Following the respectfully subdued gala screening of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom at the Dubai Film Festival, Empire spoke to Harris about the challenges of playing Winnie Mandela an icon to millions, but a deeply controversial figure nonetheless.
Everyone will remember where they were when they heard Nelson Mandela had died. You were at the London premiere of Long Walk To Freedom when his death was announced. That must have been devastating news.
It was really, really shocking. We all got pulled out of the cinema and had a discussion among ourselves about what we should do. Out producer, Anant Singh, called Mandela's daughters to see if they wanted the movie stopped. They said they wanted it to continue, so we all went back in and waited till the movie was over and made the announcement. It was very dramatic, very upsetting.
What were your thoughts when you were first offered the role of Winnie Mandela?
I was excited to be part of a movie that celebrated Mandela's life, to be honest. I didn't know that much about Winnie at all. I thought she was just Nelson Mandela's wife and that was it. I didn't know about how controversial she is, what a political activist she is in her own right. Because of that I was really kind of naïve in the way I accepted the role; I didn't realize I was taking on such a huge challenge.
Obviously you found out very quickly. How did your thoughts change at that point?
|I was terrified at the mountain I had to climb to play this woman and discover who she is.|
I was terrified at the mountain I had to climb to play this woman and discover who she is. It's definitely the hardest role I've ever played in my career.
She's still an iconic figure in South Africa, but she's also a very controversial one (in 1986 she endorsed the practice of 'necklacing', and was later embroiled in the kidnapping and murder of a young footballer). Did that bother you at all?
I had no problems with that. As an actor it's not my job just to play good people, or non-controversial people. What excites me as an actor is to play someone who is interesting and complex and varied, and Winnie is all of those things. I didn't feel I had the need to justify her actions; I'm not a spokesperson for Winnie, I'm just representing her life as I see it from doing the research. And I felt from doing the research that people fall into one of two camps: she is either a saint or she is a demon. People are much more complex than that; Winnie certainly is. I found that a great challenge, to come up with my interpretation of who she is.
Was there one thing above all else that gave you a way into her character?
I don't think there was any one thing. There's her voice, her stance, her mannerisms. For me it wasn't about one thing, it was about pulling together these disparate views of who she is and making her a whole person, a cohesive character that I understood and that made sense of the various actions, both good and bad, that she's taken.
Did meeting her help or hinder that process?
It helped me enormously. I asked her how she wanted to be portrayed and I fully expected her to say, 'I want to be portrayed as a saint, as Mother Africa.' But she didn't. She said, 'You do your research, and all I ask is that you play me truthfully.' That was really liberating, because suddenly I felt ownership of all that material. I felt free as well. Our producers had very strong views about who Winnie is and how she should be portrayed, and I was influenced by that. But having her say to me, 'Be free, just tell the truth,' that gave me such a sense of liberation. I didn't feel influenced by anyone else's [opinion] at all after that. I felt I could really find her voice myself.
Did you speak to her after she'd seen the film?
What did she say?
She saw the movie alone, apart from Anant and her daughter Zindzi. I got a message from Anant saying she was really moved by it and she was over the moon with my portrayal of her. Then I met her after the South African premiere, where she watched it again. She cried and said it was the first time she felt she'd been truthfully represented on screen; she said [my performance] didn't seem like acting but like channelling - which is how it felt for most of the time I was portraying her. She also said it was too real and that she never wanted to watch it again.
What did she say about Idris Elba's performance as Nelson Mandela?
She called both of us honourary South Africans.
What reaction did you get from South African people to you being cast as Winnie? Were there complaints that it should've been a South African actor?
I was really lucky because the movie is called Mandela, so the focus was on who was playing Nelson Mandela. I really slipped under the radar because no one really thought Winnie was going to be as integral a part of the movie as she is. So I was free from that, which was lucky. I had enough to deal with dissecting Winnie without that (laughs).
What are your feelings about Idris Elba's performance?
I think he's absolutely extraordinary. He's a brilliant, brilliant actor and he completely captures Mandela, his essence. It's such a detailed performance, down even to how he holds his hands. It's so observant, and that's not an easy feat, to make a character like that your own, because he's so physically different to Mandela as well, or the Mandela we remember. A lot of people have said to me they started off watching the movie thinking, Oh, it's Idris Elba. And by the end of it, they'd completely forgotten it was Idris; he is Nelson.
You have to portray not only Winnie Mandela's public face, which we're somewhat familiar with, but her private side too. What did you draw on for that?
|It's almost like being a detective, playing a living icon like Winnie. |
I read letters that she and Nelson wrote to each other. I spoke to people who knew her, I spoke to her daughters, I spoke to Winnie herself, of course. I read books about her. I learned about how she grew up and her character as a child, picking up the threads, because a lot of personality traits you have as a child stay with you throughout your life. Certainly with Winnie they did. It's almost like being a detective, playing a living icon like Winnie. You have to pull together so much information, dissect it and then piece it together to make one cohesive whole.
How, after all that, would you sum up Winnie Mandela?
That's difficult. She's complex, she has many different faces depending on who she's showing it to - like most of us do. She's strong, she's independent, she's fierce, she's resilient, she's dynamic, she's forthright, she's totally magnetic. And she's ultimately a leader. I think she found the transition from being this fiery political activist, leading the Free Nelson Mandela Campaign, leading anti-Apartheid demonstrations in South Africa, to suddenly having to take a back seat when Nelson was released from prison very hard. I think that was an incredibly difficult transition for a woman who is at her core a political being and an independent being. She's a warrior. So, not a very brief summing up (laughs).
On a completely different tack, to touch on another iconic figure you've recently been associated with, what odds do you give Moneypenny and Bond finally getting it on after fifty-odd years of flirting?
Zero! (laughs). Absolutely zero. That would ruin everything!
Interview by Simon Braund