In promoting his new film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Idris Elba sat down with Ed Gordon for The Root to discuss taking on the role of Nelson Mandela. He said that initially he thought the whole thing was a joke and admitted that the different in skin complexion was a serious concern at first. Elba talks about how he got over that and how he spent the night in Robben Island, the jail Mandela spent 19 years in, preparing for the role. Check out the highlights from the interview, including what Elba wants audiences to take from the film.
His hesitancy in taking the role
When I first got the call from my agent, who happens to be South African, I thought he was joking. And I said to him ‘Roger, now is not the time.’ Put the phone down. He called back. I was like ‘Man, seriously man I ain’t got time for this.’ And then when it dawned on me that he was serious and that this was something that was actually happening, I was like well, first and foremost, and as surface as this might sound, I was like, ‘I don’t look like him. He’s light skin and I’m dark skin. How is that ever going to work?’ That is the first thing I said as ridiculous as that sounds. And as the conversations progressed and the idea of playing Mr. Mandela came about I started to take on a whole different type of issue. You know this is a living legend. This is a man who is recognizable to pretty much everyone around the world. [He] is a part of our generation in a way that– how does an actor even pretend to be Nelson Mandela in his life story, interpreting his own words while he is still alive and make a film?
I got over that idea because we knew that the filmmaker didn’t want to make a looky-like type of Mandela. They wanted to make an interpretation of the man. But then my trepidation was about the country and how would the country ever accept me to play Mr. Mandela. I spent three days with the director talking about that and talking about his vision and how he was going to do it as a filmmaker. And when I was satisfied with what he had to say, I took the bold step to go to South Africa two months before just to live, just to see, just to understand South Africa and that’s where I realized I could do it. The country also embraced me, Idris Elba as an actor and were actually quite proud of the fact that I would think about playing the man. That took me by surprise.
And then it was straight up responsibility. Ed, if I come to your house and you say ‘Idris, listen take this for me and look after it.’ That’s what they said to me and I was like alright, I have to look after this, I have to pull this off and make them proud. It’s interesting because I’ve never had to feel like that for any other role ever. You feel that–if a writer hands you a script and he says ‘This is my character and I wrote it,’ you feel it for a second like ‘Aww man thank you very much, I’m going to do what I can with it.’ But Mr. Mandela that’s a national treasure, a worldwide citizen that was a slightly different thing to do.
Spending the night in Robben Island
I spent the night there and when I think about it now, it was the single most scariest thing I’ve done in my life. Number one because nobody’s spent the night in that jail since 198– something, ok? The place is haunted, ok? They gave me a phone by insurance purposes and said you have to have this phone because we are locking you in but if you want to get out you have to call us. So I said ok cool, they lock the first gate. He said, ‘You sure you want to do this?’ I said yeah. Makes lock sound ‘kom’. He walked to the second gate he goes, ‘Mr. Elba I’m about to leave are you sure you want to do this?’ I said yes. “Kom’ Locked the third gate. Walked about 10 steps, ‘kom’ 20 steps later ‘kom.’ I was wow I’m in here. I ain’t getting out no way. I have to leave tomorrow. I pick up the phone course, to say just in case, just in case. I look at the phone and there’s no signal. I stayed there all night.
The novelty of it is what it is, I spent the night in jail rah rah rah. But the truth is it really helped me to understand the context of what I’m doing here. This guy was deprived his freedom for 19 years in that one cell. And that place is designed to rob your soul from you. That’s what it’s designed to do to take your soul out of you. You’re just a carcass, you’re just a man, bone and skin. Your soul leaves. And I tell you man, I was scared I was really scared. It was no joke. It’s haunted. A lot of people died there and their spirits are trapped in there. And you know, I definitely feel like once or twice during the night they came to see me for sure.
What he wants audiences to take from the film?
Less about the performance man. It’s about what does his life, his journey say to the audience. I want the audience to realize that every man has the ability, every single one of us has the ability to make some change. You may not ever make the changes that Mr. Mandela made to South Africa and the world. But you, one individual, can make some sort of change. That’s what I want audiences to get. And especially younger audiences who might not even know who Mr. Mandela is or understand what apartheid is or was, if they walk out of that theater and go ‘Whoa, you know what that thing I’ve been thinking about, about community service down the road, I actually am going to go over there and see if I can do something about it.’ That’s what I want.
You can watch the entire interview here where Idris explains how the Mandela daughters embraced him and how they coached him to portray their father, whether or not he captured Mandela’s essence.