Idris Elba: 'I'm so hot right now'
The Wire made him everyone’s favourite baddie, Luther, everyone’s favourite cop. Tim Walker meets the master of modern crime drama
Saturday 28 May 2011
A stroll through Soho with Idris Elba is not an experience I'd recommend to any man of average height, build or attractiveness.
In fact, it's likely to do lasting damage to your self-esteem. He struts, all six-foot-two-and-a-half of him; I (5'11") as good as shuffle. Men and women alike are mesmerised by the famous figure approaching them in double-denim and tinted glasses. If they even notice that there's somebody walking beside him, I can see them wonder, "What's that medium-sized, not-overly-handsome fellow doing with Stringer Bell?".
Their puzzled expressions soften as they draw closer, forming the natural assumption that I'm his mate, or his manager. But then, just before they pass us, they spot the dictaphone I've been clutching surreptitiously, and their faces darken again: a journalist, they think. How lame. Having wasted half a second's thought on me, they lob a last, hopeful smile over their shoulders at Elba. He struts on, smoking his cigarette. And if he notices all of this through his shades, then he's far too cool to acknowledge it.
An actor friend of mine says he observed a similar phenomenon at a showbiz party not so long ago. In a room full of beautiful people (and some character actors), everybody had one eye on Elba's whereabouts, all evening. Shortly before this interview, just to compound matters, my girlfriend described how she lusted so forcefully after Bell, the ambitious drug dealer he portrayed in The Wire, that her Elba-obsession became a running joke among her friends. Recently, the actor's suave, unflappable character in the US incarnation of The Office assured a colleague, "I'm aware of the effect I have on women". Believe me, Mr Elba: I'm aware of it, too.
His fame, he admits, "was getting to fever pitch with The Wire for a while. I was living in the States and I didn't realise how popular the show was getting here. I came home and I was getting chased down the street. But mostly by dudes." It was the recognition he accrued as a key cast member of HBO's sprawling, Baltimore-set drama – gone, but not forgotten – that has allowed Elba to take the lead in his own cop show, Luther, for the BBC. He finished work on The Wire some seven years ago, before many boxset-hungry British viewers were even aware of it, and long before Stringer Bell's demise became the country's closest-guarded plot spoiler. In the meantime, he has built a respectable career as a film actor.
"Luther came to me the year before last and I was doing well," he says. "Some members of my team at the time thought it seemed like a lateral step. But most actors in England realise that the pinnacle of your career over here is to work for the BBC, on a show where you're the lead. So I thought it was a step forward – and it has been. For one thing, it's the only performance of mine that ever got me a Golden Globe nomination."
The Met's DCI John Luther returns for a second series next month, having witnessed the deaths of his wife and his best friend – who, by the way, killed his wife – at the close of the first. Perpetually suicidal, and with a sprinkling of intuitive genius, he's almost off the bleak end of the maverick-cop spectrum. The character was conceived by Booker Prize-nominated author Neil Cross, who describes his creation as "a feral Columbo and a bookish Dirty Harry fighting in a sack".
"I didn't write the part with Idris in mind," Cross explains. "Because... well, because he's Idris Elba. We talked a lot about how perfect he'd be, but as far as I was concerned this was an entirely hypothetical conversation – the world's full of writers and producers talking about how perfect Idris Elba would be for their project. So I didn't consider him a serious possibility. Perhaps because the BBC didn't want to freak me out, I didn't actually know the script had been sent to him until he'd read and liked it. Finding this out, I have to say, was a pretty big moment."
Despite the writer's doubts, Elba was hooked. "I've played bad guys, and I've played good guys," he says. "But Luther is a real character study. He straddles the fence between being a copper who follows procedure, and being a bad-tempered vigilante. Now, could he really exist? Maybe there could be a senior black detective in London, but I did the research and there weren't too many of them. Luther is larger than life; he's almost a superhero."
