At the recent Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the English actress Naomie Harris, who plays the role of Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie, said that she was “very proud” to be part of a tribute to such an extraordinary man.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of one of the greatest inspirational leaders of our time,” she told The National. “Today, South Africa lost its spiritual father. Too often, violence and oppression lead to further violence and retribution. He taught us to fight back, but with peace.
“Long before we made this movie, I was inspired, as so many have been, by the leadership, grace and compassion of Nelson Mandela.
“While no single film can replicate a person’s life, his accomplishments and approach to peace are lessons that will live on for generations.”
A few days before his death, the London-based Harris, who is famous for her roles in Skyfall and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, talked about her initial apprehension about taking on such a challenging role.
“Playing Winnie was by far my most challenging role to date,” said the 37-year-old. “I did so much detailed research and at times it felt almost harrowing. Winnie herself describes her life story as a Greek tragedy. It was a tough subject matter as well as a role I was determined to get right.”
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is based on Mandela’s autobiography, written from a manuscript that he wrote in prison. Published in 1994, four years after his momentous release, Mandela granted the movie rights in 1997, but the film proved hard to bring to the screen.
After much deliberation, it was Justin Chadwick who was chosen to direct, from a screenplay by William Nicholson of Les Misérables fame, with Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Harris as Winnie.
Harris is the only child of the television scriptwriter Lisselle Kayla, who wrote episodes for the British soap opera EastEnders. Working with such a heavy subject matter took its toll artistically and emotionally on Harris, who says that she used Elba to lean on whenever possible.
“Idris is a sweetheart,” she said. “He had a way of lightening the mood while we worked on such a difficult film. Delving into emotions of hatred and revenge was very hard for me. I work hard not to hate anyone. I don’t believe in revenge. I believe in karma. But playing a role like this and seeing how things still are in South Africa, you can’t help but feel revengeful. It rises up from within. This whole situation is through no fault of their own. Just because you happen to be born with a different coloured skin, things are taken away from you. Food, housing, clothing, jobs – it’s so upsetting.”
The co-stars walked the red carpet at the movie’s London premiere hours before Mandela’s death was announced. The red carpet before the December 10 gala screening at DIFF was closed to photographers and bathed in candlelight. Harris and her co-star Lindiwe Matshikiza introduced the biopic and led the sold-out theatre at Madinat Jumeirah in a moment of silence.
The film is a sweeping survey of Mandela’s life – from the boy who herded cattle in the Eastern Cape to South Africa’s first black president, in the Union Buildings, Pretoria, in 1994.
“I loved filming in South Africa,” she said. However, Harris also admits there was a lot of pressure to get things just right. “The character, the accent, the subject matter – I’m a Londoner telling a South African story. I was very aware I was making a movie about their history.”
Taking the advice of extras on set was something that Harris welcomed with opened arms. “They lived it; they knew better than me,” she said.
The film tracks precise dates on the screen and includes newsreel footage, both real and recreated, of events, including a 70th-birthday tribute concert for Mandela in London in 1988.
The biggest film ever produced in South Africa, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom cost US$35 million (Dh128.6m) to make, with a cast of 12,000 extras.
As well as spending time in Dubai, Harris has previously visited the capital. “I have fond memories of Abu Dhabi because I was actually recognised there once or twice. Back in London, I never get recognised. I can use the Tube and go about my business – and nothing. I’m like a real celebrity in the Middle East.”
Harris is next set to reprise her role as Moneypenny in Bond 24.
“Playing Moneypenny is great,” she said. “It’s a lot of training for me to be able to kick ass like that. I am a huge fan of Bond, so this was a dream come true.”
• Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is out now