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Actor Idris Elba spent a night on Robben Island, locked in a cell next to the one where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years.
The star portrays the great leader in the film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, and Elba’s self-inflicted imprisonment was part of his own extended journey into the life of the former freedom fighter.
“I wanted the audience to know what it was like once Mandela and his colleagues were jailed and the crowds dissipated,” Elba said in Toronto, Canada, where the film premiered last weekend.
Elba travelled around South Africa researching the role and wrote to the authorities on Robben Island to ask if he could stay in the jail.
Initially, they turned him down, but later relented.
“Look, we turn the key and you’ll be here till we let you out again at eight in the morning,” a security man told him.
“I had a thin blanket for a mattress and that’s all there was between me and the concrete floor. They gave me a bowl. I had no water, nothing to drink at all. I was wearing my sweats and whatnot. I had two iPads to document myself and a cellphone.
“Mr Mandela spent 18 years in the cell next to mine. It was a tiny room; the man turned the key and as I saw him walk away, it was plunged into darkness. Before he went, he gave me a number to call if I wanted to be released.
“Later I checked my phone, but there was no signal. I was there for the whole night, whether I liked it or not. I slept for about an hour in total.
“There were ghosts there? Of course, there were. Because people had died there.
“I woke in the night and a massive cold thing hit my face, almost like cold water… It was obviously a spirit.
“The wind made the cell bars make this ringing sound that echoed throughout the building. They clanged all night. I was on my own, but I wasn’t alone.
“Later, every time I did the cell scenes in the film, I thought of that night. It wasn’t pretend for me.”
Elba, best known as Stringer Bell in The Wire and John Luther in the BBC police drama Luther, does not look anything like Mandela, though he does sound uncannily like him in the film.
For a long while, producer Anant Singh, director Justin Chadwick and BBC Films executives were after Denzel Washington for the role.
But the part landed in Elba’s lap .
The actor showed his father the film, and his father cried.
“My dad doesn’t weep,” Elba said. “I think he wept because we followed Mandela so closely.” – Baz Bamigboye from the Daily Mail