Idris Elba on The Mountain Between Us, James Bond and his playboy image

When the actor is not starring in films and 'Luther', he’s directing films, designing clothes, DJ-ing in London and Ibiza, and producing his own music, as well as making documentaries 

Maureen Dowd
Monday 09 October 2017 13:29 BST
Licence to thrill: Elba says playing James Bond would be more about a black guy playing 007 than Idris Elba the actor playing him
Licence to thrill: Elba says playing James Bond would be more about a black guy playing 007 than Idris Elba the actor playing him

I don’t know how to break it to Idris Elba.

So I just say it. “Is Kate Winslet really the woman you want to be stuck with when disaster strikes in freezing weather? You do know that she didn’t move over to make room on that door and Leo slipped into the icy Atlantic?”

The British actor laughs. He is sitting atop the New York skyline in a dining room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. “Kate Winslet is surprisingly resilient to almost anything,” he says. “I mean, she is a bruiser. Tough. As. Nails. And if we were ever to fall off a real mountain, her and I, we would survive because she’s not like a slouch in any shape or form.”

And, to be fair, Winslet did lift Richard Branson’s mother down some stairs after a lightning bolt in a hurricane sparked a fire that engulfed the Branson holiday home on Necker Island, where she and her children were staying in 2011. That was when she met her husband, Branson’s nephew, AKA Ned Rocknroll, when he rushed into the burning house with a headlight.

Helping hand: Winslet and Elba in ‘The Mountain Between Us’

“She was just like, ‘That guy’s for me’,” Elba says.

The actor is starring with Winslet in the The Mountain Between Us, based on a novel about strangers who struggle, snuggle and eat roasted mountain lion in the frigid Utah wilderness after their small plane crashes.

Elba often plays opposite very strong women, and he says that’s fine with him.

His Ghanaian-born mum is so into tough love, he says, that at his 45th birthday party recently, she turned her cheek away when he went to kiss her.

Elba also portrays the New York lawyer who defends Molly Bloom, the audacious poker madam to the stars, played by a fiery Jessica Chastain in the Aaron Sorkin film, Molly’s Game, out 29 December. And the actor created one of the most memorable romances in TV history in the BBC series Luther, when his London detective in the big tweed overcoat gets in an erotic and psychopathic entanglement with a latter-day Lizzie Borden, played with film-noir panache by the flame-haired Ruth Wilson.

“I think powerful women are sexy,” he says. “But powerful, dangerous women? It’s like, woooo.”

Elba confesses that he got jittery during his sex scene with Winslet because he hasn’t done that many. “I was a bit nervous because it was Kate Winslet, number one,” he says, slyly. Also, Winslet’s breasts were exposed. “Do I look, do I not look? Am I supposed to kiss?”

In a world where most films disappoint and true stars are rare, Elba is magnetic. He is tall and muscular, and before he hit the big time as the drug lord Stringer Bell in The Wire, he was a bouncer (and drug dealer) at the comedy club Carolines on Broadway, sometimes living in his Chevy Astro van.

“Really nice velvety seats,” he recalls. “I miss that little thing. Honestly, if I found one, I’d definitely buy it and ship it back to France to my little house out there.”

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He is leaner than he looks on screen, with a small hoop earring, a grey-flecked beard and elaborately tattooed arms. A tree climbs his upper arm. “I have a spiritual connection to trees,” he says. “I kind of use trees as a place to pray.”

Poker faces: Elba and Chastain star opposite each other in ‘Molly’s Game’

His daughter’s name, Isan, is also tattooed on his arm. (She is with him in New York, upstairs in his hotel suite.) And he has a line of a song inked: “This train carries no wrongdoers”, to indicate that he does not want the people in his life to let him down. He is wearing a snug grey polo shirt and black jeans from his own clothing collection, with a small “IE” emblazoned on them.

When Amy Pascal was head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, she suggested that Elba might take over the James Bond role if Daniel Craig ever “hung up his tuxedo”. As a producer of Molly’s Game, Pascal said they cast Elba as the lawyer because “if you had to put yourself in someone’s hands, whose hands would you want? He is like the best version of masculinity. All his complicated contradictions make every character he plays fascinating. Maybe it’s the way he walks, like his legs are more powerful than anyone else, like he is gravity. He always seems like he is in the midst of a moral struggle but he is the calmest one in the room. It’s rare, undeniable movie star stuff.”

I remark to him that race seems beside the point in his romantic liaisons onscreen.

“Yeah, my leading ladies have been both black and white and I haven’t thought about it consciously,” he says. “You know, a good friend of mine, a black producer, said to me, ‘Are you sure about the Mountain movie, man? Do you think the black audience is going to go for that?’.” (In the book, his character, a surgeon, was white.)

He said it had not come up except during a Facebook Live video, when a woman asked if the film was advocating greater trust between the races during a divisive time in America.

“If it does, fantastic, but we didn’t think that,” he says. “Hopefully, you just go and watch a movie about two people falling in love.”

Noting that he has featured in several dystopian films, including the ill-starred Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower, I wonder if he thinks America is headed toward a racial dystopia under the stewardship of Donald Trump.

“I lived in New York before 9/11, and I never felt any real racial tension going on,” he says. “It was like, ‘You walk into a bar where everybody knows your name’ type of thing. Then post-9/11, it was a very different tension. You know, you’re fighting an invisible terrorist, so to speak, and now everyone was like, ‘Who are you and where are you from?’ I could feel the shift and that was part of the reason I moved to LA, to be honest.”

Elba, who played Nelson Mandela in a film about the former South African leader’s life, said he views the racial tension as something “America has to deal with”.

