Idris Elba is mostly known to American audiences for his role as Russell "Stringer" Bell in HBO's hit series "The Wire" and as the titular cop in the BBC drama "Luther" -- but that's starting to change. Earlier this month, he reprised his role as the hulking Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall in Marvel's "Thor: The Dark World," and he plays -- or, rather, embodies -- South African leader Nelson Mandela in the upcoming biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," directed by Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") and co-starring Naomie Harris ( "Skyfall").
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In "Mandela," Elba tackles the icon's life, from his formative days as an anti-apartheid activist to his subsequent arrest, imprisonment, and groundbreaking election as president of South Africa.
Moviefone sat down with Elba earlier this month, just after the release of "Thor: The Dark World," and chatted with the actor about portraying an icon in "Mandela," his planned homecoming trip to Africa, the possibility of a Heimdall spin-off, and his interest in being part of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" sequel.
Moviefone: Congrats on "Thor" and "Mandela." You're having a pretty good fall.
Idris Elba: Did you think you'd ever be saying that to one actor? Well done on "Thor," and well done on "Mandela"?
Mandela is such a huge, iconic figure. Did you have any apprehension about playing him?
I mean, yeah. Loads, man. I mean, I felt like, "I don't look like him, how the hell can I do it?" I was told immediately that we're not doing a lookalike version of him. But I definitely had apprehensions because he's so... you know, everyone knows who he is, or has an idea or sense of who he is. The challenges were, no, actually we're gonna show them a film of a part of him that they didn't know. So, eventually, my apprehension slowed down and relaxed a little bit. When I got to South Africa, I really embraced what South Africa was like -- the history, where it is now. I looked at everything as much as I could in my research. Eventually, I just kind of got on with it, you know?
What else went into the research? You have his accent, even his mannerisms, the way he carries himself -- you seem to embody him.
I just studied as much as I could. I used my dad as a reference. My late old man. I love him. He's gone now, but I used him as a reference point. I didn't know what a 70-year-old man looks like or feels like and moves like, and I would watch my dad and the way he would sit and cross his legs. And what his body would do as he got up, and all this sort of stuff, you know? And then I looked at lots of stuff on Mandela and watched his behavior. And I just worked on it; I kind of puttered around my dressing room when I had the prosthetics, doing things that I think Mandela would do and just practicing movements, talking, sitting -- just everything.
You mentioned the prosthetics. How long did it take to apply the old-age makeup?
It was about four and half hours every day. I did forty days in that. It was tough, man -- there's no doubt about it. But I got used to it. I got into a system. I actually wrote my first script while I was doing that.
Really? What was it?
I was working on this -- I directed it now. It was a half-hour short for Sky, in England. It's called "Pavement Psychologist," and you can see it; it's somewhere online. Anyway, I wrote that -- they attached this iPad to a little stand and I had to sit back like this. [Leans back, makes typing noises] "Hey, how do you spell...?"
You also have another movie coming out soon: "No Good Deed," with Taraji P. Henson. What can you tell me about that?
"No Good Deed," yeah. I can't wait for an audience to see it. It's a thriller. It's about a man that loses his way. He comes out of prison and really goes back into bad sh*t. And then he focuses in on Taraji's character. It's a psychological, action-y thriller.
You seem drawn to that. You've done horror movies. You've done thrillers. Is there something especially appealing to you about either the horror or thriller genres?
Well, you just get to be dramatic. You know what I mean?
Well, you're pretty dramatic in "Mandela."
That's very true, but the heart of that character is this soul and presence that you have to bring alive. In these other films, like "No Good Deed," it's just a dramatic, popcorn, Friday-night film, with really good actors -- Taraji's amazing in it; she really brings this character to life.
Obviously, you filmed Africa for "Mandela," and you filmed "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" there as well. Someone on Twitter wanted me to ask, "What's affected you most about filming in Africa?"
Wow. It's a lot. Africa is amazing. People who haven't been there would be surprised about Africa. It's a f*cking fascinating, beautiful country. And filming there is no different from filming anywhere except you've just got this massive amount of land and beautiful landscapes to look at. South Africa, the eastern cape, where we shot where Mandela comes from, Drakensberg, is just incredible. You've just never seen mountains like that. We were staying in this mountain hotel, and in the morning, because the hotel sits slightly above the cloud line, you'd come out and then there were these clouds and you had peaks of the other buildings. It was just so picturesque. The South African crews are amazing; really strong, really, really focused. You can tell in the detail in the movie that the artwork and all of that was just really, really on point. It was good, a good experience.
