Playing Mrs Mandela
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Date: 21 January, 2010

Photo: BBC Pictures


'During apartheid I suppose there was so much censorship that people often didn't know what was going on in their own country.'

On February 11, 1990, one of the most important leaders of the 20th century, walked free from prison. Nelson Mandela left the prison holding the hand of his wife, Winnie, after 27 years in captivity.

The BBC's new drama, Mrs Mandela, dramatises Mrs Mandela's life during her husband's incarceration in Robben Island Prison.

She is played by Oscar-nominated actress Sophie Okonedo who confesses that, before she took on the role of Winnie, she knew relatively little about her life: "During apartheid I suppose there was so much censorship that people often didn't know what was going on in their own country."

"I approached Winnie the way I approach any other role, just trying to get to the heart of it and play the truth as much as possible.

"I didn't get into watching footage. For me that just wasn't really useful – I'm not an impersonator. I just got really familiar with the facts of that time. I found Anthony Sampson's biography of Mandela really helpful – it really gave me an idea of the context of what I was playing in, which was useful as I had to get the timeline right."


Although reluctant to create an impersonation of Winnie, Okonedo still had to transform physically as she was playing her over a number of decades.

"The film goes from 1957, when she met Nelson, up to 1990 – it's quite a long time period. I loved wearing the suits – they gave me a gravitas. But it was really hot out there, so I imagined I was in a steam room having a detox!"

While Nelson Mandela was in prison, she was persecuted by the South African regime. She was also thrown in jail herself, put in solitary confinement and forced to endure hours of harsh interrogation.

"I love South Africa and we were filming in Soweto in real locations – around the corner from the Mandela's real house, walking down the same streets she would have walked down, and that just made the film for me.

"One of my first scenes was when I had to go into a big hall and do one of her most famous speeches. I just thought 'what the hell? I'm about to go in there and be one of South Africa's most iconic women'.

"I just felt like a complete fraud. I remember crying in the toilet before it started. I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to – this is just a bridge too far – I'm not going to be able to become this lady now'.


"I was terrified of going out in front of hundreds of extras who really knew what she was like and I just felt really vulnerable.

"But once I got out on the stage, the noise from the extras – the cheering and screaming – it was amazing and I thought, 'bring it on', I really enjoyed it.

"It's still very recent history so they all knew the freedom songs. There was no coaching necessary – they would just break out into these four-part harmonies, singing these amazing songs and dancing.

"They were teaching us! So those big scenes with the extras were great, like the Soweto uprising or the scenes when Mandela is released from jail."

Mrs Mandela is broadcast on BBC4 and BBC2 from
January 25 - 31.

Read Surefish writer Charlotte Haines Lyon's series of interviews with people from South Africa