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Idris Elba talks playing Nelson Mandela in 'Long Walk to Freedom'

Idris Elba attends the Weinstein Company's holiday party

Idris Elba attends the Weinstein Company's holiday party at RivaBella in West Hollywood, Calif. (Nov. 21, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Idris Elba was prepared to leave the United States and go back to London when he heard he'd gotten the role of drug lord Russell "Stringer" Bell on the critically acclaimed HBO series "The Wire" back in 2002. It's a good thing he delayed his departure. Elba, 41, whose star is on a decidedly upward trajectory, has recently appeared in "Thor: The Dark World," "Pacific Rim," "Prometheus" and even did an episode of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" in 2011. But his major role of the moment is as former South African president Nelson Mandela in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," which opens Friday. Newsday contributor John Anderson caught up with Elba last week in Manhattan.

Did you carry a great sense of responsibility, having to portray such an iconic personality?

Yep. I did, and I'm still carrying that responsibility now. It was based on the idea that everybody knows who Mandela is and one way or the other is moved by his story. I certainly didn't feel qualified to play the man, to be honest, as an actor. I thought there were much greater actors who could and should play such a great man. However, I took that sense of responsibility to heart, and as I promote the film now, I realize that it's beyond just playing the character at this point, it's about representing Mr. Mandela himself.

How has the reception been thus far?

From my perspective, it's going well because at the Q&As, y'know, I was Idris Elba, and suddenly now I am Mandela. The reaction is a little overwhelming. When we went to the White House with Harvey Weinstein and the producers, President Obama looked me in the eye and it was like, "Good job, man. You've upheld a legacy" -- he didn't actually say that, but it was right in his face.

Do you think your apprehension fueled the performance?

It added fuel to my desire to make it good. The underdog is very much an English thing -- we love the underdog. If you lose a game in a football match, it's "Oh, unlucky mate." If you win it's just "Well done." So having this idea that maybe I'm not the right guy . . . people since have said, "I was skeptical when I found out you were playing Mandela, how's the boy playing Stringer Bell go from that to that?" So that definitely helped me zero in.

Have you watched "The Wire"? I read somewhere that you hadn't.

Season 1, I saw some of, none of season 2, very little of 3, 4 or 5.

Many people have commented on the vocal similarity you have with Mandela. How did that develop?

Well, it was really important because we did not want to do the look-alike thing. We obviously can't. So everything I could possibly do, from his aristocratic behavior to his voice, I wanted to really, really pay attention to because the audience deserves that. It's one thing for an actor not to look like the guy, but it's another for him to sound completely different, too. And being self-critical, I still don't think it's exactly right.

What was particularly tricky?

I analyzed why he sounds the way he does. South Africans speak English in a certain way, and Mandela, when he was younger, he spoke very quickly, very fast, had a bit of a stutter because he was speaking so quickly, and in jail he learned to take . . . his . . . time. The weird thing is what happened with his inflections, which make everything he says sound so noble. I kind of cued into that.

So his lengthy imprisonment helped him sound the way he does?

I think the countless nights in jail gave him time to think. And then, I guess, you can talk to yourself at any pace you want. It certainly was a product of him having so much time on his hands.

You're well known for being a DJ. What's your new album all about?

It's about trying to express musically what I did to become Mr. Mandela. I'm not so much a performer, more of a producer and composer, but I got a few musicians together, to express ideas and sensations I felt playing Mandela. The title is "Mi Mandela" -- 10 to 12 songs, a hybrid of European artists and South Africa artists. It's not an official soundtrack, more an inspirational piece about following a dream. Music has been my best friend all my career, and if I hadn't been an actor, I would have been a musician or done something in the musical field. Mostly, the album is about me playing Mandela.

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