Where would you like to go next?
Well, I want to visit where my parents are from, which I'm embarrassed that I've not been there. I'm going to Sierra Leone and I'm going to Ghana, both next year. And I actually want to visit Africa as a whole because I want this film to do well out there and I want Africans to see it as well as the rest of the world, so it would be great for me just to get around Africa and show it.
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working with director Justin Chadwick?
Justin was really collaborative with me. It was his vision to have me play the role, and he really fought for it, and he really fought to educate me on what he was trying to do, what he was trying to achieve. I was very nervous about my portrayal of Mandela, but I got very quickly married to his ideas, you know? I wanted to be truthful. He's courageous, Justin. He's got a really good eye for detail. But he's really courageous. He fought for a certain point of view in the film; he fought for it and even still, to this day -- even though the film is about to come out -- he's interested in how it's perceived, how it's put out there. He's all over it. I really like Justin. I hope he and I make films together for the rest of our lives 'cause he's good.
"Authenticity" is the word I keep throwing around in reference to this movie. It seems that that was very important to him as a director.
Majorly so. Every detail. We made a to-scale replica of the prison. Every single detail, which was also frightening. I remember Ahmed Kathrada came down, who is one of the guys who'd gone to jail with Mandela, and when he was walking around the set he said, "This feels like I'm back on Robben Island." It was that well done. For me, as an actor, especially all the scenes in the prison, it just really brought it home -- because Justin had paid so much attention to detail, I didn't have to do prison acting. I could just be in the moment, because we were really there. And I spent a night in Robben Island as part of my research, which was really, really a tough and weird thing to do, of course. But it helped me get perspective on Mr. Mandela.
Can we switch things to "Thor" for a second? Some figures in the Marvel Universe have ended up with their own spin-offs or bigger storylines. Any idea as to where Heimdall is going?
Man, I don't. Historically, Heimdall hasn't gone anywhere.
He has a very important job.
He does. And he has to stay at that post. So, I don't know. My journey with the Marvel character might stop whenever the last film is. I like making films like that. I'd like my own superhero. I think I'd like my own superhero -- give that a shot. Heimdall and "Thor" -- I'm really proud that it's done well; I haven't even seen the film yet.
What do you think a Heimdall movie would look like? Would it just be him in that room for two hours?
Looking at stars, fighting things that are disappearing in front of him. Yeah, I'm not if sure Heimdall could even sustain a whole movie on his own. But he's quite a warrior. My cousin came in my house the other day and brought me -- he opened this package, and said, "Look. Look in there." And he opened it and it was a Heimdall doll! Have you seen these?
Yes, I have.
You're joking? I didn't know.
You didn't know you were an action figure?
You're a full-blown action star. Now, Guillermo del Toro is working on a "Pacific Rim" sequel, and "Prometheus 2" is in the works. But your characters died in those movies. Are you kind of saying to yourself, "I wish my characters didn't die."
[Laughs] Look, I loved both those films. I've done them, and I knew my character was going to die. That's good. That's okay. I said to Ridley, "Hey, man. Ever think about making 'Blade Runner' again?"
They're working on a sequel.
Who's going to do it?
Ridley and Harrison?
I don't know that Harrison's coming back for sure, but Ridley's definitely working on it.
There's one last thing we like to ask everyone we interview. What role, past or present, do you wish you'd played?
Well, the fact that you're playing Mandela right now -- you have to think outside of that. That's a pretty huge role to take on.
You know, I'm actually really into playing the pianist Thelonious Monk, because he has a really interesting story. And he's a genius pianist. The reason why I actually want to do it is because I want to see if I can challenge myself and learn to play the jazz piano. Not as good as him but proficient for a movie, because I don't want to fake it. Also, he had mental illness that I'd love to explore. His is a really fascinating story. Yeah, man. In the future, Thelonious Monk.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" hits theaters Friday, November 29.