a standing ovation before and a film of this magnitude, a character of this magnitude, all rolled into this really weird, interesting space in my life in the minute.
What interesting space?
Friday was my birthday, Saturday I premiered the biggest film of my life and Friday saw the fourth episode of the third season of Luther screen to really big audiences in America for the first time. There are all these planetary things going on all at the same time and it ended up with that moment yesterday when everyone stood up and it just was like, 'Dude!' We all just looked at each other, we were clapping and everyone was looking at us. I have never seen that before. It was amazing.
How did you get involved in the project?
I was in Toronto shooting Pac Rim and the producers called and asked if I would at least talk to Justin Chadwick about playing Mandela. I was like, are you kidding me? Honestly, I wasn't sure if it was a joke. I asked my agent, who is South African, and he was like, 'No dude, I've done the homework on this; this is the real film and they want you'. I said that I look nothing like Nelson Mandela. But Justin came here to Toronto and sat with me for three days and we chatted and I understood what he wanted to do and I said yes.
How did you prepare for the role?
During the six months I was here on Pac Rim I worked on the performance. That included a lot of reading, watching a lot of documentaries, and trying to understand South African cultures, understanding that struggle, because I had never really read up on it. Then I moved out to South Africa prior to filming for about two months and stayed there for six months. I had to learn the accent, the physicality, the idiosyncratic behaviour, and so on.
Which was the hardest?
The hardest thing was doing scenes in front of South Africans, who had either been there with Mr. Mandela or have a real perspective on Apartheid. Not looking like Mandela, not being from South Africa, and then coming in that room and making them see and feel the essence of the great man presented a huge challenge.
How did you get over that?
I didn't really get over it. Basically, Mr. Mandela had to do the same thing. He would step into these big cinemas and just stop the film and talk about revolution, change, causing trouble. It just so happened that people wanted to hear someone change the game. With me, I would learn my lines, obviously, but given these are lines are Mr. Mandela's words or some form of his words, I had to put any reservations aside and just do it.
You made it your own?
I stopped acting and became the character.
Did you know about Mandela when you were young? What is your emotional connection to him?
I was led by my father from a young age: this is Mandela, this is who he is and this is what he's done. That was always the backdrop of our household, alongside other political leaders. But Mandela stuck out as the one for me because he had such a compelling story. He was a man who was in jail. Why was he in jail? Because he was an activist. I didn't understand. I was a kid.
So your parents were working class, yet quite politically motivated?
Yeah, well, definitely for African politics. My parents are both West African.
You weren't able to meet Mandela for the film?
I didn't meet him, though I didn't necessarily want to meet him either, because our focus in the film was on a very young Mandela. Everything I wanted to know about Mandela was in a box somewhere or in a documentary. I am sure he could have offered insights to me that would have been poignant to my performance, but I didn't want to force that. I was very fortunate to have a massive support network that included his family and foundation. If I wanted it, I got help with any question I asked.
Are you bigger in size than Mandela?
No, he's 6'3", he was a boxer. He's a very tall man. He became slighter in frame as he grew older, but at my age he was actually bigger than me. It's interesting because people don't know that.
Did you have any doubts about playing someone so iconic?
I did. I honestly thought I wasn't qualified enough. I've had a good career and lots of work, but nothing like this. I thought, why Idris Elba? He has never been up for an Oscar, he has never done anything of this magnitude in film—oh, apart from that film with Beyoncé (the 2009 flop, Obsessed). He was amazing in that!
Oh, you mean that DJ called Big Driis?
Exactly. I really felt that might spin me off into some sort of odd, not qualified, who are you? And even afterwards, it was difficult to decide what to do next. I love acting, I love performing great challenging roles, but they don't write many of those.
How do you choose a role?
It's largely the character. In hindsight, my characters have been varied, but the films perhaps haven't been up to the standard of the characters. So going forward, I am still looking for challenging roles, but at the same time I want to keep an eye out for what the films mean and say.
So that's changed since you played Mandela?
Yeah, it has. There are one or two films I shot beforehand that come out later. One of them is No Good Deed. (He plays a charismatic stranger threatening a family in the film, which is directed by Sam Miller, who did the majority of Luther episodes.) It's a thriller, it's popcorn Friday, it's goodtime cinema.
'Stringer' Bell is my favourite character in The Wire, together with Omar (Michael C. Williams). I've found it difficult watching Luther hearing you with that other accent.
You haven't seen Luther? (He's a producer on the show.) When you get a chance, see it if you can. The characters are complex. 'Stringer' Bell has a very different complexity, and the writing makes that character fantastic. The part itself on paper doesn't say anything. When I read it, it was the guy who stands next to Avon.
So you really made something of that.
Well, if there is any complexity to be found in that character, it's a combination of the writers and myself saying, “Let's dig a little deeper, let's dig beneath the surface a little.”
