Every now and again, a screen actor is given the Herculean task of portraying a living legend. While many of these performances are snooze-worthy, one will occasionally rise above the rest and introduce a new generation to one of history's great figures. (See Sir Ben Kingsley as Gandhi or Dame Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II.) In Justin Chadwick's buzzed-about biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Idris Elba offers the latter with his portrayal of beloved South African president Nelson Mandela. "[He] grabs the role like a man possessed," writes Peter Travers. "It's astounding." Elba's lengthy career has been as varied as they come – he made his mark on television as Russell "Stringer" Bell in HBO's The Wire and continues to showcase his talents in the DJ booth (seriously – look up DJ Big Driis). Rolling Stone sat down with the Englishman to learn more about sleeping in prison cells and what it's like to hang with the Mandela clan.
Is it true you lived in Nelson Mandela's former prison cell for a night?
That was an education and very inspirational. I was trying to figure out who Mandela was – I felt more like a researcher than an actor. I started to understand what kind of human being he was to survive that. I only spent one night but it was enough for me to understand that it was incredibly tough. There was a thin bed and a bucket for a toilet – that's all. The guy who locked me in the room kept hesitating to leave, as if to give me a chance to change my mind, but I didn't.
What steps did you take to get the voice right?
I watched a lot of footage of him. But not just him – how people reacted to his words. That's where you learned the most. In technical terms, my parents are West African, and I grew up listening to them speak. While it's different than the South African accent, I had the foundation.
Were you worried about how South Africans would react to the film?
You have to remember that the freedom struggle in South Africa was about 25 years old. You know what I mean? These terrible things were happening not that long ago. The extras were old enough to have heard the real Mandela speak and know what he did for their country. You could see it in their faces. Not long ago we actually screened the film there and got to see how they reacted. They said I did a really good job, and of course that made me incredibly happy.
And the fact that Mandela has seen the film – thats got to mean something special.
It's an incredible honor. They told me this story about him getting a picture of me when I was going to do the movie. Apparently he looked at it forever and just said, 'Really?' Now, after spending so much time with his family, I'm an honorary Mandela.
There's talk of you being in the Roots revival. How would you feel about that?
I watched Roots when I was a kid, so just to be brought up in that dialogue is incredible. All I can think is, "Wow."
The filmmakers at work this fall – Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell and the rest – are all top-tier. Now with Mandela being tossed around as an Oscar contender. . .
I know there are a lot of great performances this year. I try to keep the Oscar talk separate from what we're really trying to do though, which is telling this story. But being able to have that screening in South Africa was really the greatest reward we could have after making this film – it meant a lot to everyone.