Winnie: Not 'Just The Woman Who Stood By Mandela's Side'

Originally published on November 25, 2013 4:39 pm

A new film about Nelson Mandela's public rise in South Africa also takes a close look at the personal side of his life with former wife, Winnie.

In Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, British actor Idris Elba portrays the young lawyer who devoted his life to the struggle against apartheid. The film, which took 16 years to make and spans seven decades, also tries to tell the story of the man behind the icon

Fellow Brit, Naomie Harris, plays the iconic statesman's wife. She tells NPR's Michel Martin that "by delving into the human side of Mandela and of Winnie, and showing them warts and all, flaws and all, it actually makes it easier for the audience to connect."

Coming in to the role, Harris admits that she knew quite a bit about Nelson Mandela, but very little about his wife. "I really thought Winnie Mandela was just the woman who stood by his side, and I thought that's the kind of role I would be playing."

But Harris' research taught her about the "extraordinarily rough time" that Winnie went through. The film shows harrowing scenes of the 18 months she spent in solitary confinement, as well as the determination of the apartheid government to break her physically, morally and emotionally. It helped Harris to understand why Winnie later became such a polarizing and controversial figure in South Africa. For example, she was later investigated and tried for connections to political violence carried out by her supporters.

"My job is not to justify Winnie," Harris says. "That was never my aim in taking on this role. But my aim is to really document and show her arc, her journey, the truth of that, as faithfully as I possibly can."


Interview Highlights

On meeting Winnie Mandela

What I really wanted to find out when I sat down with Winnie was, how do you want people to see you? How do you want to be portrayed? And I thought she'd have a long laundry list of suggestions about, she wants to be represented in this way, and she doesn't want this area dealt with, and so on. And in fact, she was incredibly open and she just said, "Look, you're the right person for this role, you've done your research, and all I ask is that you portray me honestly." And that was so liberating for me.

On presenting Nelson and Winnie Mandela as humans

There is no one who is a saint. We're all hugely complex. We live in the gray, rather than black and white. And so, when you're portraying these iconic characters, you can't just portray them as one-dimensional beings who are just saintly, because that's ultimately not who they are. And Mandela, in particular, always emphasizes that he doesn't want people to perceive him as a saint. He's a man like every man, and actually that makes for a better film, and a more inspiring film ultimately.

On the breakdown of the Mandelas' marriage

It really is understandable how she became this warrior figure, because ultimately, what she was living through was a war, and she was at the very front lines of those uprisings in Soweto, those youth movements in Soweto, you know, she was their leader. And that was a very different experience to what Mandela was experiencing. Mandela was imprisoned for so many years that he was away from the front lines of that violence. In a way, he was protected. And he had time to really reflect. Winnie didn't have that time. ... It's beautiful the way that story is told in the film because it's like the political disparate views are played out in their relationship, so you see how the breakdown in the wider society is played out in the breakdown in their marriage.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend the last part of our program today talking about Nelson Mandela. Although he's been ailing in recent years, he still looms large as a figure in the world. That might be why so many leading actors, from Danny Glover to Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier have been drawn to portraying him. So we thought it would be fun to try to unpack just what it takes to nail that performance and that's later this hour.

But first, to a new film about the former South African president. "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," opens this week. The movie, which stars British actor, Idris Elba, in the title role, is based on Mandela's own memoir. But it took 16 years to make, it spanned 7 decades of his life, and it tries to tell the story of the man behind the icon - a man with an eye for the ladies, at least until Winnie Madikizela catches his eye. Here's a clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM")

IDRIS ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) Do you always accept gifts from strangers?

NAOMI HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) You are not a stranger. You are Nelson Mandela.

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) And you are a Winnie Madikizela.

HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) How do you know?

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) Made inquiries.

HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) What else did you find out?

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) That you work at Baragwanath Hospital. You are the first black social worker they've ever had. And you're the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.

MARTIN: Winnie, a polarizing figure today is played by the British actress Naomi Harris, who most recently starred in the latest James Bond installment, Sky Fall. And she is with us now to tell us more. Welcome, congratulations on the role, and thank you so much for joining us.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, I think a lot of people are aware that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. But I don't know that a lot of people know - and in fact I'm wondering if you knew that she had been imprisoned. In fact, the film shows some harrowing scenes of 18 months she spent in solitary confinement. So do you mind if I ask, did you know that she had herself been imprisoned, and that many of the things she endured were horrible?

HARRIS: You know, I didn't know about Winnie Mandela and her experiences. I really thought Winnie Mandela was just the woman who stood by his side. And I thought that's the kind of role I would be playing. I didn't know that she really went through an extraordinarily rough time, as well as the fact that when she was in those 18 months of solitary confinement, we don't actually know what happened to her. We know that she was tortured, but she won't really speak about it because it was such a horrific period in her life.

MARTIN: You met Winnie Madikizela before you started filming. Did she speak to you about any of these matters?

HARRIS: You know, the most important thing for me in meeting Winnie, I discovered all the facts and, you know, I knew so much. But people had such disparate ideas about who she was. And so what I really wanted to find out when I sat down with Winnie was, you know, how do you want people to see you? How do you want to be portrayed? And I thought she'd have a long laundry list of, you know, suggestions about she wants to be represented in this way, and she doesn't want this area dealt with, and so on.

