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Idris Elba on playing Mandela: I wanted to do an ‘interpretation’ not an ‘impression’

December 10th, 2013
04:23 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

When Idris Elba was cast as Nelson Mandela, he decided he was not going to try to do an impersonation of the revered South African president.

“It’s a big ask for the audience to watch myself play Mandela,” Elba told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday. “I don’t look anything like Mandela; I’m considerably younger than the older Mandela.”

“So it was important that I didn’t do an impersonation of any actor, or Mandela himself, but sort of an interpretation.”

He purposefully did not watch previous portrayals of Mandela, like Morgan Freeman’s performance in 2009’s “Invictus,” lest he be influenced by them.

Elba, most famous for his roles in the TV series “The Wire” and “Luther,” stars in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a biopic based on the autobiography.

It has set box office records in South Africa; it had its premiere in London last week on the very night Mandela died.

Indeed, Elba and a producer on the film, Anant Singh, were forced to announce Mandela’s passing to the audience just after the credits had rolled.

“It was an awful feeling,” Elba said. “There was an audible gasp in the room; it was an incredible moment.”

The film is ten years in the making, and began with letters written to Mandela by Singh, who also spoke with Amanpour.

It’s a “huge responsibility as a South African,” Singh said.

In order to do the autobiography justice, he said, they decided that they had to tell “the full story,” from young boy to old man.

“He’s got such a big life, and such an epic life, that to try and cut that canvas into a two-hour, 20-minute film was a huge challenge.”

The solution they came to was use as a thread Mandela’s often fraught relationship with his second wife, Winnie.

The filmmakers also decided that telling the “full” story meant not painting a perfect portrait, but including the man’s flaws, like his initial endorsement of violent uprising, and later familial struggles.

In order to understand “the man that’s sanctified, that we all love – the silver hair, the fist-pumping Mandela,” Elba said, one must understand what he sacrificed, and that includes his family.

“He is a human being, and I think you have more respect for him if you understand the journey he’s taken to the great man that we know and love.”

Singh said that that is what Mandela would have wanted.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with him, as you know, over the years. He had said to me, ‘I had have weaknesses and I have strengths. I am like an everyman. Show me for my strengths and weaknesses.’”

Elba said that he hoped that apart from the broad strokes of Mandela’s “legacy and ideals,” he hoped audience members would take away personal lessons from the film.

“My daughter is 11,” Elba said. “I’d love for her to see this film and understand that every individual can make an effort and can force change. Even the smallest amount of inspiration can force some sort of change.”


Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • South Africa
soundoff (27 Responses)
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    December 10, 2013 at 6:49 pm | Reply
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      December 10, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Reply
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    Idris Elba is the second actor from The Wire to play Mandela. Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon on The Wire) played Mandela in 'Endgame' about the negotiations that led to the end of Apartheid and the freeing of Mandela from prison.

    Now I'm just waiting for a third version of the Nelson Mandela story with Wendell "Bunk(y Bunk)" Pierce to be proposed.

    December 10, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Reply
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