Idris Elba: My Mandela Is My Dad

To play the South African revolutionary, the British actor turned to his factory-worker father

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11 . 29

Idris Elba spent a night alone in a barren cell on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, and he came to some conclusions. "The place is haunted," says the British actor, who was there to research the title role of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. "At one point I started to nod off, and this freezing breeze passed my face--it was the end of summer, not cold out at all--and it woke me up, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I guarantee you it was a spirit."

Onscreen and in conversation, Elba, 41, does not give the impression of a man who is easily rattled. After years as a supporting fixture on British TV, Elba found his breakout role in 2002 on HBO's The Wire, in which he radiated sublime competence as Stringer Bell, the cerebral and fearsome second in command to a Baltimore drug kingpin. For the troubled but ingenious police detective Elba played on the BBC's Luther (for which he won a Golden Globe in 2012), going toe to toe with psychopaths was just another day at the office. But being asked to play Nelson Mandela--the revolutionary hero of the South African anti-apartheid movement and as close as the world has to a living saint--seemed even more intimidating than a night on Robben Island. "I was massively nervous," says Elba in his rich, gravelly baritone. "I was thinking, Where's Morgan? Where's Denzel? You want me to play Mandela?"

Co-star Naomie Harris, who plays Mandela's firebrand second wife, Winnie, recalls being impressed that Elba was so open about his trepidations. "We met in South Africa at the first read-through, which is always a scary experience," Harris says. "Afterward, Idris came up to me and said, 'I'm terrified--are you?' He was so sincere and honest that I fell in love with him from that moment on."

Above all a showcase for magnificent performances by Elba and Harris--both of whom can expect their first Oscar nominations--Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name (written in collaboration with Time's former managing editor Richard Stengel). The film, shot entirely in South Africa, covers the arc of Mandela's life, with Elba transforming from a dashing young Johannesburg lawyer to the fearless African National Congress leader, from a stoic prisoner of conscience to the septuagenarian father of a new, postapartheid South Africa.

"When you talk to people now in their 80s and 90s who knew Mandela as a young man, they remember a brilliant lawyer and a fantastic orator, but they also remember a star," says Justin Chadwick, director of Mandela. "He had a magnetism about him. He gave off electricity when he came into a room. Idris can do that too--he has that warmth and radiance about him."

Born in East London to a Sierra Leonean father and a Ghanaian mother, Elba drew inspiration from his late dad, a Ford auto-factory worker, in creating the older Mandela: "Not having met the man, my dad does remind me of what I imagine him to be in person: the presence, the humor and the way he moves--elegant but at the same time sturdy, a rock-solid guy. I channeled my dad's energies because he was a big fan of Mr. Mandela and a union guy who struggled for the workingman. Instead of a liberation struggle, his struggle was 'My guys deserve steel-toed boots and a lunch break.' But Mandela was always a part of the discussion."

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