Idris Elba, Naomie Harris Describe How They Prepared for 'Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom'

Stars talked about how they prepped for their passionate roles.

ByABC News
November 27, 2013, 4:01 PM

Nov. 27, 2013— -- Nelson Mandela's story of steadfast patience and perseverance has inspired the world, and it's almost easy to forget that the former South African president is a real person and not only the familiar icon.

The latest film, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," attempts to address Mandela the mortal. Actor Idris Elba plays Mandela, the role of a lifetime and a role that is already generating Oscar buzz.

In an interview with "Nightline," Elba, 41, and Naomie Harris, 37, who plays Mandela's wife Winnie in the film, talked about their roles. Elba said he was "humbled" to be given the role and strived to give an honest interpretation of Mandela, and not a personification of the revered elder statesman.

"We were given the task to go ahead and make that as real as possible on screen, being a ladies' man and being a man who was not humble, a very ambitious, almost egotistical man," Elba said.

Not many people know Mandela as the ladies' man who was "in quite messy relationships as a young man," Elba said.

"These are factors that you don't even want to put in the same sentence about Mr. Mandela the older statesman," he said. "But this is the truth, and I felt the responsibility to be truthful, but also respectful."

Elba has shined in shows like "The Big C" and "Luther," as well as action thrillers such as "Thor," but he is best known for his role as Stringer Bell, the cunning drug-dealing genius entrepreneur in HBO's hit show "The Wire." Although going from playing a drug dealer on the streets of Baltimore to an anti-apartheid hero is quite a leap, Elba said there is one thing that both characters share.

"One word ties the two men, characters together and ties me into that. That's ambition," he said. "Stringer Bell had ambition. He was a drug dealer. A business man. But he had ambition. Nelson Mandela had massive amounts of ambition, from personal ambition to country ambition to world ambition."

Harris, who recently played Ms. Moneypenny in the James Bond film "Skyfall," had a different challenge than Elba in taking on the role of Winnie Mandela, known primarily as the influential wife to a global icon, but a woman who was as passionate as her husband and often a controversial advocate for black rights in South Africa.

"I'm never interested in whether the character is liked or loved or hated ... what I'm interested in [is more] of motivations and emotional truth," Harris said. "Good people do very bad things and bad people do very good things, and it was my job to find the complexity in all of that."

At age 46, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, spending 18 years of his sentence confined to a six-by-six-foot cell. To help prepare for his role, Elba spent a night on Robben Island in a cell that size.

"I tell you what, in the morning I was a very angry man," Elba said. "I was very angry at the injustice.... But then it filled me with a lot of determination to make the character real."

While Elba never had a chance to meet Mandela, he was thrilled to learn the former president liked his portrayal.

"The film's great and there's all sorts of talk of awards and things, but when you have Mr. Mandela, the great himself looking at an image of me and saying is that me, that's it. I've won. I've won every possible award you can give because it's coming from the heart of the man who actually lived it," he said.