Doc/Fest ’15: Idris Elba gets personal

Actor Idris Elba (pictured) talks to realscreen about his documentary Mandela, My Dad and Me, the plan for his London prodco Green Door Pictures and what's next for his music career.
June 9, 2015

Best known for his work in gritty crime dramas including the BBC’s Luther and HBO’s The Wire as well as a breakthrough turn as South African leader Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, British actor Idris Elba is accustomed to playing formidable men. But things became a little more personal when a documentary following Elba as he recorded an album of South African music honoring Mandela was punctuated by the sudden death of his father Winston.

Mandela, My Dad and Me – the resulting film, directed by Daniel Vernon and a copro between Elba’s prodco Green Door Pictures, Shine North and Woodcut Media – isn’t the documentary the team set out to make, but has become the actor’s most intimate undertaking to date.

“I found myself grieving, I found myself in therapy, and I found myself fragile in moments, and the cameras were rolling the whole time,” Elba tells realscreen. Following its premiere at London’s British Film Institute in April, the film was picked up by Discovery Networks for the UK and Ireland, and most recently, A+E Networks acquired the rights to air the doc on History in Africa later this year. It also screened this week at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Looking ahead, Elba – who recently put the kibosh on those pesky James Bond rumors – says he plans to focus on scripted and unscripted work with Green Door, including a film on a “high-profile soccer player,” and eke out another album. “I use 15 to 18 hours of my day,” he shrugs. “I don’t sleep as well as I should but you’d be surprised how much your brain can do.”

How was the BFI premiere?

I had 25 members of my personal family who were all there. My dad was a centerpiece of our family so it was quite an emotional night. We didn’t set out to make this film the way it’s come out – it’s quite a personal film. We were really meant to make a film about making music in South Africa.

In terms of vulnerability on screen, how did this process differ to your narrative work?

To a certain degree, you can control in a narrative how you look, what you say and what you sound like. The opening shot of this film is me waking up with my sunglasses on, akimbo in the bed. That’s not nice, but it really does set the tone for what you’re about to see. It’s a warts-and-all type of documentary-making.

What’s the plan for Green Door Pictures?

It’s been going for two years, but essentially it was out of my laptop with my agent. Now, we’ve got a small team and an office in London and we’re really starting to cultivate good stuff. It’s a process and it’s hard work. It’s not always rewarding. For me, documentaries are like books: people pick a book based on their own personal interests. You can put the cover on it and make it look good and attractive, but it has to have content.

What balance do you hope to strike between Green Door and your acting?

Green Door’s goal is, for factual television, to break the ice on things people don’t know about. Then there’s the film and television department – television being my real focus at the moment since I’ve come from that industry for about 25 years, and I’m loving independent film. My goal over the next five to 10 years is to really set a platform for those sorts of filmmakers, have Green Door break new talent and have people go, “That’s a Green Door [film].” How’d you know that? “Because I’ve never heard of that filmmaker before and it’s amazing.”

What’s next for your music?

I’m taking my character in Luther as the centerpiece for an album and I’m trying to do a spin and say, “Can we make the songs about what the character feels like, who he is?” The album is called Murder Loves John – it’s a working title for now.

  • This story first appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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