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‘The Wire’ star’s long walk to Mandela

Stacy M. Brown | 12/20/2013, 6 a.m.
British actor Irdis Elba portrays anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in the film, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” currently in theaters across the country. Courtesy Photo

Idris Elba gained fame as the tragically aspirational and business-wise gangster, Stringer Bell, on HBO’s critically acclaimed series, “The Wire.”

Lately, the British-born Elba has earned not only acclaim but a prestigious Golden Globe Award for best actor as the obsessive and sometimes dangerous police inspector John Luther, in the psychological crime drama, “Luther,” which airs on BBC America on Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

On Friday, November 29, 2013, audiences around the nation had an opportunity to see why movie critics are abuzz with Oscar talk for Elba’s new film, one that he calls his most important role, about civil rights icon Nelson Mandela in the biopic, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

“There is one scene in the movie in which I heard that Nelson Mandela saw a clip of, and he thought it was a news clip,” Elba said. “I’m walking up a hill in the scene and [Mandela] looked at it and said, ‘Is that me?’ I took that as a compliment.”

Elba, 41, said when first approached by producers to play the role, he knew there would be one thing that he had to do. “I went to Robben Island. I wanted to get context of what it was like,” he said.

Apartheid conqueror and former South African president, Mandela, 95, spent 27 years in prison because of his stand against racism.

“Even though playing Mandela is nerve-racking, you had to embrace it,” Elba said. “I wanted to do a good job. I didn’t want to do an impersonation of him. I wanted to do an interpretation of him. It was such an honor.”

Directed by Justin Chadwick, the film brings Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” to life. The movie chronicles the powerful leader’s early life, coming of age, education and the nearly three decades he spent in prison before winning election to the presidency, where he worked to rebuild the once segregated country.

Born in the United Kingdom to a businessman father from Sierra Leone and a Ghanaian clerical worker mother, Elba, an only child, started a DJ company in 1988 before winning a place in the National Youth Music Theatre thanks to a $1,500 Prince’s Trust grant. He worked in nightclubs in the U.K. under the name, Big Driis, before auditioning for television parts while also working at a Ford Factory in London.

After earning small roles from 1994 to 2001 on various television shows, including a cameo on, “Law & Order,” Elba landed the role of Russell Stringer Bell on, “The Wire,” which not only helped him earn great notoriety forever stamping his place alongside Hollywood’s top actors.

“People I’d been raised with in London made money as a hustle, whether it was drugs or being a pool shark,” Elba said.

“Flash drug dealers went to jail, cool drug dealers didn’t. I had that embedded in my system since I was a kid. Stringer Bell was in my system. When I came to America, I understood what was happening in the hood. I lived in Jersey City, which is a rough neighborhood, and in Flatbush, Brooklyn. That was my preparation for the role.”

Elba said he’s watched very little of the hit series about the mean streets of Baltimore because he didn’t want to get lost in the hype surrounding the show and he feared developing an ego.

However, Elba has already viewed, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” several times, including at a private screening at the White House for President Barack Obama earlier this month.

“The movie was so much fun,” Elba said. “We shot it in South Africa for six months and it was great. It was truly an honor to portray Mandela.”