Interview – Idris Elba and the cast of ‘Beast’ on mixing family drama with a survival thriller

Recently widowed Dr. Nate Daniels (Idris Elba) and his two teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries) travel to a South African game reserve managed by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copely), an old family friend and wildlife biologist. However, what begins as a journey of healing soon turns into a fearsome fight for survival when a lion, a survivor of bloodthirsty poachers, begins stalking them.

Leading up to the release of Beast (in Australian cinemas August 25), Universal Pictures gave me the chance to sit down with Idris Elba, Sharlto Copely, Iyana Halley and Leah Jefferies to discuss creating authentic family drama, filming on the beautiful reserves of South Africa, and breaking down one-take action scenes!


Nick: I was lucky enough to speak to Baltasar a few months ago, and he said that the two of you had been looking for a project for a little while to collaborate on. I’d love to know what it was about Beast for you that made it the right project, at the right time for you to work with Mr. Kormakur?

Idris Elba: I think the element of survival in this film is a big key component to the narrative. And, you know, Balt [Komakur, director] has made incredible contributions to that theme, that genre and I just felt like he would find the right tone and temperature to make this film. Which does teeter on being theatrical with a sense of real survival perspective. So, that’s what I thought Balt and I could do with this film.

We don’t often see you play physically vulnerable characters, was that also part of the appeal for you and playing the character of Nate?

Idris Elba: This character is definitely not an action hero. He’s just a guy that’s in a really terrible situation, and that was appealing to me. For me, it wasn’t a difficult role to get into. I’ve never been chased by a lion, but I’d probably be exactly like Nate in real life, if that was the case. It was certainly exciting for me to portray a character that doesn’t have some of the tropes around action heroes that we all see in films. And he was vulnerable for sure, and I think he’s vulnerable in a sense of his relationship with his children, but also this horrible scenario that they find themselves in.

The early scenes of your character with both Leah Jefferies and Iyana Haley really set that emotional tone for the film and showcase that believable bond. I’m wondering, did you have much time to bond with them prior to filming to get that father-daughter relationship right?

Idris Elba: Yeah, I mean, we certainly had a lot of time just sitting around the table with the script, talking through each line, talking about the relationship and the characteristics of the relationship. That time was just… it was rich, it was the time where we got to know each other. They are adorable people to work with. Leah and Iyana are very, very sweet people. At the same time, we didn’t know each other, so, it was important that we spent time and I made sure that they felt that they could approach me and relate to me as an actor. And then we just got into it, you know, as a bit of a family. By the time of the finished by the end of the film, we felt like a family.

Mr. Copley, as a South African actor and having filmed Beast in Cape Town and Limpopo, I’d love to get your thoughts on what it’s like filming somewhere close to home, as opposed to a set anywhere else in the world!

Sharlto Copely: That was one of the reasons I wanted to do the movie. It’s got themes that are very personal to me, like the poaching, the wildlife protection, our relationship to nature, our disconnect from nature. We are on the Internet all the time and our phones all the time and living these kinds of virtual lives. Since District 9, I’ve taken every chance I get to play a South African character. This was the first one where I actually use my own accent, as I’m speaking it to you. This one just felt right to sort of be the most underplayed and most like me of anything I’ve done before.

And just to show the spectacular environment, you know? There’s this reserve we shot on that has these 3000, some of them even 3500 year old trees, it’s crazy! Looking at a tree that’s that old,  thatI didn’t even know such a thing existed. And in a way, kind of compensate for the damage that we probably did, you know, in terms of District 9, what people thought South African looked like, because we didn’t present any of the beauty of the sanctuary.

You have worked opposite CGI characters, and you’ve played CGI characters! And in Beast, there is a scene of you holding and patting an incredibly animated lion. How have you seen that CGI technology evolve over your career and how has it helped you as an actor?

Sharlto Copely: What helps tremendously is when you can do something like that and not have to do the scene I did with the lions in real life! [laughs] Of course, like, that’s gonna be terrible. It’s just guys in grey leotards, with a lion head and lion paws, and you’ve got something to hit against and move. That’s what’s amazing! To me, what doesn’t help is the fact that we now have, from an acting point of view, the focus on green screen or like the LED screens they used on The Mandalorian. Where you just never go to the real place. That’s terribly not helpful for me, I don’t like it as an actor. I think as a director or producer, it’s genuinely amazing what you can do with those things, but as an actor I’m like: ‘Please God, don’t make me do that!’

Interestingly, District 9, just in terms of those hard-shell prawns and the level of photorealism that was achieved at that point – what was always blowing everybody out of the water was how organic the animals moved in a realistic way. The Revenant got the bear, and the bear has short fur. t’s easier to CGI the short fur. As soon as you get into this long flowing main of a lion, and the subtle movements of a lion, that’s not hidden! You can see the muscles! If these guys don’t win the visual effects Oscar… basically every visual effect award for the next year I’m going to be kind of shocked because it’s remarkable what they pulled off in that scene where it’s a seven minute take. It must’ve been mind-blowingly difficult!

One of the things that I enjoyed the most is your performances and relationship with Idris’ character and how you all created that engaging family drama. I’d love to know what was an important aspect of your characters that you wanted to bring in order for the audience to really feel that drama?

Iyana Halley: Well, for my character, I wanted her to be super relatable. Just to have people understand that no matter what you go through with your family, you can try to figure things out. And I wanted for people to see that throughout the film, to see their journey, how they navigate and how they ultimately try to figure things out. I don’t want to give away too much for people who haven’t seen it, but you’ll see their journey for sure.

Leah Jefferies: This is definitely something where I feel like people can relate to. Not the part where you get attacked by a lion, of course! [laughs] But, I feel like there’s parts in here when people can relate to how sometimes family does break apart, then they get back together, and then they break apart. So, I feel like they can relate to this, you know, this little story in here.

I really want to know about what your experience was like shooting the all these crazy action scenes, especially the one where the lion attacks the car. Baltasar Kormakur does these incredible one-take shots and I’d love to know what it was like filming those scenes!

Iyana Halley: We spent so much time in this one car, and at times it was just like: ‘Okay, another day, another car scene’. But we made it fun. In between takes, we’re constantly making jokes, and bonding like a real family. Then once the cameras did start rolling, like you said, Balt was doing the one take shots, one long shot, so we had to really be on our game. We always had each other’s back and he allowed us to improv and really make the character our own. I think it looks great on camera, it looks so cool.

Leah Jefferies: I loved how we went from laughing, just straight into yelling at each other. And then went back from joking around back in a car. But it took practice because I never filmed an action movie before. I had to rehearse and practice. We had like three weeks prior until we started filming, so it gave me enough time to really practice screaming and crying and all that stuff!

Thanks to Universal Pictures for giving me the chance to chat with the cast of Beast! Check the movie out when it releases in Australian cinemas on August 25.


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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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