Born to Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean parents, Chadwick grants that Elba is not from South Africa. “My first words to Idris were: ‘I know that you haven’t been brought up in the cultural tradition of the Eastern Cape, but I am not making a ‘lookey-likey’ film.’ It was very important to Idris to culturally understand this character, and he came here and did his research and got underneath the surface of it. He had soaked it up way before we started shooting.”
Mandela’s sweeping story covers more than seven decades, and the film features him from his childhood in his rural village to his life as a young, dapper lawyer, his imprisonment and then election as President. While two young actors play Mandela, the child and Mandela, the teenager, at 40 years of age Elba was physically able to play the bulk of Mandela spanning his years from 23 through to 76.
“Having just one actor carrying the film was brilliant,” says Singh. “there aren’t many films that have been able to achieve this.” As his journey progresses Mandela’s personality ranges from an ambitious lawyer to an angry young man, to an incredibly skilled operator who plays politics in a sophisticated way. “For a young actor to cover that range of years and also a variety of emotions, skills and characteristics is quite extraordinary. So I think it’s a pretty devastating performance that Idris has given us.” says Thompson.
“Very little is photographed or known about the young Mandela that we needed to capture, and to have an actor who could play it with speed and agility and be true to the spirit of Mandela - and that just clicked with Idris.” says Chadwick.
Thompson continues: “Idris is an incredibly instinctive actor, he just steps into the scene and finds the moment although of course he does a lot of studying and works incredibly hard to research and think it all through. For example, when he came on to do the scene in which he addresses the Nation on SABC television, that was the first time he played the old Madiba. It was absolutely extraordinary; he walked in the room and like “Ping!” He did it in the first take. He got the spirit of it and reflected the whole mood of Madiba’s voice and personality and movement. I don’t know quite how he found this, but something took over perhaps. He seems to have just sailed into this part and made it his own from day one, an incredibly difficult thing to do.”
“When Idris finished that scene you could hear a pin drop in the room, and everyone spontaneously applauded because the way he pulled it off was so magical.” says Singh. “He did his homework, and when we saw the first dailies we knew we had something very special. In addition to Madiba’s unique accent, Idris had the presence, the charm and the dignity - all of these qualities we know of Madiba, he nailed it, just like that!”
Dialogue coach, Fiona Ramsey, makes important reference to the broad spectrum of accents in South Africa’s 11 official languages. Ramsey’s priority was to assist Elba to lose his London cockney accent, and become familiar with Mandela’s famous enunciation. There is limited recorded footage of Mandela as a young man, and working alongside Ramsey the isiXhosa coach, Nomboniso Paile, they had to imagine how he spoke. “It was interesting to create an accent for Idris that spans so many years. What we toyed with was the idea between the private and public figure because the majority of Mandela footage features his public persona. We tried to establish a slight difference between the way that he speaks with his family, or even intimately to a warder whom he’s become close to, and that of his official voice. I think that this texture has allowed Idris to play around a lot more with the sounds.” Ramsey stresses that acquiring an accent is not just about changing a sound. “You inhabit it, it has a very specific cultural orientation.”
“We’ve done our research and now we have got to feel it,” says Chadwick who reiterates, “I didn’t want to create a look-like, sound-like individual. I wanted to catch the spirit of it and that made sense to Idris. His acting is an absolute revelation.”