MIPTV: Idris Elba on the Two Most Important Men in His Life (Neither Is James Bond)

Idris Elba_Mandela, My Dad, And Me
Courtesy of Content Television

The British star of 'Luther' and 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' was in Cannes promoting a self-financed documentary.

Idris Elba is tired of talking about James Bond.

The 42-year-old Brit, famous for his leading roles in BBC crime drama Luther and in the Oscar-nominated Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, has been tipped as a possible replacement for Daniel Craig as 007, a rumor that has sparked competing pro- and anti-Elba-as-Bond memes and prompted Elba to remark that the story "is eating itself."

Sitting on a beach in Cannes for MipTV, Elba is in no mood to discuss fictional secret agents. He's here on a more personal mission: promoting his self-financed documentary Mandela, My Dad and Me, which Content Television is selling worldwide. 

Elba said the documentary started “almost as a vanity project” —  filming the making of mi Mandela, his 2014 album of music inspired by his research and portrayal of the late South African leader for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It became deeply personal when his father, Winston, died in September 2013, during the recording of the album.

“At some point it shifted and became a real emotional journey,” he says. “It became a way, almost, to salute my old man in a way I hadn't been able to when he was alive, as well as to salute Mandela. And of course, to salute South African music.”

The film, directed by Daniel Vernon and produced by Green Door and Shine North, is ostensibly about the making of mi Mandela, Elba's first album, which saw him collaborate with the likes of Mumford & Sons, James Blake, Maverick Sabre and Mr Hudson. But Vernon, Elba says, soon “got tired of filming faders and people tuning guitars and he started noticing other things, like 'is he crying?' 'What are they are they fighting about?' It became about grief and vulnerability. He captured moments that I wouldn't have put in the brief. Suddenly we had a very emotional, very personal film. And a lens on my life that I hadn't seen before.”

Before making the documentary, Elba said he never saw a connection between Nelson Mandela, the South African statesman and freedom fighter and his father, a stop steward who worked at a Ford Motor plant in Hackney London. 

“For my dad, Mandela was always a name, always a fighter he admired and highlighted,” he says, “It was the Apartheid era and my dad, being very pan-Africa, was always listening to the BBC world service news, finding out what's happening in Sierra Leone, Ghana, South Africa, Rhodesia or whatever. My dad was all over that. But it wasn't until I was making the film, that I realized how my dad was similar, in a miniscule level, to Mandela. My dad was a union man, and was constantly going on about fighting for 'us small workers,' fighting for steel-capped boots on the factory floor, and stuff like that. It was a small thing but he was very much encouraged by Mandela's life and fight. It was a symbiotic connection.”

Winston Elba did see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom before he died “and was absolutely blown away” his son says. But Idris Elba isn't so sure his father would have understood his need to make Mandela, My Dad and Me

“He would have said: 'Boy, nobody is going to watch dat! Come on!'” Elba says, laughing. “But I think — I hope — it would have made him proud. I would have loved to have watched the film with him.”