Idris Elba 'taken aback' by Mandela's blessing for 'Long Walk to Freedom'

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By Ree Hines

Idris Elba, who plays imprisoned anti-apartheid champion turned South African president Nelson Mandela in the film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," has received high praise and a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the film. But it was a thumbs-up from the late leader himself that really impressed the star.

"(Mandela) saw some of the film," Elba said during a Friday morning visit to TODAY. "He gave his blessing. You know, I don't look like Nelson Mandela — that wasn't in his interest. I think he wanted to find someone who could bring that spirit alive. ... Which I was like, me? I was really sort of taken aback by that."

But Mandela never had a chance to see the completed project. He died at the age of 95 on Dec. 5, the same day the film premiered.

"He actually passed during the half-way point of the film," Elba recalled. "There was sort of a bittersweet moment — because the film is a beautiful film, and it celebrates his life — so there was this moment after the film, I stood on stage with the producers and we made the announcement. You couldn't write that. You couldn't write that we would have to announce that Nelson Mandela actually passed (at that moment)."

And while Mandela is now gone, his influence lives on. 

"As a career move, (the film has) been massive," the actor said. "It's really put me on the map, but it also changed ... you know, just like playing someone so great, such a world icon, has kind of changed my perspective on Idris a little bit, which has been kind of an interesting change for me."

How so?

"Just wanting to do more," Elba said. "Sort of be a little bit more of a beacon for people who don't have a voice. I've done some work with youth, with kids and stuff, but just playing Nelson Mandela has made me want to do a lot more. "

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is currently in theaters nationwide.