by Nathan Heller | photographed by Anton Corbijn
A brilliant British actor with an American cult following, Idris Elba has made the world his stage. Now he takes on the role of a lifetime as South Africa’s greatest hero in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela.
One afternoon in autumn, Idris Elba claims a table in a Primrose Hill pub, on the northern cusp of central London, and reflects on the peculiarity of screening his film portrait of one global leader for the judgment of another. Less than 24 hours from now, Elba, who plays Nelson Mandela in Justin Chadwick’s landmark bio-pic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, will fly to Washington, D.C., for a White House screening with President Barack Obama. It’s the sort of engagement that would put a shimmer of nervousness into many shining stars, but Elba—a native Londoner known for his versatile craft and unflappable cool—seems more concerned with the logistics of the flight than his encounter with the leader of the Free World. “He’s a nice guy,” he tells me. (They’ve met once before, at a state dinner where Elba was a guest of Britain’s prime minister.) “I go to shake his hand, and he’s like, ‘Come on, man! Give me a dap.’ ”
Now, plopping down on a bench along the pub’s far wall and ripping open a gigantic bag of popcorn, Elba talks about the challenge of playing a world-renowned political hero. “I’ve been told I have presence. I’ve been told I’m charismatic. But I’m not Nelson Mandela,” he jokes. “Everybody has a sense of who Mandela is—his nobleness, his white hair, his voice. Those were big shoes to fill.” He scoops up a handful of kernels. “I felt like that would be the challenge: to create Mr. Mandela’s presence on film for people who have never met him.”
At 41, with a career divided among the stage, television, and the big screen, Elba has emerged as one of the most beloved British actors of his generation. Best known in this country for his role as Russell “Stringer” Bell on David Simon’s HBO drama The Wire, Elba has since inhabited a startling range of characters, appearing in everything from gritty indie films to high-gloss block-busters. On the side, he’s built a separate career as a rapper and club DJ, originally under the moniker Driis. He’s just finished cutting the first two tracks of his first full-length album, called Mi Mandela. “Each song is about some sort of feeling, some sort of transitional moment, while I was playing him,” he says. “I took some musicians down to South Africa, and I created this soundscape.”
Elba is tall and broad-shouldered, with a majestic bearing and stony, appraising eyes. His facial hair comes and goes; at the moment, he’s wearing a well-trimmed beard, tinged with gray. He has a heartthrob’s delicate, dimpled cheeks and debonair brow line, but he deploys his charm unpredictably, like a new pair of glasses that he keeps forgetting to put on. Much of the time, he seems quietly abstracted, reticent, serious. There’s a sense that even when Idris Elba is standing directly in front of you, the man himself is slightly out of reach. On-screen, one moment he is playful, laid-back, and quite amiable; at another, he’s high-strung and hobbled with vulnerability. “What’s most impressive to me is not that he’s as dynamic and sexy and masculine as he is—and how powerfully that translates on-screen—but that he can damper it down,” says Laura Linney, who handpicked him for a recurring role in the first season of her series The Big C. “When star quality is aligned with good acting, that’s pretty powerful. George Clooney has that. A few people have that—not many. I certainly think Idris does.”
Playing Nelson Mandela marks an arrival of sorts for Elba: The former South African president ranks among the most iconic characters of the past half century, a paragon of hard-won human rights. Chadwick’s movie, based on Mandela’s 1994 memoirs, describes that liberation through a life by turns rollicking, revolutionary, isolated, and triumphal. “We all know the icon,” the director says. “But I wanted the film really to be about the man. And I wanted a great actor who didn’t bring any baggage.”