Elba's cockney accent is coloured by the mid-Atlantic – a product, presumably, of years spent practising his American twang. But for fans of his earlier work, it's still a shock to hear him say Luther's lines with his native inflection. The show is set largely in the streets where the actor grew up. "Filming at home in east London was a great experience. We made a lot of the new series right in my old neighbourhood, streets I used to run around in. My parents still live there, and my core group of mates – people I've know for 25 years or more."
Elba's parents, Eve and Winston, came originally from Ghana and Sierra Leone respectively, but have lived in the East End since before their only son was born in 1972. Brought up in Hackney, schooled in Canning Town, Elba certainly witnessed some of the challenges of the street that confront the characters in The Wire, but you get the impression he rarely faced them himself. A devout Arsenal fan, he claims he could have become a footballer, but his head was turned instead by his comp's comely drama teacher. With a grant from the Prince's Trust, he joined the National Youth Music Theatre as a teenager, and toured to Japan with a production of Guys and Dolls.
When he turned professional, however, success didn't come easily. He worked the night shift at the Dagenham Ford factory, where his father was an engineer, to make ends meet while the jobs generally awarded to young, upwardly-mobile actors eluded him: those beginner's roles in period dramas, or brief appearances in Inspector Morse and, dare I say it, Midsomer Murders. It's become almost obligatory for interviewers to mention that Elba's first television appearance was, instead, on Crimewatch, as a killer who'd chopped up his girlfriend and put the bits in a freezer.
Still, the parts came, slowly but surely. He joined the cast of the barely-watched Channel 5 soap Family Affairs, and earnt recurring roles in London's Burning, Dangerfield and Silent Witness. But Britain presented a glass ceiling to black actors, and so, measuring his improved chances of winning roles against the hindrance of his accent, he moved to the US in his late-twenties.
"When he moved to New York, an actor dropped out of Peter Hall's Troilus and Cressida and we managed to get him an audition for that," Elba's British agent Roger Charteris later recalled. "A very famous casting director in America saw that and said, 'I see something phenomenal in him', and gave him The Wire. Those sort of opportunities don't happen here. We don't take people who are at that level and say, 'Go fly with the eagles'. We say, 'Fly with the pigeons, and do that for a while before you go anywhere'."
The Wire changed everything. Elba turned his bit-part in a populous ensemble into an enduring anti-hero: Stringer Bell, the thinking man's drug kingpin, whose struggle to make something of himself beyond the street ended in tragedy. He was ruthless, yet you rooted for him. More gangsters of varying stripes followed: Mumbles, the small-time crook in Guy Ritchie's dubiously entertaining RocknRolla; Tango, who loses a gunfight to Denzel Washington in American Gangster; the sinister Charlie Gotso, from Anthony Minghella's adaptation of The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency. He's also broadened his palette with deadpan comic roles in The Office and "cancer sitcom" The Big C, and as a troubled Rwandan army officer in HBO's film about the 1994 genocide, Sometimes in April.
His biggest box office success to date, however, was with the critically-derided Obsessed (2009), a Fatal Attraction-style thriller in which his wife, played by Beyoncé Knowles, took on a psychotic office temp who'd become, yes, "obsessed" with him. (I know the type.)
He's appearing at a cinema near you now in Kenneth Branagh's comic book adaptation, Thor, in which he plays the Norse god Heimdall. The film is spectacular fun, yet Elba is given relatively little to do. So where are the leading roles? Doesn't someone of such undoubted charisma fancy himself for his own superhero franchise?
"I'd be lying if I said no," he agrees. "The dynamics of a superhero character are just larger. I've got a huge imagination, always had. I read Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk as a kid. (And The Beano, naturally.) So to imagine myself doing all that stuff is a real thrill. Thor is a huge, legendary comic book story and I wanted to be a part of it. Heimdall fighting the frost giants! It's just wicked."
