The Envelope: No formal acting training? For the ‘Beasts of No Nation’ stars, that’s ‘no problem’

Though they're all smiles here, Idris Elba says he cried and his young costar says he felt like crying (but didn't) when watching their "Beasts of No Nation."

Though they’re all smiles here, Idris Elba says he cried and his young costar says he felt like crying (but didn’t) when watching their “Beasts of No Nation.”

(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

As a rule, Netflix refuses to release any information about how many people stream its original content; even the makers of “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” don’t know how big their audiences are. But Netflix made an exception for “Beasts of No Nation” when it announced that 3 million people had viewed the film during its first 10 dates on the streaming service. In part, that rare look at numbers was doubtless to counter reports of the film’s weak performance in theaters, but it’s also yet another sign of how the market for feature films is shifting and how the hunger for fresh content can allow even a movie about African child soldiers starring an unknown 15-year-old Ghanaian named Abraham Attah to find a significant audience.

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Sharing an interview with his costar and producer, Idris Elba, who plays the fearsome, charismatic leader of a band of child soldiers in an unnamed West African country, Attah seems unfazed by the process, nonchalantly insisting that his heart-wrenching moments were “no problem” to act. (The hardest scene to shoot, he says, was when he was required to run into the jungle with no shoes on.) Although Elba’s the old hand, you’d be hard-pressed to tell which of the two has been here a hundred times before.


Abraham, how did you get the role?

Attah: People are saying I was a street child before I was cast, but I was not a street child. I was in school on Friday, and a white man came to ask, “We need boys for a movie.” So he told us to come for an audition, and I was chosen. When the white man came, he didn’t explain to us that it was a movie. We thought it was a football team, so I wanted to join before I had an idea that it was for a movie.

Much of the cast, especially the children, had never made a movie before. Do you work differently with actors who don’t have any experience?

Elba: When you say, “Lead by example,” that really worked in this scenario. It was a small budget and we didn’t have much time, we had a lot to shoot, so my approach working with the kids was just to be a pro. Working with Abraham, I didn’t change anything. In my eyes, he was a professional coming to do this job. There were times when we’d just talk and chat, and that was sort of connective tissue because we have such a big relationship in the film, but we’re not actually in that many scenes.

Did you talk about acting when you weren’t shooting?

Elba: We didn’t. We didn’t talk about acting at all, really. From my perspective, Abraham came in having learned lines and read stories, but what he offered the most was his gut. The lines went out the window. The scene when I first met [his character] Agu, I nearly cried because I’m looking at a boy that’s lost in a jungle and is crying his eyes out. There was no acting there. I think that’s what Abraham is amazing at. He doesn’t even know it, perhaps, but he’s got an instinct that is right in there. It was really a joy to watch. You’re watching an actor that is fearless and is trusting his gut. It was great.

Were you nervous when you started filming?

Attah: No.

Elba: Never? What about in front of all those boys when you had to do a lot of acting?

Attah: No. It was normal for me.

Elba: I feel like that as well. I’m actually a quite shy person. I’m not trying to be the center of the party. But acting, it just comes natural.

What was it like to see yourself up on screen?

Attah: Sometimes, I feel like crying — but I don’t cry — because I see it to be real.

Elba: Do you see you, or do you see Agu?

Attah: Agu.

Elba: I watched it and I cried. I don’t want to see it again. I just don’t like seeing children in misfortune. It makes me very sad.

You weren’t a trained actor when you started performing. What’s your relationship to technique?

Elba: I think you can philosophize about it forever and ever, and there are amazing institutions called drama schools that do that. But the truth is there’s a few things that happen when you’re an actor. You’re using your imagination in real time, and you’re creating, literally. I tend not to over-analyze that but I definitely understand that acting is therapy. In some incarnation in the future, I’m going to put this idea into some sort of a program and offer it to people: Drama is therapy. You’re the same being that you are every day, but I could be in a really bad mood, walk into a scene and start laughing and having the greatest time. Same body, same brain, two different absolute personalities. There’s a real interesting connection to psychology that I’m fascinated with. But technically, it’s more about just being there in the moment.

What sort of program do you mean?

Elba: I want to examine with the right sort of people who understand my theory. How is it possible for me to be in one state of mind, and then say “Action” and go into another state of mind? What’s going on there? What is my brain being tricked to do? And then if that’s the case, people that have problems, depression, communications issues — I think they could benefit from drama.

You’ve done three movies in the last three years, including “Mandela” and “The Gunman,” that take place in Africa. Now that you’re in a position to influence which movies get made, is it important for you to tell more African stories?

Elba: Obviously, the subject matter needs light, needs air, needs people to understand what’s going on. From my perspective, I think it’s important that we do see a three-dimensional African character — once, please — and not always through the eyes of a white man. It’s a massive mechanism in Hollywood where the African characters are not very well-written or understood and, often times, stereotypes. It’s definitely something I wanted to avoid. The commandant obviously isn’t a nice character, but I wanted to humanize him in a way that makes people understand this story, understand, to a certain degree, African politics, understand the hierarchies and so forth. So that was really important. This film will shed light on a crisis.