A brilliant British actor with an American cult following, Idris Elba has made the world his stage. Now he takes on the role of a lifetime as South Africa’s greatest hero in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela.
The Inside of the January 2014 issue of Vogue is worth reading as it graces the man of the hour, Idris Elba. In the Nathan Heller-penned piece, Elba opened up about starring in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom as the late, revered South African leader Nelson Mandela. Read the full story below and enjoy the eye candy pictures of this truly gorgeous man.
One afternoon in autumn, Idris Elba claims a table in a Primrose Hill pub, on the northern cusp of central London, and reflects on the peculiarity of screening his film portrait of one global leader for the judgment of another. Less than 24 hours from now, Elba, who plays Nelson Mandela in Justin Chadwick’s landmark bio-pic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, will fly to Washington, D.C., for a White House screening with President Barack Obama. It’s the sort of engagement that would put a shimmer of nervousness into many shining stars, but Elba—a native Londoner known for his versatile craft and unflappable cool—seems more concerned with the logistics of the flight than his encounter with the leader of the Free World. “He’s a nice guy,” he tells me. (They’ve met once before, at a state dinner where Elba was a guest of Britain’s prime minister.) “I go to shake his hand, and he’s like, ‘Come on, man! Give me a dap.’ ”
Now, plopping down on a bench along the pub’s far wall and ripping open a gigantic bag of popcorn, Elba talks about the challenge of playing a world-renowned political hero. “I’ve been told I have presence. I’ve been told I’m charismatic. But I’m not Nelson Mandela,” he jokes. “Everybody has a sense of who Mandela is—his nobleness, his white hair, his voice. Those were big shoes to fill.” He scoops up a handful of kernels. “I felt like that would be the challenge: to create Mr. Mandela’s presence on film for people who have never met him.”
At 41, with a career divided among the stage, television, and the big screen, Elba has emerged as one of the most beloved British actors of his generation. Best known in this country for his role as Russell “Stringer” Bell on David Simon’s HBO drama The Wire, Elba has since inhabited a startling range of characters, appearing in everything from gritty indie films to high-gloss block-busters. On the side, he’s built a separate career as a rapper and club DJ, originally under the moniker Driis. He’s just finished cutting the first two tracks of his first full-length album, called Mi Mandela. “Each song is about some sort of feeling, some sort of transitional moment, while I was playing him,” he says. “I took some musicians down to South Africa, and I created this soundscape.”
Elba is tall and broad-shouldered, with a majestic bearing and stony, appraising eyes. His facial hair comes and goes; at the moment, he’s wearing a well-trimmed beard, tinged with gray. He has a heartthrob’s delicate, dimpled cheeks and debonair brow line, but he deploys his charm unpredictably, like a new pair of glasses that he keeps forgetting to put on. Much of the time, he seems quietly abstracted, reticent, serious. There’s a sense that even when Idris Elba is standing directly in front of you, the man himself is slightly out of reach. On-screen, one moment he is playful, laid-back, and quite amiable; at another, he’s high-strung and hobbled with vulnerability. “What’s most impressive to me is not that he’s as dynamic and sexy and masculine as he is—and how powerfully that translates on-screen—but that he can damper it down,” says Laura Linney, who handpicked him for a recurring role in the first season of her series The Big C. “When star quality is aligned with good acting, that’s pretty powerful. George Clooney has that. A few people have that—not many. I certainly think Idris does.”
Playing Nelson Mandela marks an arrival of sorts for Elba: The former South African president ranks among the most iconic characters of the past half century, a paragon of hard-won human rights. Chadwick’s movie, based on Mandela’s 1994 memoirs, describes that liberation through a life by turns rollicking, revolutionary, isolated, and triumphal. “We all know the icon,” the director says. “But I wanted the film really to be about the man. And I wanted a great actor who didn’t bring any baggage.”
Mandela opens on the lush, orange-lit plains of South Africa’s Xhosa nation, where the young Nelson undergoes his clan’s manhood ritual. “You alone are small,” the presiding leader tells the boys. “Your people are mighty”—counsel that defines Mandela’s worldview from then on. In Elba’s portrayal, the young Mandela is a gentleman and a playboy, standing tall in court by day and dancing in Johannesburg’s hot spots by night. Yet he finds even his most brilliant efforts thwarted by a justice system weighted toward white interests. “When I am better qualified, and better dressed, and richer than they, they can’t call me ‘boy’ anymore!” he says.