And in fact, she was incredibly open and she just said, look, you're the right person for this role. You've done your research and all I ask is that you portray me honestly. And that was so liberating for me because I suddenly felt like I had ownership of the role, and I could really create her as I wanted to create her and pull all these different disparate ideas about her together and make one cohesive character.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Naomi Harris. We're talking about her role as Winnie Mandela in the new film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." You know, an artist's job really is to get to truth, don't you think?

HARRIS: Absolutely, yeah.

MARTIN: But the tricky thing about it is that you've got these important historical figures and there's got to be a lot of weight on that. I mean, there are many people who will want to see only what they want to see. And I'm wondering how, or if you felt you had to deal with those voices in your head - that you had to have in your head, who don't want to hear anything negative, who want only to show the best foot forward?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, you definitely feel that kind of responsibility. But as an actor, your job is to take ownership of the material and to really not let those voices overtake you because ultimately, as people, there is no one who is a saint. We're all hugely complex. We live in the gray rather than black and white, you know. And so when you're portraying these iconic characters, you can't just portray them as one-dimensional beings who, you know, are just saintly because that's ultimately not who they are. And Mandela, in particular, always emphasizes that he doesn't want people to perceive him as a saint. He's a man like every man.

And actually, that makes for a better film and a more inspiring film, ultimately, because when we look at the achievements of Mandela, we can't write it off and say, well, you know, he managed to achieve that because he was a saint from the very beginning. No, he was a flawed human being just like the rest of us, and yet, he went on to achieve greatness, which means that we can do it, too. So ultimately I think by delving as the film does into the human side of Mandela and of Winnie, and showing them warts and all, flaws and all, it actually makes it easier for the audience to connect with them and ultimately to be uplifted and motivated by their story.

MARTIN: I think many people do understand that after Mandela is released from prison, the two become estranged. And there's a scene I want to play now where his character tells her that he wants a separation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM")

HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) Are you ashamed to greet me in front of our people?

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) Winnie, when you speak in public you must represent the policies of the ANC.

HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) And what does that mean?

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) We are negotiating. We are not fighting a war.

HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) But the people have chosen to fight. Do you want me to betray our people?

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) Do I betray our people?

HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) You have been away a long time.

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) What, what does that mean? I have been away? Does that mean now you can terrorize people? The burning, the necklacing, that has to stop, Winnie.

HARRIS: (As Winnie Madikizela) Do you realize there's a war out there? The people are angry.

ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) We are all angry. I am angry. You are angry. But you must show loyalty. Loyalty, Winnie Mandela.

MARTIN: How did you come to understand what drove them to that point? Or what drove Winnie, to - just speaking for her, to end up where she ended up?

HARRIS: Well, I think what Winnie was going through at that time, it really is understandable how she became this warrior figure because ultimately, what she was living through was a war. And she was at the very front lines of those uprisings in Soweto, those youth movements in Soweto. You know, she was their leader. And that was a very different experience to what Mandela was experiencing. Mandela was imprisoned for so many years that, you know, he was away from the front lines of that violence.

In a way, he was protected and he had time to really reflect. Winnie didn't have that time. So it's understandable that in those 27 years, which is an incredibly long time to be apart as a couple, that they had divergent political ideals and ambitions. And it's beautiful the way that story is told actually in the film because it's like the political disparate views are actually played out in their relationship. So you see how the breakdown in the wider society is played out in the breakdown in their marriage.

MARTIN: Speaking of that, I'm reminded of the, remember the hearings during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There was this moment when then Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks to Winnie directly and almost implores her to apologize for her role in the violence. And she refuses. And, you know, I think even now, many people see her in a very different way. Some see her as really, the mother of the nation, and others see her as just a terrorist, if I may. A terrorist. And I just wanted to ask, is there something that you would wish people to see that they may not see?

HARRIS: You know, my job is not to justify Winnie, only Winnie can do that herself. And that was never my aim in taking on this role. But my aim is to really document and show her arc, her journey, the truth of that, as faithfully as I possibly can, and the emotional reality behind that. She made certain choices. She did certain things, and, you know, some of them seem, on the face of it, really awful things to have done. But when you really show her journey and how she reached those decisions, then I think they become more understandable. They may not become ever palatable, but at least understandable. And that's what I wanted to do in playing this role. I wanted to just really give her an opportunity to have a fair hearing in a way.

You know, to really say, you know, here was this young girl, who was really not very politicized. She was 21 years old when she met Mandela, 23 when he was sentenced, and she was left alone with these 2 children. And completely terrorized by the police because they couldn't get to Mandela so they wanted to get to her. You know, they wanted to break Mandela through her. So she went through an absolutely horrific time, and that made her into the woman that she became.

MARTIN: So what's next for you? Going to be kind of tough to go back to being a Bond girl after being Winnie Mandela.

HARRIS: Well, that is what's next. Yes, I go back to playing Moneypenney in the next Bond.

MARTIN: Really? Well, a heroine of a different order.

HARRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: Naomi Harris plays Winnie Mandela in the new film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." It will be in movie theaters on limited release on the 29 of November and nationwide a month later. And Naomi Harris was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARRIS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.