Crazy as it sounds, actor Idris Elba tells The Root, his first hesitation when approached about portraying South African leader Nelson Mandela in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was, “He’s light-skinned and I’m dark-skinned!”
It was a trivial concern when weighed against the greater challenge of taking on the role of what Elba calls a “national treasure.” With an entire nation waiting to critique the choice, most important to Elba was whether the South African people would accept him.
To prepare for the film, in which he portrays the South African leader for nearly half a century of his life, Elba went to South Africa to live for a short period, and the response he received took him by surprise. He says many people expressed that it was an honor that an actor like Idris Elba would consider taking on the role of their hero. He became more determined to make them proud.
To get to know the private side of the man, the actor told interviewer Ed Gordon that he spent time with Mandela’s daughters (who teasingly called him “Dad”).
“This was their dad—this was not Nelson Mandela. And they wanted someone to bring that to life in a real way,” Elba says.
He was also determined to learn how Mandela seemed to transcend politics and touch people’s souls: “I didn’t want to hear stories, particularly about what he did, when he said it and how he said it. I just wanted to understand how people related to him. I just wanted to understand that aura.”
But the “single most scary thing I’ve done in my life,” says Elba, was spending the night in a cell alone on Robben Island, where the anti-apartheid activist was imprisoned for 19 years.
“It’s haunted,” says Elba of the island prison. He claims that the souls of the departed visited him while he was shuttered behind three locked gates, with only a nonworking cellphone as a lifeline to the outside.
“The truth is, it really helped understand the context of what I was doing … That place is designed to rob your soul.”