Roughly four years ago, after Idris Elba and I had lunch for the first time, we were approaching the valet stand, and one of the attendants asked for his name. I quickly cracked, “You don’t know who this is?” And Elba hung his head a bit and humbly laughed. “No! No one knows who I am! He doesn’t know me!”
Even back then, his career was heating up something fierce. He’d come off of a successful run of HBO’s big hit The Wire and was preparing to co-star in an arc for NBC’s The Office. But he was right. In a way. His star was only beginning to rise, and mainstream America had yet to peg him as a ridiculously good-looking, chocolate-dipped version of George Clooney.
But now? The Brit is the new pitchman for Toyota Avalon, has a hit BBC show Luther, co-stars in blockbusters like Thor, graces many A-magazine covers… and it’s being whispered that he’ll earn an Academy Award nomination for his work in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, the gripping Nelson Mandela biopic opening later this month that has everyone talking about his portrayal of perhaps one of the greatest human beings ever.
Surely, that valet attendant knows his name now.
EBONY: This is quite the moment for you. Is it surreal that everything is hitting all at once?
Idris Elba: I haven’t had the time to really have my feet on the ground, to be honest with you. You know one of those situations where you’re just working and working? I was a student of drama and performing arts. I did it in two years, and all I did was work then. I just completely forgot where I was. My clothes changed because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was wearing. My friends were like, ‘Where are you, man? Who are you? What’s going on?’ Literally, my feet haven’t touched the ground.
EBONY: The Toyota campaign was huge. And seeing those commercials naturally made us think, ‘OK, he’s going to be James Bond.’ Why was this the right endorsement deal for you?
IE: I have an old history with the advertising agency. We’ve been trying to build a relationship for a long time. It’s one of those things that I wanted when I wasn’t really in the public eye like that, and it just came off exactly at a time when I wanted to do a commercial like that.
'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'
‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’
EBONY: Were you nervous to take on the role of Nelson Mandela?
IE: Yes! Huge amount of trepidation and self-doubt, if I’m really honest. Can I pull this off? This is such a great man, this is a man that everyone knows. He’s a living legend and I did have a little doubt in myself. I’m almost ashamed to admit that, because one shouldn’t have doubt in their abilities, but this is a massive feat to try and take on. But once I’d gotten to South Africa and started my preparation, that doubt quickly evaporated. I was really starting to understand South Africa, starting to understand what I was trying to achieve as a performance. It’s not an impersonation of the man. This is me and the filmmakers trying to bring the man’s presence to life.
EBONY: When did you feel like you nailed it? Was there a moment in shooting where you felt like, ‘Yes!’?
IE: Not exactly that. But there were moments where I was doing these big crowd scenes with many, many extras who were a part of South African struggle, the liberation fight. Young people as well as older people who certainly know who Mr. Mandela is—some even having been a part of his campaigning when he was doing it for real. So there were people in the audience that have seen the real Mandela speak and talk, and here I am: I don’t look like him, and I’m not South African, and here I am trying to portray their godfather.
There were moments where I would look into an extra’s eyes and there was not a line between he and I. They were believing what I was saying and giving me the energy. Those were moments where it felt real connected, moments of achievement. I could never sit here and say I nailed it, because, listen, I’m a perfectionist. I’ll watch the film and say, “I wish I could’ve done that, I could’ve done that.”
EBONY: Every interview you give, there’s always this conversation about your sex appeal. Was that a hindrance? When we think of Nelson Mandela, we don’t think People’s Sexiest Man of the Year.
IE: (Laughing) The younger version of Mandela was very much a man of preference with the ladies! He was very enigmatic, a very charismatic man. Good looking man too! So interestingly enough, to be blessed with such attention from the ladies did actually work for my