Actors who have portrayed Nelson Mandela on screen
The life story of Nelson Mandela - a powerful tale of a charismatic lawyer and human rights activist working to dismantle apartheid, only to land in prison for 27 years and ultimately become country’s first democratically elected president - has been told time and time again. Most recently, British star Idris Elba portrays the anti-apartheid figure on screen. Click through to see a sampling of actors who’ve depicted the revolutionary in film.
By Christy Khoshaba (Debbi Yazbek / AFP / Getty Images)
The narrative: In his first term as the South African President, Nelson Mandela uses the nation’s appetite for sports as a pivot point to unite the apartheid-torn land. He enlists the national rugby team - a group and sport many black South Africans once perceived as the game of their oppressors - to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The result electrifies South Africa with what Mandela calls its moment of greatness.
Actor’s push: At a 1994 press conference for Mandela’s memoir “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela appointed Morgan Freeman as the actor to portray him in film. “It sounds arrogant,” Freeman said, “but my thinking was, ‘Of course. Who else? and I can do it.”
Director’s pull: “Morgan is great,” said the film’s director Clint Eastwood of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Million Dollar Baby.” “I could not imagine anyone else in the role of Mandela. They have the same stature and same kind of charismatic nature. Morgan also has a similar vocal quality, and he worked very hard to capture Mandela’s inflections. I think he did it quite well.”
Did he meet Mr. Mandela? Very much so. Freeman spent time with Mandela to replicate the way he walked and talked. The pair eventually sat down to watch the film together. “I was sitting right next to him,” Freeman said. “He pointed at the screen and said ‘I know that fella.’ So, yeah, I think he liked it.” (Keith Bernstein / AP)
The narrative: Based on the memoirs written by James Gregory, who was the censor officer and prison guard to Nelson Mandela, the film recounts the intense effect Mandela had on the white South African guard, and the relationship the pair developed during Mandela’s 18-year stay in prison on Robben Island, before he moved to Pollsmoor Prison.
Actor’s push: Haysbert admitted the role was “daunting” and “intimidating.” “Every night I went home, I would have a glass of wine and just cry,” he said. “The sacrifices he made were profoundly sad to me.”
Director’s pull: “I had to find an actor who has his size and [is of] the same age as Mandela,” said the film’s director Billie August of “The House of Spirits” and “Les Miserables.” “The choice of Dennis Haysbert seemed obvious. I had spotted him in the series “24.” (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The narrative: The film tells the tale of Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie Mandela, and her tumultuous outing from a shy country girl to a dogged revolutionary, as the world watched her relationship with her husband transform.
Actor’s push: “I was terrified,” said David Harewood. “Then I started doing my research. And the more I read, the more I understood that he’s a man, a very vulnerable man, a man in love, a man who was incredibly strong and intelligent.” (Jeff Vespa / WireImage)
The narrative: Honing in on the final days of apartheid in South Africa, the film brings to light the secret high-risk talks and negotiations held between the African National Congress and the Afrikaner National Party in an English country house, which brought an end to apartheid and led the release of Nelson Mandela.
Actor’s push: “For years I didn’t eat South African food,”Peters said. “I didn’t go to South Africa when I was invited there. I was counting on the whole world to bring pressure to bear to help end apartheid.” When Clarke was offered the role, he likened it something of royal stature. “I was absolutely overawed. Wouldn¿t you be? How would you like to play the Queen?”
Director’s pull: “What really struck me is that it’s a story about now,” said the film’s director Pete Travis of “Vantage Point”and “Dredd.” “Seemingly intractable political situations transformed by seemingly impossible things, like people having hope. That’s the story that feels totally about today to me.”
Did he meet Mr. Mandela? Peters met Mandela’s inmate on Robben Island, who told him when Mandela heard his son died, he stood at his cell window for four days, avoiding human contact and food. “When he turned away from the window he was a changed man,” said Peters. “I think he was having a very deep conversation with God - that God imbued him with that extra bit of wisdom, that extra bit of patience.” (Larry Busacca / Getty Images)