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Nelson Mandela Reacts to Idris Elba’s Portrayal: ‘Is That Me?’

'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' opens in L.A.

It was a long time coming—22 years, to be exact—for biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” to be released, but the film finally made its L.A. premiere Nov. 11 at the Arclight Cinerama Dome.

The film stars Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and chronicles the leader’s life from childhood to becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa. It was such a huge project that director Justin Chadwick turned it down at first, but after realizing that he could make the movie intimate and show the world a different side of Mandela, he decided to take it on.

“He was a fighter, a boxer,” he explained. “He loved cars, he loved women. He was flawed, and that just made him all the more extraordinary and what he did was all the more extraordinary. The backstory is the hundred-year history that his life represents of apartheid, but at the heart of it was a love story.”

The love story centers on Mandela and his wife, Winnie Mandela, portrayed by Naomie Harris.

Harris said taking on such a huge character was tough, but there were two factors that made the road smoother for her: working with Chadwick again (they previously collaborated on “The First Grader”), and the opportunity to meet Winnie Mandela herself.

“Everybody had such strong opinions about how she should be played, so I really felt pulled in so many different directions,” she said. “It was great to sit down with Winnie herself and her to say, ‘Look, you’re the right person for this role. You’ve been chosen because you can do it. All I ask is you portray me faithfully.’”

Elba had quite the undertaking himself. He said he felt more like a researcher than an actor in preparing to take on the role, but it paid off. The film was even screened at the White House at President Barack Obama’s request.

A big stamp of approval, though, came from Mandela’s family. Elba called himself an “honorary Mandela” and said Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela, calls him dad. However, he was still nervous about showing the film to a South African audience for the first time.

“In South Africa, they were very silent and I wondered what that was about,” he recalled. “I thought maybe they didn’t like it, but they were just absorbing. You’ve got to remember, the whole freedom struggle in South Africa is about 25 years old. When we got there, the reaction was real.”

Elba’s portrayal even got a reaction from the former South African president himself. Producer Anant Singh, who started writing to Mandela in prison about the film 22 years ago, showed a scene of the movie to Mandela, and laughed as he remembered Mandela’s first reaction of seeing Elba as himself.

“He saw Idris Elba as the old Mandela in the Mandela prosthetics and he says, ‘Is that me?’” he said. “And it was very cute and he smiled and laughed, so it was very good.”

For Zindzi Mandela, who attended the L.A. premiere, the film had a big impact. She said seeing her father’s story on the big screen affected her dramatically.

“It was quite emotional for me,” she said of watching the film. “I was watching it with my mother, and it just forced me to take a journey that I wasn’t quite prepared to take. It was, in a sense, quite therapeutic.”

After the screening, attendees headed to bar Warwick to mingle over cocktails. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” hits theaters Nov. 29.

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