Actor accepts Mandela responsibility

By cindy pearlman

December 27, 2013 5:16PM

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Updated: January 29, 2014 6:03AM

TORONTO — Idris Elba came to the role of Nelson Mandela with a warning. It was given to him in person and without hesitation.

“I went into the villages of South Africa to observe before we shot the movie,” says the star of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” “I saw people my age and younger who knew me from my work. They looked me in the eye and said, ‘Idris, do you understand the responsibility you have here, pal?’

“That speaks about the culture and how they hold this story close to their hearts.”

The London native, best known for his TV roles in “Luther” and “The Wire,” says the weight of the “Mandela” role — and finding that Mandela magic — weighed heavily on him. “I wasn’t expecting to be accepted as Mandela. But I knew I only had one shot. There is no messing about with this character or this story,” says Elba.

The movie chronicles Mandela’s life from a childhood in a rural village to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Elba says audiences will see the whole man.

“We wanted to portray Mandela as a human being including parts that were less flattering,” he says. “We’ve seen the saintly Mandela. We take the audience on a journey prior to that to understand who he was and how he became the man who all know.”

Elba says his time in South Africa was critical to his performance. “I stayed there to understand,” he says. “It was important for me to be an observer. I began to feed off it. Anywhere and everywhere you turned someone could talk about Mandela in some form. These are people who have been through the struggle. I began to soak it up.”

Part of the challenge was understanding how people reacted to Mandela.

“A lot of getting into the role was about the energy,” he says. “There were scenes where I was told, ‘I don’t want you to rehearse this. Just walk into the room and go for it. You’ll feel it.’ I plugged into the energy of Mandela and the way people respected him.”

Elba was unable to visit with Mandela because of health reasons. Sadly, he died before the film’s release.

Elba says that he will never forget the man or playing him in the rousing crowd scenes. He says that vibe was “palpable.” “You would hear the roar of the crowd of extras, and it just made your heart race. The energy of South African is just beyond words,” Elba says.

In the end, Elba says the film’s message is that any man can have a moral victory over his oppressors. “Nelson Mandela realized that his oppressors were more afraid of him than he was of them. That was a victory too,” he says.

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