Idris Elba puts in a tour-de-force performance in the harrowing child soldier film, Beasts Of No Nation. But while he plays a war lord, he had no interest in portraying an all-out villain.
Given his movie star status, Idris Elba’s used to people reacting in unexpected ways when they see him, but being saluted on the set of his latest movie was a new experience.
“The truth of the matter is, the extras had been going to boot camp three weeks before I even got there, so they were practically soldiers,” explains the 43-year-old who plays Commandant, the rising war lord of a West African militia, in the harrowing Beasts Of No Nation.
“I show up and there’s a natural respect for me as an actor - ‘Idris Elba!’ - but then I’m playing the commander and we were sitting in tents in the jungle and we were an army. So every time they saw me, [it was] ‘Yes commander’,” he explains, doing a salute.
“I’d say, ‘It’s all right guys, I’m just going to the toilet, relax, chill out’. But it was a very sweet, warming, engaging process.”
The movie is based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, a sociologist and physician who grew up in the United States but spent time in Nigeria, where his parents were born.
The tale brings to life the gripping story of Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), a child soldier torn from his family to fight in the civil war, and who’s taken under the wing of the Commandant.
“It’s quite common knowledge that there are child soldiers, but the actualities of it, I think, are missing for us,” notes Elba from behind sunglasses.
“We’ve never really got to the underbelly of who these people are, who their leaders are and what happens between them. So there was a real pull to create a cinematic journey that takes you into this world with a close lens, watching what a young person goes through to adapt to war, is the heartbeat of the film.”
The director Cary Fukunaga, who also adapted the book for the big screen, and whose previous credits include the acclaimed 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Michael Fassbender and the first series of True Detective with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, immediately sparked to the idea of Elba tackling the difficult role.
“It made sense because Idris is such a force of nature,” explains the 38-year-old film-maker. “He’s one of those guys who, even in real life, when he walks into the room, you feel that commanding presence, that gravitas. But I truly didn’t think we could get him for this film.”
As it turned out, Elba, who came to the fore playing the enterprising drug lord Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell in The Wire and earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, was already a fan of the novel.
Beasts Of No Nation opens across the UK in Curzon Cinemas on Friday, October 9 and airs on Netflix on Friday, October 16