Taking on 'Mandela'

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris talk about playing a global icon and his wife in the new film.
3:00 | 11/28/13

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Transcript for Taking on 'Mandela'
For my money one of the finest actors around is a british guy with an unusual name who achieved cult status playing a drug dealer from baltimore in "the wire." Now, he is taking on a very different role. Nelson mandela. He is already getting oscar buzz. He sat done with abc's byron pitt. Reporter: Mr. Mandela, a freeman. Reporter: From prisoner to president, his story so refreshingly remarkable, so hard to reconcile, he is still just a man. Action! Rep THE MYTH AND THE Man hollywood attempts to capture in mandela, long walk to freed freedom. What surprised you most in playing this iconic figure? It was always rooted, very rooted man, though all of the stuff was going on around him. He never really lost his cool. Most people know, nelson mandela, the elder statesman. You play nelson mandela, a player if you will. Early in his life. You know, very much a -- a man with -- you talk about responsibility. That's one of the things I have to pay attention to. We were given the task to go ahead and make that as real as possible on the screen. You know, being a lady's man, a man that was not humble. And very am bish u ambitious man. These are factors you can't even, put in the same sentence, mr. Mandela the older statesman. This 41-year-old british actor, a role of a lifetime and early whispers of an oscar nomination. Reporter: At times heroic, haunting. He brings a brutal physicality to the role fans are familiar with. HIT SHOWS LIKE THE BBCs "Luther." Action thrillers like "thor." In his breakout role as the cunning drug dealing entrepreneur in the hbo series, the wire. Bring the body, and the body bring the police. How does one go from "the wire" to nelson mandela. One word -- ambition. I was going to use two, bad -- but? I'll buy that. I'll buy that. And nelson mandela. Had massive amounts of ambition. From personal am bebition to contrel ambitc country ambition to world ambition. The co-star is naomi harris who played miss moneypenny in "sky fall." She had a different challenge from a co-star, outspoken winnie mandela, influential wave to global icon. But as a passion that and often controversial add vocate for black rights. You play a figure who is controversial. Good people do very bad things and bad people do very good things. It was my job to find the complexitien ay in all of that. The people are angry. We are all angry. I am angry. You arangry. What's ben hen her reaction to the movie? In tears at the end of the screening in south africa. She said it was too real for her. She felt like it wasn't acting up on the screen that we were really re-enacting it. We couldn't ask for any higher honor that that, really. Guilty or not guilty? Mandela's epic struggle to end apartheid in south africa, first gained global attention while he was incarcerated. Living in a cell, 18 of the 27 years he was in prison. A place he visited preparing for the role. I spent a night on the island. Took the opportunity. Spent one night. Why? I needed context. I needed perspective. You and I would never know what it is to not have freedom until it is taken away. In the morning I was angry, man. The injustice. Mandela spent 19 years in the one room. Long before mandela became the grand, gray haired statesman. He was a young, powerful boxer, the demand and discipline of the sport he said helped him maintain his sanity in prison. One of the shirtless scenes in the movie, many of his adoring fans will gladly pay money for. Nelson mandela, his routine, 100 fingertip pushups, 200 situps, run in place, 45 minutes. You didn't do finger tip pushups. We did. We screened them. He did not look like he was there. He has never met nelson mandela. But he won his approval. What was it like that he thought he was looking at himself? Surreal. And always talk of award. And also some things. But when you have mr. Mandela the great himself, looking at an image of me saying is that me. That's it. I have won. I have won every possible award you can give. Reporter: Long walk to freedom is in part a history lesson. Sin mcinematic proof of what is possible when a life is well-lived. Freedom it is an idea for which I am preparred to die. For "nightline," byron pitts in new york.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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