Our deeply moving (and funny) Q&A with Idris Elba

2015-11-25 08:45

Johannesburg - Award-winning actor, Idris Elba trended on South African social media pages for over 24 hours earlier this week after it emerged that a planned trip to our country had to be cancelled at the last minute.

The Juice exclusively revealed on Monday that Idris and his daughter, Isan, were already at Heathrow International Airport in a business class lounge when they were told they would not be able to enter South Africa, as his daughter did not have the correct documentation needed under the new immigration laws passed earlier this year.

But that was the last thing Idris wanted to talk about in our telephonic interview with him a day after the controversy came to light.

You see, Idris, who has previously played the iconic role of Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, was headed to South Africa to promote a deeply personal and self-financed project, Mandela, My Dad and Me.

Inspired by his role on the critically acclaimed Mandela biopic, Idris, also an accomplished DJ, wanted to create an album inspired by his experience of playing Madiba, using the talents of both local South African and British musicians.

Wanting to get the project started as quickly as possible, Idris made plans to record in South Africa and Mali at the end of 2013. But tragedy struck. Just before the project began, his father, Winston, passed away.

What began as a project to document the making of an album inspired by Nelson Mandela, deepened into a journey of self-reflection, grief and inspiration.

“It (Mandela, My Dad and Me) is offering a little bit more of myself for people to understand my journey. Especially when my dad died, I feel like a lot of me died with him, and this film documents a point in my life where I lost him. And that to me is a monumental moment and one I want to say thank-you to my dad. The film is almost like a thank you to him, and his life and what he meant to me.”

So, you’ll understand that while a mistake regarding an unabridged birth certificate for his 14-year-old daughter was certainly disappointing, opening up about his personal journey was, well, much more of a priority.

We’re super excited to watch Mandela, My Dad and Me at the beginning of December here in South Africa.  You’ve said before that you had hoped the album mi Mandela would have been more commercially successful. How important is commercial success as opposed to personal fulfilment to you?

In context, it was certainly more from a perspective of ‘look, I want more people to hear this album.’ Commerciality as opposed to fulfilment is not comparable. When I made this album, I didn’t really have a record label or anything. It’s really self-funded, it wasn’t a business venture it was a personal venture. I think it’s important to respect the idea of commerce and work and all of that, but I think I did this album and this documentary from a point of view of love and self-fulfilment. Also, you know, offering a little bit more of myself for people to understand my journey – especially when my dad died, I felt like a lot of me died with him and… this film documents a point in my life where I lost him. And that to me is a monumental moment, and one that I want to say thank-you to my dad. This film is almost like a thank-you to him and his life and what he meant to me.

Opening up about death, especially about your father, must’ve been difficult for you. Do you think that this project helped you in the grieving process?

Yeah, there was a lot of sort of, you know, self-discovery and talking about my dad… talking about Mandela. Both men died very close to each other and how that affects me. I definitely feel that there was a process of healing for sure.  You know, just even being in the room with musicians and talking about some of these things, really, really helped me, yes.

Even speaking about this must be surreal.  Your life is open to the public and this is something so personal…

That’s an important take home factor for me, the fact that audiences say ‘wow, okay, I didn’t know much about Idris before.’

You’ve previously said that while you were filming the Mandela movie, Madiba was only a name to your father. Only later did you realise that the two had a lot in common. But what about yourself and Mandela: do you see any similarities there?

Well, one thing that Mandela, I guess, discovered about himself is that he’s a people motivator. He is the presence in the room.  And I was always told that I have presence as a kid, even as far back as I can remember. Maybe because I was a tall boy, I was taller than anybody else, but so was Madiba.

You know, there was always that sort of extra leadership that came across as soon as I would sort of engage with people. That obviously became the lynchpin for me being an actor. But I think that’s one of the things why I could adapt so easily from Mandela to Idris - is the fact that we both have sort of people power. As I’ve grown now and I’ve made the film, I looked at how Mandela exercised patience, obviously in jail, but also when he came out, he became the most in demand man around the world and his patience really was tested. And I find myself in situations, especially as I grow as an actor in popularity, how patience is really, really important.

What is the single biggest lesson you learnt about yourself during the making of Mandela, My Dad and Me?

I learnt the power of conviction. It’s kind of like I didn’t start this journey or this album to be here, now, sitting and promoting, not only an album, but a documentary, not only on A+E Networks, but across Africa. It didn’t start off like that. The conviction, the power to sort of keep going, and say ‘okay, this is why I did this and this is what I’m going for,’ that’s a really important thing. And I’ve learnt that if I apply myself to anything that I do  - I will get there. I am convicted enough to get there.

The one thing that strikes us is your chameleon like ability to transcend from one role to another. How do you swop from something so deeply personal like Mandela, My Dad and Me to do something else completely different?

I guess that is just one of the disciplines of an actor. The most difficult thing is re-setting to be yourself.  So changing from one character to another is a job, and you have parameters that you work closely with. But coming back to being Idris is … you forget who you are sometimes. It’s harsh. That’s the most difficult part… reminding yourself where you come from.

So you don’t go to bed thinking you’re Luther (He plays the part of a detective on the popular British drama series, Luther) and wake up thinking you’re Mandela? Where does Idris fit in?

Laughs. Sometimes. When I was working on the accent for Madibs, I certainly found myself struggling to keep my own accent alive because I wanted his accent to be really good.

Of course, your ability to adapt also extends to music.  We were doing dance-offs in the office here in Johannesburg to your collab with the Kokomaster, D’banj. (They collaborated earlier this year on the track, Confidential)

Oh really?

Yes! We love it. Are there any South African hip-hop guys that have caught your attention?

Uh, well, most recently I haven’t been up to speed on who is hot, so you’ll have to tell me. Who should I be looking out for?

Had you been here, we wanted to play you two of our biggest rivals in SA hip-hop. AKA and Cassper Nyovest. They’ve kind of got a Drake/Meek Mill feud going on and they’re causing waves across SA.

Who is winning? That’s quite interesting. I’m interested to find out who is winning.

When you’re here the next time, we’ll let you decide. So, last question: we wanted to know where we could send our condolence package for when Chelsea overtake Arsenal in the premier league? (Idris is a massively outspoken Arsenal fan and has openly poked fun at Chelsea)

Oh really? Really? Are we going to end this interview like that? Oh my god.  I thought we were cool man. I thought we were cool you and I…

Or how about we keep it in South Africa, and barring visa issues, it’ll be waiting….(see what we tried to do there?)

Yeah… what is the package dare I ask?

Jose Mourinho’s (The Chelsea coach) face on a shirt.

Laughs. You can send that to number TWO Toilet Street. T.O.I.L.E.T Street.
You’re a wicked, wicked person, you are…

*You can watch Idris in Mandela, My Dad and Me on 6 December on History (channel 186), 20:30.

(Images: Getty Images)

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