Idris Elba was in London at the Royal premiere of his film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, when he learned that Nelson Mandela had died. “I burst into tears immediately and was so emotional and then we made the decision to go onto the stage after the film while the credits were rolling to make an official announcement to the audience,” Elba told Uinterview exclusively. “It felt like the right thing to do, but of course as I stood up and stood out, the audience wanted to clap for me but we had to hush them down and explain to them what had happened.”

Elba, 41, got his big break more than a decade ago when he was cast as “Stringer” Bell, an astute drug-dealer on HBO’s The Wire. In the years since, Elba, who was born in London, has successfully transitioned from television to film star. In the past five years, he has starred in action flicks including, RocknRolla, Thor, Prometheus, Pacific Rim and Thor: The Dark World.

In 2012, Elba won his first Golden Globe award for his performance as the title character in the BBC miniseries Luther. Neil Cross, the creator of the miniseries, finished a script for a Luther film adaptation in 2013. Elba is set to reprise his role as DCI Luther in the film.

Interview by Erik Meers


Q: How did you prepare to play a historic figure like Nelson Mandela? - Erik Meers

Well, you know, first thing I did was go to South Africa and sort of understand South Africa, its people, its politics, its history with Nelson Mandela. I spent a lot of time watching and listening to footage of Nelson in various stages of his life, although there wasn'€™t that much in terms of footage on his younger life, but I read quite a bit and understood what that journey was. I did extensive work as well with the voice because I don'€™t look like Nelson Mandela, which is a challenge for the audience, but I spent time making sure that the voice was as close to his as possible to give that sweet spot for the audience.

Q: What did you learn about Mandela that surprised you? - Erik Meers

The thing that most surprised me was the journey within prison. You know a lot of people sort of know that he was an activist, went to jail and came back and became president, but not many people know what happened in prison. And it was one of the most, I think, for Mandela believe it or not, the most liberating part of his life was being in prison and sort of reinventing himself, educating himself, reeducating himself and sort of building his patience and forgiveness for then to come out and become one of the most recognizable and significant world leaders the human race has seen.

Q: You were at the London premiere with Mandela'€™s daughters when you learned of his death. What was that moment like? - Erik Meers

It was very surreal. I was next to the Duchess and Prince William; it was a royal premiere. There was suddenly a buzz within the auditorium. I'€™m not sure what was going on and then I saw some phones being passed around and Prince William had his phone and he looked at the message and I could see his face had taken a bad hit and I was wondering what was going on and then someone passed me a phone and then the news broke. It was so - I burst into tears immediately and was so emotional and then we made the decision to go onto the stage after the film while the credits were rolling to make an official announcement to the audience. It felt like the right thing to do, but of course as I stood up and stood out, the audience wanted to clap for me but we had to hush them down and explain to them what had happened.

Q: We think of Mandela as a saint. What should people know about the human side of him? - Erik Meers

I think what surprises most people is his younger life he wasn'€™t a saint. He wasn'€™t a sinner, but he was definitely no saint. And it's important I think audiences are surprised about his personal life, which we sort of show, warts and all, and make it very graphic and honest, which is actually what the Mandela'€™s asked us to do, is to be as honest as we could about who they are.

Q: Winnie Mandela gets less favorable treatment in the movie. How did she react to it? - Erik Meers

She was absolutely, I want to say, thankful actually because I think the movie certainly shows her in all lights and I think in the past there have been movies about Winnie that haven't shown her particularly in a real light and this one had sort of done its best to bring her to life in real. So I think she was very moved by it. Naomie Harris, who played Winnie Mandela, has had personal conversations with Winnie about it and my understanding is that she feels very good about this.