Idris Elba

Preparing for his leading role in the 2013 feature film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Idris Elba found himself immersed in many elements of South African culture, most notably the country’s music. The actor/musician was so inspired, he set out to make—and chronicle the making of—an album, mi Mandela. Along the way, what was first envisioned as a music documentary became a film about self-exploration, mentors and the rhythms that have shaped him. Mandela, My Dad and Me hails from Elba’s own production company, Green Door Pictures, Woodcut Media and Shine North, with Content Television handling international distribution. Elba tells TV Real about the genesis of Mandela, My Dad and Me, working with the documentary’s director, Daniel Vernon, and the challenges of pulling together the final film, which premiered at the BFI Film Festival in London in April.

TV REAL: How did this documentary come about?
ELBA: I played Mandela [in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom] and it was a life-changing experience. It took me to South Africa and brought me into a world that I had never experienced before. I was really fascinated with the music and wanted to come back and explore the music culture there. A year later, I found myself going to South Africa with a small team—a camera was rolling the whole time, and the idea was to document an actor, me, making an album. But then what this movie ended up being [about], was life [laughs]—life happening. There were some really fragile moments that emerged because at the time I was dealing with the loss of my dad. My dad was very encouraging. He used to say, Be an authority in whatever you want to do. And music was one of those things. My dad was the blueprint for the older Mandela I played when I was doing the movie. So, there I was in South Africa, cameras rolling, making this album, I had musicians from England and from South Africa all in the same room, and things started to spurt—emotions, grief. I was writing songs about my experience playing Mandela, who was very ill at the time. When we came [back to the U.K.], we had 90 hours of footage. I didn’t go out to make this film. I went out to make a film about pushing faders and tuning guitars. [Laughs] And then this came out.

TV REAL: Even though the nature of the doc changed, does music still play a large role in the final film?
ELBA: Yeah, the music is a very big component because it became my language, the way that I could express myself. And it was the gateway to meeting all these really wonderful characters who end up becoming great characters in the film. I used the music to connect with them.

When I was playing Mandela, it was really hard for me to articulate what it was like to play him. But the songs and the poetry and the words and the melodies and the emotions helped me express that a lot easier.

TV REAL: Tell me about your relationship with Daniel Vernon, the director, both during the filming process and then in post and as you were culling through those 90 hours.
ELBA: Dan Vernon is such a talented man. The cameras would just be there and his interview process was very unobtrusive. He would pick up on emotions, let them live a little bit, and then ask me about them later and then I’d go, Oh man! Yeah, I remember this moment! It’s a really interesting way to work. We were very close; he followed me for almost nine months. He followed my mum for almost nine months trying to get pictures of me as a kid. [Laughs] We had 90 hours of footage and we parted ways, because, honestly, we ran out of finance. It was self-funded, and we didn’t really have a direction for the film. We had so much footage, but it seemed criminal to make a film about pushing faders and tuning guitars; there was so much more there. So my company, Green Door, decided, Let’s call [Daniel] back to help us shape this into something more meaningful. Nicholas Yearwood [Green Door’s head of development] was watching the footage to see what we could do with it. He was in tears the whole time. He said, This film is not about music anymore; this is about a lot of things. I think we can make a different film.

TV REAL: When you saw the final product at the premiere, did you glean anything from it that you had not realized while making it?
ELBA: That it’s quite funny. [Laughs] There are some laugh-out-loud moments. And there are just ironic moments. There’s a lot of my life that I don’t see from my perspective. So at that time, I must have been on the promotion tour for Mandela—15 different countries, red carpets everywhere—and watching that from a camera’s point of view was really like, Whoa, is that what I do? That definitely took me aback a little bit.