Moving across decades, the film traces Mandela’s growing vision and all-too-human appetites. After he’s arrested for the first time, his first wife leaves him, frustrated by his devotion to the cause and exasperated by his increasing adultery. (“When you are in prison,” his own mother admonishes him, “who is going to do your duties as a man?”) By the time he marries his second wife, Winnie, here played by the British actress Naomie Harris, his activities with the African National Congress have become violent and dangerous. In 1963, he is tried for conspiracy and sabotage; in a rousing speech, he professes his willingness to die for the cause of South African equality. Instead, he and his collaborators are sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island.
Much of the movie traces his transforming relationship with Winnie. Harris found herself impressed by Elba’s focus: “He’s incredibly determined and hardworking.” At one point, Elba effectively rewrote a crucial scene because he didn’t think it was true to their increasingly complex dynamic. “He’s not just an actor,” she explains. “He wears a producer’s hat and a director’s hat, and he can move among them.”
Chadwick’s biopic is stylishly filmed, but it also offers a sharp historical assessment, proposing that, by being incarcerated for nearly three decades, Mandela escaped the radicalization of a lot of his contemporaries: Prison, in some sense, softened him politically. Winnie, who spent those years under persecution and torture, develops a more militant mind-set; Chadwick shows us how far apart in politics and life the two of them have grown by the time of Mandela’s release, in 1990. Mandela, now framed by the snowy halo by which he’s known, attempts to heal his nation’s wounds. “We cannot win a war,” he announces on TV. “But we can win an election.”
Elba sought to get as deep as possible inside the character. “I didn’t want to do an impression,” he explains. He read extensively in Mandela’s diaries. “You can tell quite a bit about someone by the way they write,” he says. “He’s a quite methodical man. He was very tidy. Extremely tidy. This”—he gestures toward the ripped bag and scattered popcorn before him—“would be too messy for him. This”—a couple of £10 notes tossed nearby—“would have been put away, neatly folded in his pocket. This hat”—a bright-red cap that he brought to guard against the autumn chill—“would be in his pocket.” Elba casts up his hands. “I’m not like that. I land here. And I use my environment however I wish.”
Although Elba didn’t try to resemble Mandela physically—he’s a bigger guy, for one thing—he imbued his portrait of the leader with small mannerisms drawn from life. “I’m a real worm for detail, and Idris is the same,” Chadwick says. “He soaked up conversation with people who knew Mandela well.” Instead of hiring extras, Chadwick brought locals on set to fill out the movie’s crowd scenes. A lot of them had lived through the long, tumultuous end of apartheid and were wary of an actor—a British actor, no less—trying to perform their history. “It’s a certain kind of brave actor who actually walks out and gives speeches to that kind of raw crowd,” says Chadwick.
“I stood up and talked to these extras. I’m looking them in the eye, and I know what they’re thinking,” Elba says. “ ‘You’re not South African. You don’t look like Mandela. Show me something.’ ” By the time the film wrapped, they were calling him Madiba.
Idris Elba—his name is short for Idris-sa, which he understands to mean “first-born leader” in his parents’ native West Africa—grew up in Hackney, in East London. His father was Sierra Leonean. His mother hailed from Ghana, with American roots. (Her own father had been raised in Kansas City; Elba says he sometimes dreams of getting in touch with his Midwestern relatives.) As a kid, he kept a low profile, until he entered his first acting class at school. “I had a really beautiful drama teacher,” he says, no minor matter at an all-boys’ school.
Elba’s father worked at a nearby Ford factory for decades; for a while, Elba—despite his drama-class dreams and some training at the National Youth Music Theatre—worked there too, trying out for theater roles but getting nowhere. He worried that he, too, was destined for a life on the assembly line. So one night he quit. The next day, he flew to New York, took a room at the YMCA, and started to audition.