His next film is perhaps the most promising yet. A few days after our interview, he's due at Pinewood to begin shooting Ridley Scott's Prometheus, the director's long-awaited prequel to Alien. The production is shrouded in secrecy, and Scott has even tried to play down its links to the original Alien story, but Elba is giddy about the prospect. "I'm ridiculously excited. I worked with Ridley on American Gangster and he is royalty to me. I was three years old when he first conceived the idea for Alien, but it's timeless. You look at the technology he was thinking about then: the robot characters, the mothership. That shit has lived on in movies, on TV. But Ridley was the first to do it."
By this time the two of us are sitting in a quiet pub – me sipping a Coke, he a Carlsberg – with fewer strangers present to witness my emasculation by association. In common with other alpha male celebrities I've encountered, Elba has the air of an entrepreneur; he's the CEO of his own personal brand. It's not entirely specious to compare him to Stringer Bell in this respect: the striving Bell was in the drugs trade, but his real business was himself.
Business, moreover, seems to be Elba's first priority. He has a nine-year-old daughter with his ex-wife, from whom he was divorced before he was 30, and a one-year-old son from another relationship. Beyond that, he says, "I try not to talk about my personal life. It's unfair for the people involved. Right now, I'm single by choice. It's a busy time, and it's hard to maintain a good relationship when you live in a caravan. Know what I mean?"
If you do want to know more about Elba's emotional insides, I would direct you to his personal blog, driis.com, which features a selection of his musical recordings, under the moniker Big Driis. "I might tell you some stuff as a journalist, but I'll be brutally honest in my music. People will know more about me if they listen to my lyrics."
Chuckle if you must, and others have, but Elba has been a DJ since the age of 14, when he would accompany his uncle and his uncle's sound system to weddings. He spun records to pay the bills when he first arrived in the States, has produced two solo EPs, and can now count Jay-Z, Angie Stone and Pharoahe Monch among his collaborators. His music – an accomplished mix of hip-hop and soul – has appeared on the soundtracks to Prom Night and American Gangster.
"I feel like [Kanye] West when he told [Damon] Dash he was trying to rhyme," he raps on "Take Mine", a hip-hop-literate riposte to his doubters. "2 Black 2 Strong", meanwhile, is as self-aggrandising as anything by West himself: "I'm so hot right now ... I'm a one-man Million Man March movement". There are some sensitive love songs, too, though these are offset by the likes of "Sex in Your Dreams", which begins: "I'm in that zone, bone hard diamond-cutter/ Dick thick, like homemade butter..." and proceeds from there.
His latest musical project, he explains, is to produce tracks featuring the vocal talents of his leading ladies: Violante Placido, with whom he'll star in next year's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and Aimee-Ffion Edwards, a young Welsh actress who features prominently in the new series of Luther. "I have two songs that I co-wrote and recorded in respective hotel rooms with them. So my next project might be to get Charlize Theron [who's in Prometheus] to sing a song with me. That could be my next EP."
Elba's plans for world domination should also see him spending more time in London. BBC2, he tells me, has commissioned him to direct a 90-minute film set in Hackney. "It's a small tale about a young girl that I've been working on for about a year. I'm not writing it, but I'm helping shape the script and hopefully we'll get to work on it at the end of this year." He has also produced a British teen-slasher movie, Suicide Kids. And there's life in Luther yet: both Elba and Cross are keen on the idea of a third series and, given its warm reception in America, the star thinks his complex copper might even make it to the big screen.
"As a journalist coming to do this interview," he asks, "how do you prepare?" By wearing stack heels, I want to say – but that's not exactly what he's getting at. "Anyone who looks at what I do will go, 'Fucking hell, I don't know where to start. This guy's done this, he's done that.'
"My work sounds like a verse by some braggadocious rapper: 'I kicked it with Beyoncé, then I kicked it with Charlize Theron and Ridley Scott and Denzel...'. I've been living in LA, in Miami, in Brooklyn, in east London. It all gives me a unique perspective as an actor, as a director. It's rare to be in that position – and it's what makes me tick."
The second series of 'Luther' begins on BBC1 in June
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