Idris Elba mines Mandela's 'commanding presence' in biopic role

Tue Nov 26, 2013 4:49pm EST
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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 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.   Continued...

Cast member Idris Elba poses at the premiere of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" in Los Angeles, California November 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni