Thursday, 26 December 2013
Mandela biopic brings greater understanding of ex-wife, says star Naomie Harris
TORONTO - As it runs down the life of late anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, the new film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" also heavily features his polarizing ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
British actress Naomie Harris, who plays the scandal-plagued Madikizela-Mandela, says she thinks the South African activist "is misconstrued in a lot of ways" and the film "will help to address that."
"I'm not making excuses for any of the heinous things that Winnie is accused of, but I think what this film helps to do is to explain and bring greater understanding about why she became the woman that she became, which is really important," she said in an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where the biopic had its world premiere.
"There's duality in her personality, because on the one hand, yes, she did advocate necklacing and these horrific things during the apartheid regime. But on the other hand, she is ... the woman who kept Mandela's name alive while he was in prison for 27 years. And really, if it wasn't for her doing that, then we might all have forgotten about Mandela. She also was so active with the youth, particularly in Soweto and the anti-apartheid movement there. (It) was a violent uprising largely, in Soweto, but it was also pivotal as well to dismantling apartheid.
"So she did a hell of a lot of good as well as the bad stuff that she did."
Opening Wednesday, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is based on Mandela's 1994 autobiography and runs through his struggles leading the anti-apartheid movement, his 27-year imprisonment and his triumphant rise to the South African presidency.
It also focuses on his marriage to Madikizela-Mandela, who headed the African National Congress Women's League and had a militant role in the anti-apartheid battle.
British actor Idris Elba recently landed a Golden Globe nomination for his spot-on portrayal of Mandela, who died earlier this month at age 95. Justin Chadwick directed with a script by William Nicholson.
It's the only film to have been fully endorsed by the Mandelas and the Mandela Foundation.
Harris said producer Anant Singh wrote to Mandela when he was in prison 26 years ago, asking for the big-screen rights to his story, and developed "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" over 17 years.
Singh and Chadwick asked Harris to play Madikizela-Mandela three years ago when she was shooting the 2010 biographical drama "The First Grader" in Toronto.
"I said yes, because I thought 'I'd love to work with these guys again,' but I had no idea really who Winnie Mandela was, because I saw her as Mandela's wife," she said.
"I didn't know her complexity, so it was a huge shock for me when: No. 1, after 17 years of the film not being made it suddenly came together very, very quickly. ... And then I had to start doing all the research and I found out that Winnie Mendela is this incredibly complex woman and she really polarizes people in terms of their opinions about her.
"So it was very difficult for me, because people had such different ideas about who she was."
Harris's extensive research process for the role culminated with her meeting Madikizela-Mandela, who was involved in the casting and approved both leads.
"I said to her, 'How do you want to be portrayed, how do you want people to see you?' And she said to me, 'Look, I trust you. You've done your research and so I think you should create the role as you see fit,'" said the statuesque star, who played Eve Moneypenny in the most recent Bond film "Skyfall."
"So she gave me free rein, which was incredibly liberating for me — because I had all these voices in my ears, from South Africans saying, 'It should be like this,' and then my director saying, 'It should be like this.'"
Harris said going into the shoot in Cape Town and Johannesburg was intimidating for both her and Elba.
"One of the things he said to me was, 'I'm scared,' and it was great because it was like, 'I'm scared too!' and we could bond on that," said Harris, whose other film credits include "28 Days Later" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.
"It was like, 'This is huge, right?' 'Yeah, this is huge for me, too! How are we going to do this?' 'We'll do it together and we'll do it holding each other's hands in a way,' which was one of the nice lines in the movie.
"When Winnie comes to Mandela at the end of the movie and she says, 'Do you want me to hold your hand?' ... it sums up almost the way that Idris and I got through the movie — was by holding each other's hands."