For years, Elba struggled to scrape together a living as an actor in New York and back in London, taking bit parts and DJing for the nightly paychecks. (Elba had a DJ uncle in London at whose feet he learned the trade: “If we were good boys, we were allowed to play on the double turntables.”) In 1997, in the course of bouncing back and forth between America and the U.K., he married the Liberian actress Dormowa Sherman, whom he’d been seeing in London. Before long, though, the peripatetic lifestyle wore at his marriage, and so did all the unrealized dreams. In 2001—shortly before his daughter was born—they divorced. He auditioned for a new show called The Wire and got a part as a drug dealer who takes economics classes in the hope of making something of himself. (By then, Elba had perfected his American accent.) The role of Stringer Bell harnessed all of Elba’s charm and striving warmth. When the character got killed off in 2004, it seemed that an entire cable-watching nation mourned his death.
The parts began arriving quickly after that. Elba took a fraught role as Augustin Muganza, a Hutu army captain married to a Tutsi, in Sometimes in April, a television movie set against the Rwandan genocide. (Though the film is little known, it is his favorite part to date.) He moved into mainstream Hollywood films like American Gangster and Prometheus. Back in Britain, he took the title role in Luther, a series about a dissipated but brilliant detective. Last summer, he played the stern, mustachioed commander Stacker Pentecost in Guillermo del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim. His chameleon skills are so refined that many people scarcely recognize his range. “It’s quite interesting for me when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Yo, man, I haven’t seen you working much. What’s going on?’ I’ll say”—he cracks a quick grin of delight—“ ‘Oh, I’ve done bits and pieces here and there.’ ”
Elba’s life these days is what he calls a “traveling circus.” (“Ain’t no better show in town!”) He moves among a network of hotels and temporary residences—in London, New York, L.A., and Atlanta, where his daughter, now twelve, lives with his ex-wife. It can be weeks or more between visits. “You sacrifice that time—not just my daughter but my family,” he says. “I’m away from that structure so much that it’s actually a very lonely life sometimes.”
“I’m not sure what his process is when he’s not at work,” says Laura Linney. “He shows up ready to go, and then he’s very pres-ent.” What seems to drive Elba is the next challenge at hand—and the one after that, too. He’s just finished filming The Gunman, a thriller with Javier Bardem. He’s entertained thoughts of “making a really fantastic musical,” bringing together his theatrical interests with his work as a DJ. “Original music, original story—that would be a cherry on the cake for me,” he says. Another hope, he confides to me, is to direct. “I’ve done some music videos, some short films. I really enjoy it. I’m using a language within my career that I’ve never used before.”
Most viewers would rather have him in front of the camera lens. By some accounts, his general effect on women is not unlike that of Sean Connery in his vigorous prime. (Elba, not coincidentally, is a favorite write-in candidate for the not-quite-yet-existent role of “the first black James Bond.” Well-built and British, with a way with a well-cut suit, he seems the natural choice.) Even President Obama, later that week, will make an impromptu plea at the screening. “Idris Elba couldn’t sit down because all the ladies—all the ladies were all over him,” the leader of the Free World explained, according to Elba. “Give him a break today, ladies.”
The last person to give Elba a break, though, may be Elba himself, who never stops imagining and reimagining the world through his characters’ eyes. At one point, portraying the old Madiba, Elba used a hand gesture—a middle-finger point—that his father, who died in September, constantly made. “My dad was very charismatic and always smiling. Everyone liked to talk to him,” Elba tells me after we leave the pub and begin driving through London. It is early evening, and the sidewalks flanking the road have begun to bustle with commuters. “Without seeing Mandela in real life—just watching a lot of footage—he reminded me of my dad.”
In all of Elba’s best work, it’s this intimate purfling that gives the character his elegance and truth. He tells me that on his recent trip to South Africa, for the premiere, Mandela’s housekeeper of fifteen years approached him. “She says, ‘The way you closed your suit as you stood up—he always did that,’ ” Elba recalls. At another point, someone on set snapped a photo of him resting in character—hand on his cheek, slumped in a chair—and compared it with a photo he had taken of Mandela a full decade earlier. The poses were identical. Even Elba was stunned: “It took my breath away,” he says.