Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
Idris Elba is a double nominee for a Golden Globe this year for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or TV Movie for the intense British TV crime thriller Luther, and Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama for his compelling portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the expansive biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. These two distinct and riveting performances mark the versatility of this British born actor, whom American audiences first got to know as the centrifugal drug lord Russell "Stringer" Bell in HBO’s critically acclaimed series, The Wire.
“It’s a really amazing time for me as an actor,” said Elba, who in person cuts an imposing presence but is far more laid back than his on-screen persona, exhibiting an easy, relaxed charm. “I’ve been working for twenty-five years but it feels like an earthquake has happened in the last few years and I am getting all these amazing varied roles.” Not only three seasons of Luther (for which he won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television in 2012), but Elba was also featured in Hollywood blockbusters like Pacific Rim, Prometheus and Thor, as well as showing his lighter comedic side when he played the no-nonsense boss Charles Miner to Steve Carell’s Michael Scott in The Office and became the romantic figure in the life of Laura Linney's cancer-stricken character Cathy in Showtime's The Big C.
After years based Stateside, scoring the role of the brilliant but troubled detective Luther in the BBC mini series felt like a homecoming for the East Londoner. “People were so used to me as an American in The Wire many people didn’t even realize I was British. People would hear me talk in my own accent and were really shocked,” he laughed.
“I like this character of Luther because he is completely unapologetic. He has no problem going after the bad guys with all his might and his brawn,” says Elba. The series is created and written by suspense novelist Neil Cross who felt Elba was the perfect choice. “Idris invested the role with whole new levels of complexity — channels of rage, tenderness and vulnerability — and makes it utterly his own,” said Cross.
Elba attributes his acting ambitions to ‘single child syndrome,’ growing up in a working-class immigrant home in Hackney, London (his father was born in Sierra Leone and his mother is from Ghana). When he met with the HFPA last year, he spoke lovingly of his deceased father who was the inspiration for his portrayal as the elderly Mandela. “It’s bittersweet for me to be honest, because the older Mandela was based on my father, he was my framework. If you ever met my dad, you would know why, he was a very charismatic man, and his movement, his eloquence, reminded me of what I imagined Mandela to be,” he said.
With the world now mourning the great leader’s passing, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom based on Mandela’s 1995 autobiographical book of the same name takes an inspiring look at his life’s journey, from his childhood in a rural village, to his early career as a lawyer, to his long incarceration and triumph when he was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
Although Elba admitted that being cast as one of the most iconic figures in our history took him by surprise. “I seriously thought, ‘why me?’ I really don’t look anything like him, but I realized we weren’t concentrating on a lookalike version of Mandela. I had to bring his essence onto the screen. That’s what was important. Getting the chance to play Luther and now to play Mandela have been real pinnacles of my life,” he said.