Director wanted Mandela film to be ‘true to the man and true to the legacy’

British director Justin Chadwick had many reasons to smile during a recent stop in Atlanta to promote his latest film, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

The film, which stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, had just been nominated for three Golden Globes, including a best actor nod for Elba. It is set set to open nationwide Christmas Day and is already the top-grossing film in the history of South Africa.

Chadwick, who previously directed “The Other Boleyn Girl,” spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the making of the film, the cast and the daunting responsibility of translating the life of one of the world’s most iconic figures to the screen.

Now that the movie, based on Mandela’s autobiography, is out, how are you feeling about it?

We achieved our goal of making something true to the man and true to the legacy of the man and the people we portray. At first, when they talked to me about making it, I was resistant. … Mandela’s life represents 100 years of the most turbulent, well-documented period in modern history. It was really meeting the men and women who knew Mandela intimately that gave us an insight into making a film that is not only about apartheid, but could also be about love and forgiveness. Then, when we took it back to South Africa, their emotional response meant everything to us.

Mandela died Dec. 5, around the same time that you were hosting the royal premiere in London. Idris Elba actually announced the news from the stage.

We knew Mandela was 95 and had been doing poorly. But it was still a shock, because we always believed that Mandela was invincible. That he would live forever. But he will live forever. … We have children, young people, college students who need to know this story. We pretty much made the film for a modern audience and for an audience that may not know about Mandela.

Was there anything about the subject that intimidated you?

I felt a massive responsibility, not intimidation, that we were making a film about a man that was still living at the time. … Because I am from the outside, I went to the country to listen, observe and work with communities that were part of the struggle. I did that for over a year.

You filmed exclusively in South Africa, about people who were alive, using local extras and telling stories that were still fresh and raw. How difficult was that?

It is a challenge making a film in Africa, and the resistance that I had in the early days was from some who wanted to make a film that was totally reverential over Mandela. … But I said we are going to see him as a young man … as a flawed man. We are going to see him make mistakes, in flesh and blood, as a man. It is important to show how his first marriage broke down; how, as a young man, he had hopes and dreams; that he loved cars, clothes and women, and he had hopes and ambitions to be the best lawyer he could be. Then to show the constant abuse and pernicious racism that just seeped into everything. And it was important to not shy away from any of the controversy surrounding Winnie.

The movie is careful to give Winnie Mandela’s story considerable weight. Why was her story important?

A lot of people have an opinion of Winnie Mandela brought on by the Western press. I went to South Africa and met with Winnie, who still lives in Soweto. My meeting coincided with me finding footage that was shot just after she came out of a 17-month stretch in solitary confinement. She was only 23 and, all of a sudden, this beautiful, intelligent, energetic, bright young woman has her husband ripped away. She has two very small children and she is taken to solitary confinement, not knowing what is happening to them. Suffering terrible mental and physical abuse at the hands of the government. They really punished her. When I saw this footage, I could see this broken woman. … In terms of the film, I think that is what unlocked the script. If we could look at this film through the prism of the relationship, the costs of that relationship, and ultimately the costs to the man. … Here you have Winnie Mandela, who is out living it as that pernicious evil descends into total madness. Then you have Mandela, who goes into prison with the same set of principles that he came out with. But he hones and refines them. So at a time when she is like, “I want to fight to the last drop of our blood,” he is like, “No. We negotiate.” How he did that in the ’70s, against his wife, against the men who were on Robben Island with him, is unbelievable.

What was Winnie’s reaction after seeing the film?

The fact that Winnie has seen the movie and is so supportive is amazing. We don’t shy away from any of the controversy with Winnie. So it is extraordinary, really, that she has such support for it.

I first noticed Naomie Harris in the last James Bond film, “Skyfall,” where she played Eve Moneypenny. Why was she right to play Winnie Mandela?

I was making this tiny little film called “The First Grader” and I needed someone to come in to play the role of the teacher, and Naomie came in. At the London Film Festival we invited (“Skyfall” producer) Barbara Broccoli, and she cast her in Bond, based on her performance in “The First Grader.” I knew Naomie would roll up her sleeves and be able to have the duality of this character. She is a completely different physical type than Winnie, but she has a beauty and strength of character.

What about Elba?

He was my first choice. I remember him from “The Wire” as Stringer Bell and I loved him for that. This was an independent movie, so the producers were thinking we must cast an American star. An older man. But I wanted somebody that could stretch through the whole film of him being young and old. Idris is such a subtle actor who inhabits every character I have ever seen him play. … It takes a brave actor to take on this role and walk out in front of the people in Soweto, who know Mandela, and catch the spirit of Mandela, although he looks nothing like him. I talked to people that knew Mandela when he was a young man. We know about him being a great lawyer, orator and firebrand, but they all said he had an aura and star quality around him. … Idris has got a quality about him like that. I couldn’t have chosen a more open-hearted, generous person to play the part. When I told Zeni and Zindzi (Mandela’s daughters) that Idris was playing the part, they were over the moon.

The Golden Globe nominations came out and Elba was nominated for best actor.

I am so happy for him and the film. This is a very big year for film and the fact that we have this little film that came out of South Africa with these giants from Hollywood is brilliant.

Are you thinking about the Academy Awards and what the Globe nomination can do for promoting this small independent film?

I am just happy that we got nominated. It is really tough. We all made this film to be shown in the cinema and it is hard for independent movies. On (the Golden Globe) list, where was “Fruitvale Station” and Michael B. Jordan? That is a beautiful performance. … Multiplexes are dominated by comic book films, but there has to be a place for films coming from different parts of the world. So any kind of nod … is fantastic, because they give it an extra awareness that might not otherwise come.

Modern biopics are usually measured against “Gandhi” or “Malcolm X.” Will “Mandela” stand the test of time?

I hope so. Certainly, the South Africans that this film represents say it is true to them and the struggle. It has broken all box office records in South Africa, even before Madiba (Mandela) died. We made it to stand and we certainly want it to be a true account.

As you were finishing this film at the same time that Mandela was in the hospital, was he ever able to see it?

Just as I was getting my director’s cut ready, he became very ill and went to the hospital. When we were filming, I would take scenes to him and show him stills. I showed him the very first day shot, which was the last shot of the film, where those children walk past him. And he went, “Is that me?” with a twinkle. That was a real boost for me and Idris.