While Mandela’s intense struggle to dismantle apartheid had put him at the forefront of South Africa’s political stage, his private life is a more tragic story. His incarceration on Robben Island isolated him from his beloved young wife, Winnie (she was 23 years old at the time and they had been married only 4 years), as well as his children; wrenching from him the very essence of his life. Ultimately Mandela won the quintessential reward, which was freedom for his country, but he paid an appallingly high price in his personal life.
“Film is about characters.” says screenwriter, Nicholson, “and my job wasn’t to give a history lesson. I think Winnie’s story is almost as fascinating and as rich and complex as Mandela’s story, and to have them both so intimately linked, tracing them through the movie, to the end when he finds himself obliged to separate publicly from her, is just very powerful.“
“While Mandela was imprisoned, many believed that it was Winnie who was effectively being tortured, and that violence at the hands of her tormentors turned a beautiful, loving wife into a person filled with rage, and finally to war. At the same time, Mandela was reaching the opposite conclusion in prison. The independent events in their lives forced them in irreconcilable directions. “One could not construct a more dramatic conflict than that.” says Nicholson.
As part of his research Chadwick talked to individuals who witnessed these two very dynamic people coming together. “Madiba was a young man on fire, and it was as if two forces came together. The photographs show a radiant couple and it must have been a true, passionate love. I think the great tragedy was when he came out of prison to find that she was no longer the woman with whom he had fallen in love. She had lived through war on the streets.”
To bring to life a formidable and multifarious woman who is both loved and hated, the filmmakers turned to Naomie Harris who had delivered such a commanding performance in The First Grader. Singh recalls: “At that time, when I asked Naomie to think about playing Winnie Mandela, she was blown away.”
Harris considers the rare opportunity for an actress to interpret a multi-dimensional character who travels an exceptional journey. “Winnie is propelled from life as a young bride and mother to the harsh reality of being married to a political prisoner, abandoned with two young children. In order to survive she has to draw on an incredible strength as she is victimized and harassed by the police. While she starts out non-political by the time Mandela is released she is a very militant, pro-violence and embittered woman.”
To assist her prep for the role, Singh sent Harris a wealth of reading material, documentaries, and television interviews as well as uncut footage of her rallies, and details of her ghastly torture. In South Africa, Harris further developed her research by meeting people who knew Winnie. “It was interesting because opinions of her are very polarized. So, I came up with my own idea of the person she was, and my interpretation of her life.”
She was also very relieved when she was finally able to meet the ‘real’ Winnie. “She was incredibly kind and I said to her: ‘what do you want people to take away watching this movie, and how would you want them to perceive you?’ She replied that ‘the most important thing to me is for people come away with the truth, I trust that you have done your research and you should faithfully create your own interpretation of my life.’ This was very generous of her and very liberating for me as an actress.”
Harris shares that she went on her own emotional and spiritual journey and that she felt distressed in many scenes. “When I was dragged from the house, wrenched from my children, whipped and torched by my interrogators and then held in solitary confinement it was harrowing, and I can’t imagine how it must have been for Winnie; she was completely alone, there were no rules or regulations to save her; she was at the mercy of a brutal police force who acted with impunity to get at Mandela.”
“As well of immense enthusiasm and passion, Justin also has a wonderful sensitivity and I felt very supported.” reflects Harris. “He was uncompromising about one fact, however, and that was “no acting”! He wanted it to feel real, and these harrowing scenes made it very real for me.”
“Naomie has found something very complex, something very dark and very powerful in Winnie.” says Thompson. “In many ways she’s the more complicated of the two characters to play because there are so many different facets to her character: she’s loving, she’s sweet, she’s cruel, she’s tough, she’s vindictive, she’s full of revenge and she’s full of tenderness. There’s a huge emotional range the actress playing Winnie has to cover and I think Naomie has really reached for this part in an incredibly graphic and vivid way. It’s a real challenge because Winnie is unfathomable in many ways.”