DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer. A new movie captures the story of one of the world's great leaders - Nelson Mandela. It takes audiences through the many chapters of his long life: the charismatic and dapper Johannesburg lawyer-turned-political-firebrand fighting apartheid; the prisoner serving a life sentence on a desolate island off the coast of Cape Town; and ultimately, the first black president of South Africa. Renee Montagne picks up the tale from here.
RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: That movie, "Mandel: Long Walk to Freedom," is based on Nelson Mandela's own memoir, just a bit daunting for the actor picked to play him.
IDRIS ELBA: Mr. Mandela's boots are heavy. Big, big boots to fill.
MONTAGNE: That's Idris Elba, best known to American audiences for the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire." So effortlessly did Elba slip into the role of Stringer Bell, a Baltimore drug dealer's second in command, most fans had no idea the actor playing him was actually British. When Idris Elba joined us at NPR West to talk about the new film directed by Justin Chadwick, we began with this scene.
The young Nelson Mandela, who by now is a wanted leader working underground with the African National Congress, has barged into a movie theater, jumped up on stage and interrupted the Hollywood movie playing behind him.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LONG WALK TO FREEDOM")
ELBA: (as Nelson Mandela) We are the people of this nation.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as audience) Yeah.
ELBA: (as Nelson Mandela) But we don't have power.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as audience) Yeah!
ELBA: (as Nelson Mandela) We don't have rights.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as audience) Yeah!
ELBA: (as Nelson Mandela) We don't have justice.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as audience) No!
ELBA: (as Nelson Mandela) There comes a time in the life of every nation when there remains two choices: submit...
(as Nelson Mandela) ...or fight!
MONTAGNE: Now, you don't really look like Nelson Mandela but you really come to be him in this movie very quickly. And there's one thing that I think helped in that, is that you sound exactly like him.
ELBA: Not exactly.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's put it this way: good enough.
MONTAGNE: How did you find your way into his voice?
ELBA: It was really important because we didn't play the look-alike. That, you know, Justin and I wanted to make sure everything else was absolutely as it was, especially the voice. And my parents are West African. I grew up listening to both my mum and dad speaking with a West African accent. They're from Sierra Leone. Which is very different from Southern Africa in terms of the way they speak English.
However, that sort of cadence I'm quite used to. So I had a foundation to understand where to start from. But then here's a quality in his voice that, you know, I had to pay attention to. I have a deep voice but my voice is quite light, actually, I speak in a higher register. And believe it or not, when Mandela was younger he (speaks in higher voice) spoke in quite a higher register up here.
(in normal voice) And he spoke really quickly. His inflections are so odd that he could make anything sound noble. So the...
MONTAGNE: Do a moment of what that would be.
ELBA: Well, it's just like if I say I'm going to pick up my phone. You and I would say I'm going to pick up my phone. He would say I'm going to pick up my phone. It's just an example of what, you know, his Xhosa language, his tribe the Xhosa tribe, does to the way he speaks English. But, to be honest, my biggest advantage was the fact that my dad's voice sounds a bit like Mr. Mandela's.
ELBA: Yes. My late dad. And I turned all of this around in my head and listened and listened to loads of Mr. Mandela's speeches. I tried to find weird things like when he was off camera whispering to a comrade or something and just listening to his tones.
MONTAGNE: You also, I gather, did something else to find him, which was you went to Robben Island, the prison off Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. And you spent the night in a cell there.
MONTAGNE: They let you do it, I can imagine.
ELBA: Reluctantly they let me do it. The company that looks after the island as a museum now were very reluctant. They said no numerous times, and eventually when they saw me face to face they said, OK, you can do it. And they put me in a wing I'm sure is not too far from Mandela's wing. We walked in - there's a guy called Llewellyn who was looking after the prison as it is.
He came in with the original key and then he goes, all right, I'm going. And he kind of looked at me as if to say, huh, now's your chance. And I just heard these footsteps fall out for a minute. It was really, really eerie.
The prisoners at the time had sort of like a thin foam bed sheet thing and a small blanket and a bucket for the toilet. And so that was all I had. So I sort of bunkered down and laid on this thing. It was hard, it was cold on that floor. It just put into perspective what Mr. Mandela's first night must've been like.
And Mr. Mandela had been in jail prior to going to Robben Island, but this particular spell was for the rest of his life and he knew it. When I left there in the morning, the guy came to get me and he said how do you feel? I said I feel good. So determined to make this film, so determined to depict Mr. Mandela's life the best way I could.
I tell you, it was that one night just put it all into perspective. You know?
MONTAGNE: Your own parents, as you said, were born in Africa. But you were raised in London.
MONTAGNE: Was Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement something you did pay attention to?
ELBA: Absolutely. My dad, you know, it was compulsory that I knew that there was a man that's sitting in jail that's been there forever because he fought against apartheid. My dad flew the flag for Nelson Mandela and any freedom fighter in South Africa. I used to listen to World Service News just to understand the situation.
You know, as a young kid at that time I was very much having to pay attention to what was going on. And I remember how surreal it was when I was playing the scene where he walks out. What was the date he was released?
MONTAGNE: It was February 11th.
ELBA: But it really was interesting, I mean, playing that moment and then recalling, you know, what it was like at home watching it. And my dad had the music on and we watched it and was just like, wow.
MONTAGNE: You know, the story of Nelson Mandela's life includes several scenes where you are delivering rousing speeches before thousands of South Africans, these extras, who seem to be responding to you emotionally as Nelson Mandela. Some of them are old enough to remember and others were too young. But I also wonder, for you, how that was, to actually have a crowd responding to you as the real person.
ELBA: Yeah. What was actually happening was that these big speech sequences, the extras, the crowd, didn't know exactly who was playing Nelson Mandela. Because they couldn't see me yet. And my films have been playing in South Africa. They're aware of "The Wire." So I'd come out and what would happen is - there would be two things that happen. One - oh! It's Idris Elba. I didn't know he was playing Mandela.
ELBA: And there was that reaction. And then it was - oh! He can do the voice. I didn't know he could do the voice. And then what I'm saying began to evoke emotion for them as countrymen. So all of this was just this weird magic happening all at the same time. If I messed up a line or forgot a line: Boo! Come on, Idris! One more!
MONTAGNE: These are the extras.
ELBA: Oh, yeah. So you're not going to lie to us. You don't look like Madiba. You're not going to come here and start acting.
MONTAGNE: Madiba, everyone's affectionate...
ELBA: Yeah, his tribe is Madiba.
MONTAGNE: ...his tribal name.
ELBA: And, yeah, you're right. The average age of the extras was old enough to remember the importance of what Mr. Mandela was doing. So it was all in their eyes. I had connect with each and every one of them. I looked in their eyes when I was doing those speeches.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NDIREDI")
SIMPHIWE DANA: (singing in foreign language)
MONTAGNE: Idris Elba stars as Nelson Mandela in the new film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." Thank you very much for joining us.
ELBA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NDIREDI")
DANA: (singing in foreign language)
WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.