Idris Elba plays the legendary Nelson Mandela in ''Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'' (out Nov. 29); here's why he was nervous about taking on such an iconic role — and why he did it anyway

November 15, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

Playing Nelson Mandela seems like the acting opportunity of a lifetime, but Idris Elba required convincing. “The main concern for me was the look-alike thing,” says the British actor, 41. “Everybody knows what he sounds like and what he looks like. So as much as I’m an actor, and I’m an ambitious one, it just seemed beyond the realms of what I could do.”

Luckily, director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) didn’t want a look-alike — he wanted someone who could capture Mandela’s charisma. “[Idris] has got that magnetism,” he says. “He’s a man. He walks into a room, you feel it.”

To perfect Mandela’s accent, Elba watched videos and worked with a dialect coach — but a more significant reference was his own father, a first-generation Brit from Sierra Leone. “There are certain ways that African men speak English, and Mandela and my dad sort of fall into a similar category,” says Elba. “They’re very grammar-conscious and like to use long words.”

The actor also met with Mandela’s comrades and spent a night in his infamous prison cell on Robben Island. But of equal importance was studying South Africa’s turbulent history, so that when he reenacted protest speeches in front of 6,000 South African extras, the words weren’t empty rhetoric. “The lines in the script, what does he mean there? How does it reference in history with what really happened?” says Elba. “Because, you know, he was more sinner than saint. And we had the responsibility of not damaging but also being honest about who he was.”

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