‘Pacific Rim’ star Idris Elba on playing Mandela: ‘I learned a lot about sacrifice’

It’s a big year for actor Idris Elba — he has landed lead roles in two high-profile movies that are sure to draw massive crowds in theaters worldwide.

The first is the action-packed sci-fi film Pacific Rim, which hits theaters this Friday, in which Elba plays an unyielding and respected military commander who fights for humanity.

His other starring role requires some of the same grit, gravitas and leadership but for an arguably loftier purpose as Elba takes on the iconic role of Nelson Mandela in a new biopic, Long Walk to Freedom.

Lessons learned from Mandela

The British star is not the first A-lister to play Mandela on the big screen but the movie should draw increased attention (and scrutiny) in light of the perilous condition of the 94-year-old ex-South African president, who is reportedly on life support.

“I was in South Africa for about 7-8 months and we pulled it together,” Elba told theGrio in a phone interview Monday. “I’m very proud of it and I can’t wait for the world to see it.”

Mandela, who has been hospitalized for over a month for a recurring lung infection, has influenced the lives of millions in South Africa and the film aims to shed light on his advocacy for human rights.

“He’s hard to forget,” Elba said. “I think what is most important are some of his life lessons and the things he fought for such as equality and the betterment for men who might have nothing. He wanted everyone to have equal rights and he made great sacrifices for that.”

The film, which will be released on November 27th, has already begun generating Oscar buzz. Meanwhile, Elba explained that playing Mandela has taught him a few life lessons of his own.

“Mandela spent 27 years in jail to fight for a nation of people and I learned a lot about sacrifice in that sense,” he said.

‘Pacific Rim,’ a reflection of how we treat our world

From one lead role to the next, Elba is compiling an impressive resume that already boasts roles on hit TV shows The Wire, Luther and in movies such as 2010′s Takers.

However, his part in Pacific Rim could potentially cement his status as an A-Lister.

In the film, Elba plays Lieutenant-Commander Stacker Pentecost, the leader of a group of soldiers who operate high-powered robots that battle giant aliens that rise from the sea and invade earth.

“He’s very much a soldier and he’s super serious, I counted and I smiled all of two times in the film,” Elba said of his character. “He’s a traffic warden for a lot of the story pieces and characters. They come to him and he points them in the right direction.”

While the movie is far from the first sci-fi blockbuster of the season, the actor claimed that Pacific Rim does not fit the mold of many classic films centered around alien attacks.

Instead, he said director Guillermo del Toro produced a movie built on a unique plot that makes it difficult to compare to other movies from the genre.

“I think what’s really interesting about this story and what adds to the originality is that the monsters do not come from out of space like we all presume is going to happen,” he said. “It’s from within. I think it’s a metaphor for how we treat our country and our world. I think that WE are the monsters as the human beings, we’re the ones that attack ourselves so badly.”

Elba’s inspirations, influences and choice for leading lady

However, despite Elba’s thoughts on the film’s originality, he does tip his hat off to 1982’s Blade Runner – a film that he said has both similarities and differences with Pacific Rim.

“It’s nothing like Blade Runner in terms of story and content but [it is] in terms of an experience of watching something that isn’t a remake and is a totally original idea,” he said.

Elba also credits former four-star U.S. Army General and Secretary of State Colin Powell and actor Jack Nicholson’s role in A Few Good Men – as sources of inspiration.

He says Powell’s “poise and absolutely steel-like” demeanor and Nicholson’s “amazing presence” stuck with him.

Unfortunately though, Elba portrays his commander role without a leading lady by his side. If given the chance to cast a woman of his choice to combat the aliens alongside him, Elba has one famous actress in mind.

“There are millions of actors that I love but it would be Melissa McCarthy, at least she’d make me smile every now and again,” he said.

Follow Lilly Workneh @Lilly_Works