Whether stepping into the shiny shoes of drug lord Russell “Stringer” Bell in HBO series ‘The Wire’, or battling crime as dapper DCI John Luther in the BBC crime-thriller, Idris Elba is used to playing charismatic and powerful lead roles. And, for his latest challenge, Hackney’s homegrown Hollywood star has even bigger boots to fill: Idris Elba speaks out about playing Nelson Mandela and keeping it cool in Canning Town.
“You can see the sweat! No pressure?” joked Elba at the debut screening of ‘Mandela: A Long Walk Of Freedom’. Any actor personifying the national hero would be forgiven for getting a little damp, especially when screen greats, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover and fellow Brit David Harewood have all tried to pull it off.
“South Africans love their Madiba and it’s a massive responsibility to bring him alive in the best possible way,” Elba explained, “I just wanted people to recognise him when they heard the sound and say, ‘That’s Madiba!'”
If being judged by the entire South African population wasn’t enough pressure, three generations of the Mandela family also attended the premiere in Johannasberg. But Elba needn’t worry about the big man himself – according to film’s producer, Anant Singh, when Mandela saw Elba in action he asked “Is that me?” (The ninety-five-year-old statesman remains in a home in critical condition following his recurring lung infection).
For Elba it seems that action isn’t always reserved for the set – he sparked concern by being dramatically whisked from his Johannesburg-bound plane to hospital on Friday night.
“I’ve battled asthma most of my life and it just overwhelmingly took me down,” said Elba after arriving at the smart cineplex. “It was a very scary moment for me. A doctor on the plane helped me through it. Thankfully I am here.”
On arrival Elba even had time for a quick squeeze from Mandela’s wife Graca Machel who jested, “Let me hug my husband.”
You would think that all this attention would go to Elba’s head, but despite having homes in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, his heart lies firmly in Hackney, where he was born after his family moved from Sierra Leone. East London saw his debut as an actor and nightclub DJ under the pseudonym Big Driis. Just last month he was guest of honour at the Hackney Picture House’s National Youth Film Festival.
“It’s important for people that are on the way up or working to be able to engage with kids,” he explained. “Students can be bedazzled by all the lights and cameras but when they meet someone and can actually put a face to it, it’s tangible, a real person and a real career choice and I think students can get influenced by that.”
Read EastLondonLines’ feature on Idris Elba’s directorial debut.