He could hardly be described as Nelson Mandela's spitting image, but when British actor Idris Elba arrived at the South African premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom last Sunday, he drew some of the adulation usually reserved for the great statesman himself.
"You can see the sweat! No pressure?" joked Elba, in front of countless cameraphones as he wiped perspiration from his forehead. "South Africans love their Madiba and it's a massive responsibility to bring him alive."
Playing Mandela is an acting Everest that many movie stars – from Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover and David Harewood to Terrence Howard, Clarke Peters and Sidney Poitier – have attempted to scale, but none, perhaps, have quite reached the summit.
Elba, who grew up in Hackney, East London, has already earned the praise of Mandela's family.
Asked on the red carpet about the daunting task of nailing Mandela's accent, Elba replied: "I just wanted people to recognise him when they heard the sound, and say, ‘That's Madiba!'"
The star of The Wire and Luther almost missed the black-tie event in Johannesburg after he suffered a severe asthma attack on a South Africa-bound plane and was taken to hospital. But he took another flight just in time to witness in person how South Africans judge his portrayal of the nation's father figure.
The premiere was held a few kilometres from the suburban home where Mandela (95) remains in a critical condition after spending three months in hospital with a recurring lung infection.
"He's probably watching this on the news as we speak," Elba mused. "This is very special."
Mandela's absence made it a poignant gathering of his closest family, friends and comrades, who mingled with their cinematic counterparts.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela sat beside Elba during speeches at a champagne reception. Greeted by ululations, she told the guests: "I'm just as excited as all of you are. Thank you for coming to join us in revisiting that turbulent journey that brought us here today. I have no words to describe the translation that Anant [Singh, the producer] came up with of that painful past."
She continued: "The importance of this is that we should remember where we come from and that this freedom was hard earned and it was won at a very heavy price. We're here to celebrate not only comrade Madiba but all the men and women who perished in the liberation war."
Mandela's third and current wife, Graca Machel, was also present, but declined to be interviewed. They were joined by the new British and United States ambassadors, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and long-time friends of Mandela, including Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow prisoner on Robben Island, and lawyer George Bizos, who defended Mandela from a possible death penalty a half a century ago. "It brings back the memories," Bizos said.
Singh said a smiling Mandela had asked, "Is that me?" when he saw a picture of Elba made up with grey hair and a wrinkled face and wearing one of his trademark Madiba shirts. "I said, ‘Madiba, you really think it's you?'" Singh recalled. – © Guardian News & Media 2013