You worked with Ridley Scott on Prometheus. Was his approach different to that of Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) on this film?
Ridley is a mastermind at making films. It's like being in school. 'This is what I am shooting and this is how I am going to use it'. Justin wants to capture the moment, to get on with it, to drop the audience right in it so he can spin them around 360 degrees and they are still in the film.
Are you doing The Gunman?
Yes, with Sean Penn, Javier Bardem and Ray Winstone. I'm currently shooting it now. My part is quite small but instrumental. I took the job because of the cast. [It's being directed by France's Pierre Morel, of Taken and From Paris with Love fame-infamy.]
What's it like being around them?
Amazing. I've made a friend out of Sean, who has been incredibly generous and very supportive of my work. He's a big 'Stringer' Bell fan and a big Luther fan and really wanted me to come and do this film because he wanted to work with me. He's a living legend and one of the best actors. He's a guy that hung out with Marlon Brando. I feel like I'm in great company.
Can you see yourself playing James Bond?
No, it's a rumour. People ask me about it all the time. I don't know where the rumour started, but it'd be an amazing part to play.
How does it feel to come from your working class background to where you are now?
Still working class, still busting my arse working hard for money. I feel that my journey has been one of extreme hard work and I believe in dreaming. I believe in fulfilling your own destiny and it feels great to know that I'd wanted to have this sort of career and now here I am. It wasn't handed to me, I just knew I wanted to get it and didn't know how I was going to get it, but I saw my way through and it feels good.
So 'Stringer' Bell did it a bit?
Yeah, 'Stringer' Bell opened up a lot of doors for me in America. But before that in England my doors were opened 10 years prior in smaller TV roles. I remember being at the pinnacle of my career in England and then going to America and losing it, but then coming back with 'Stringer' Bell and regaining it. It's just peaks and troughs.
Marie Bello said it's called a career! What's it been like working with Chris Hemsworth on the Thor movies?
He's a gent, a super gent. I really got on with him and his wife and their lovely little daughter. I think he's a really good actor as well.
Do you think big guys can be nice because they have nothing to be afraid of?
Ha, ha, ha! Yeah, it doesn't make any sense you being a big guy and being horrible. You're just alienating yourself, aren't you?
The other day I hung out with another Australian actor, Joel Edgerton. He came with Sean to a dinner party I had. He's been in London working with Ridley [on Exodus]. A beautiful man, really nice. I told him I was a fan of his films, The Square and Animal Kingdom.
One of the best Australian movies.
Yeah, one of the best. He was floored. He was like, “What, you've seen it?” I said, “Are you joking, man? You are a legend!”
Why did Sean bring him? Is he mates with Sean?
With your DJ work, you've been working as Big Driis and Big Driis the Londoner?
That was one of my DJ names when I was really doing it in New York. I just finished a festival season in Ibiza. I play house and electro, which is quite a specific market. I love it. It's my reset button as an actor.
Does music help your acting?
I use music in an interesting way. I definitely meditate to music beforehand, when I am trying to build an environment for my character to sit in.
Any kind of music?
Any kind of music. Then I use the creation of music as an exercise of my creativity. I am on the plane all the time making beats.
I'd hate to sit next to you.
I'd put my headphones on and I'd get your drinks for you! (He flashes over at my sauvignon blanc.)
Have you ever been to Australia?
You even made a film called Pacific Rim! I brought you this postcard [of Coogee Beach] to show you where I live—on the Pacific rim.
Wow, I'm keeping that. I will come and visit. It turns out that Luther, outside of Britain and America, has the biggest audience in Australia. I've been asked to come out on a press tour there, but it's too far.
You are a busy boy.
I'm directing a little bit at the moment too. I've done something for Sky Arts Playhouse Presents on TV. [His directing debut, The Pavement Psychologist, which he also wrote, stars Anna Friel as a woman whose world is turned upside down after meeting a homeless man.] I also directed a video for Mumford & Sons, a massive band. It's really a treat for me. I love being on set without being in front of the camera. It's a real creation sort of fest for me. I will be doing a bit more of that in the future.
And you think Mandela will change something for you?
It already has. I want to play another character that is compelling, and I am about to do a film with Cary Fukunaga about child soldiers in a West African civil war [based on Uzodinma's 2005 fictional novel].
That's the more serious thing you are talking about.
Mmm. This character is nothing like Mandela, he is an awful, awful man. For me, that's a challenge.
You haven't played a villain before.
Not an awful, awful man. 'Stringer' Bell was pretty awful.
No he wasn't! (I joke, like the fan that I am.)
Ooooh look! (He emits a high voice, chuckling and pointing at me.)
What is awful about this guy?
He's a psychopathic soldier who told children they could be soldiers. It's awful. Well, that's what I want to do with him.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is released in cinemas February 6.