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.
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 character in some of those crowd scenes, because that was part of his charm. He was very confident, he was a great orator and he could really command some attention. His sex appeal was certainly a part of that. While I hate to talk about it—you know me—I channeled whatever it is I’m blessed with to bring it across with Mandela.
EBONY: Does it scare you that people are talking about Golden Globes or Academy Awards nominations?
IE: I’ll be honest with you: my feet haven’t really touched the ground and it’s sort of rumor-ville at the moment. I haven’t really paid any attention to that. But I’ll tell you what: it is such a compliment to be spoken about in those terms, especially with some of the other actors that are also in that group for Oscars and awards.
You know, for me, this is Nelson Mandela. This is beyond award season. This is a story about one of the human race’s great, great men, and getting the part alone is the award. The other day I was at the White House showing it to President Obama, and the president and Mandela are close friends. Do you know how proud I felt to walk in that place and give him that opportunity to watch his friend on film played by me? Mr. Obama said in the past that I’m one of his favorite actors. That’s an award for me, to be recognized in that way.
When Mandela saw a picture of me playing him, he looked at it and started laughing. He says, “Is that me?” That is an award right there. The awards and accolades are special, but Mr. Mandela saying that about watching the film or watching parts of the film was an award enough.
EBONY: The narrative this season has been about the presence of Black men in Hollywood: yourself, Forest Whitaker, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael B. Jordan. Does it make the conversation in Hollywood feel different?
IE: I think ultimately it’s about the work. The work is great. It happens to be at a great time when there is a world of opportunities for more interesting and diverse stories. I think Hollywood has definitely opened the doors to more diverse stories. I think also, economic structures of movies now means the dollar of a Black film is certainly an important dollar to have in Hollywood and audiences want to see great films. They want to see great actors that they admire, and the whole thing is an engine that is definitely growing.
I can compare it to 10 years ago: Steve McQueen was a director starting out, Idris Elba was an actor on a TV show. Ten years later, these people have grown. Forest Whitaker is still Forest Whitaker and still here, and he has great taste in films and scripts. So it is part of an engine that’s just continuing to grow. I think that also Hollywood has definitely opened up the doors on diversity a little bit more because it makes for a much more interesting Hollywood.