Idris Elba mines Mandela's 'commanding presence' in biopic role
Elba and Harris pose at the premiere of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" in Los Angeles
By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - British actor Idris Elba will be the first to say that he doesn't look like Nelson Mandela.
But in playing the anti-apartheid leader and former president of South Africa in the biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," he figured that nailing his physical presence would go a long way to portraying the man.
Elba, best known for his roles in the HBO television series "The Wire" and action films such as 2012's "Prometheus," had to look past the elder statesman Mandela that everyone knows and find physical clues to the younger man, a lawyer who inspired many to join the fight against South Africa's all-white rule.
"What motivated people when they saw him as a young man was his presence, that he was a really commanding presence in the room and you wanted to follow him if he said 'Let's go,'" said Elba, 41 years old and 6 feet 3 inches (1.90 m) tall.
The film, based on Mandela's 1994 autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," is an independent South African production directed by Britain's Justin Chadwick and distributed by The Weinstein Co. It opens in U.S. theaters on Friday.
Chadwick said there were few photographs of Mandela from that period, but in talking to people who knew him in his youth and boxed with him, he found Mandela was "this fireball of energy who loved life."
"I met him at 93 and, honestly, I walked into that room and you could feel the electricity coming from him. He has this energy," Chadwick said.
Mandela, now 95 and in poor health, gave South African producer Anant Singh the film rights to his story more than 15 years ago. Much of the difficulty in bringing the film to fruition was boiling down Mandela's story spanning six decades, including 27 years in prison, into a script for a two-hour plus film.
Chadwick and the producers decided to center the film on Mandela's fight against apartheid and the toll and sacrifice it took on his family. They wanted to show both the good and the bad, including Mandela's embrace of violence that led to a sentence of life in prison.
The film culminates with Mandela's inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa after he urged his countrymen to reject violence following his release from prison.
Chadwick, Elba and Naomie Harris, who plays Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie, were able to work off the memoir and the vast Nelson Mandela Foundation archive, but they relied heavily on conversations with family and friends to fill out their characters.
Harris, a fellow Brit who recently starred in the last James Bond film "Skyfall," said that meeting Winnie Mandela was key to capturing her essence amid the polarized opinions about a woman both revered and vilified for her political fight.
"It really helped me to sit down and for her to say 'You portray me as you see fit. The only thing that I ask is that you do the job honestly and truthfully,'" Harris recounted.
Both Elba and Harris' performances have garnered praise from critics, more than the film itself. Variety's chief film critic Scott Foundas said that "Idris Elba gives a towering performance, a Mandela for the ages."
Elba never managed to meet Mandela, but said Singh did show the former president a final scene of the film, in which Elba playing Mandela is walking up a vale.