Walk the walk: as DCI John Luther, with Warren Brown as DS Justin Ripley, in ‘Luther’ (2010)

“I don’t think Trump’s going to change the whole world and make us all be racists,” he says. “I think human beings are smart and freethinking.”

Growing up poor as the son of African immigrants in Canning Town, East London, he says “it was common to be called a black bastard as you walked down the street. Did it make me a racist against white folks? Not really. The Nationalist Front had a strong hold in Canning Town, and it was a party that was very vocal about a sort of separatism. I hate to say it but it was a little bit of a storm in a teacup. Here I am, a product of Canning Town, and I’m not that guy that’s like, ‘Hey, let’s all be separate because I was called a black bastard once’.”

I wonder what he thinks about the intense debate over the plans by the creators of Game of Thrones – two white men – to make Confederate, a series envisioning a post-Civil War America in which the South won. (Husband and wife Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, will write and produce.) Ta-Nehisi Coates, in The Atlantic, presented the case for HBO dropping the show: “The symbols point to something Confederate’s creators don’t seem to understand – the war is over for them, not us.”

On the other hand, John Ridley, an African-American writer and producer who made 12 Years a Slave, brought up, in The Hollywood Reporter, Norman Jewison’s “powerful stories about race and identity” in films like In the Heat of the Night.” Ridley worried that the “litmus test” could be flipped and prevent him from making a film about Hispanics, for instance.

“Actually,” Elba says about the uproar, “I personally don’t want to see any more slave films. I think it’s a time that’s been very well documented. 12 Years a Slave, although a genius movie, I just found it really hard to watch and didn’t want to go back down that road for the sake of entertainment. I think there are a lot more interesting stories that are less covered that we can spend our time on.”

I also ask for his response to the kerfuffle when Samuel L Jackson complained about black British actors getting leads in American films, such as David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King Jr in Selma and Daniel Kaluuya in the Jordan Peele horror film, Get Out.

“They think they’re better trained, for some reason, than we are because they’re classically trained,” Jackson told Hot 97, the New York radio station, in March. “I don’t know what the love affair is with all that.” He said he thought that Get Out, a film about white liberal racism, should have featured “an American brother who really feels that”.

Elba says: “I spoke on this and I spoke quite openly that I was disappointed.” He got a standing ovation when he made a speech to British Parliament last year urging greater diversity in film and television because he could only play so many “best friends”, “gang leaders” or “athletic types”. (It was around the same time he got snubbed by the Oscars, failing to receive a nomination for his powerful performance as a brutal African warlord with a child army in Beasts of No Nation, and wasn’t even invited to the ceremony.)

He calls Jackson “a god” who gets respect “as an actor, black, white, whatever”, but adds: “It felt like a very stupid thing to say, if I’m really honest, and in a time where people are being marginalised, why marginalise us even further by going on about black Americans and English Americans? And to his credit, he read that and apologised. He called and said, ‘Hey, man. I agree. You’re right, black is black’. I respect him for actually acknowledging what I said and sort of rethinking it.

“Americans come into England to the theatre and play English characters all day long and no one pipes up and says, ‘Hey, you can’t do that’, and no one should. It’s called acting for a reason.”

Kingpin: in his breakthrough as Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell in ‘The Wire’

I wonder why it’s harder for Americans to get a British accent right than vice versa.

“Something to do with the way the tongue sits in the mouth, believe it or not,” he says. “But when the English speak, we speak more frontal and it’s harder for Americans to get that sound because the tongue is so much more relaxed. I’ve studied it.”

He did worry about the East Coast accents for The Wire and Molly’s Game, however.

Just as he was nervous to make love on screen with Winslet, he says he was nervous to speak the high-velocity words of “the oracle”, as he calls Sorkin, especially since it was the writer’s first directing gig.

“I thought he’d be super-pedantic and edgy but he was chill,” Elba says. “Someone said to him, ‘We’re going to change lens’, and he’d say, ‘Change lens? That’s exactly what I was going to say, let’s change the lens’. He didn’t pretend to be like a technical genius. He just knows the drama. He really knows words. He knows emotion.”

Sorkin also managed not to freak out with him when Elba engaged in a kick-boxing competition in Thailand and England for a documentary days before he arrived, exhausted, in Toronto for filming.

“Everyone was on a knife’s edge, like come on,” Elba says. “‘The truth is, if Idris loses and he gets his face broken or his leg snapped in half, how do we make our movie?’”

He muses: “I think there’s something to be had about testing your fear capacity, something that keeps you alive.” He snaps his fingers. “Maybe it keeps me younger. I think they call that a midlife crisis.”

I wonder, given his parliament speech urging greater diversity in TV and film, including for women, what he made of the recent spat between the Wonder Woman director, Patty Jenkins, who now holds the record for the biggest US opening for a film directed by a woman, and James Cameron, who called the film “a step backward” because Wonder Woman is “an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing”.

Cameron got throttled but he is right that it’s easier for the suits who run Hollywood to accept a gorgeous young woman in a sexy costume than to make films with middle-aged, non-cartoony heroines struggling with life, the kind or roles Bette Davis and Joan Crawford used to do.

Strong characters: Elba as the Commandant in ‘Beasts of No Nation’

“Cameron has a point to some degree but come on!” Elba says. “Let’s be positive – it’s a character created for TV in the 1970s and she kicks ass in the movie. Change is incremental, OK? First, you can’t have a black guy kissing a white woman. But then you can have a light-skinned black kissing a white woman. And then it changes, you know. So first you can have a lead woman and she is the hero but she has to be slightly sexualised. It’s going to change.”

I ask how he handled the critical drubbing given to The Dark Tower, based on the Stephen King magnum opus, in which he played the Gunslinger. The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis called it “an unappealing hash of movie-making clichés” but still praised Elba’s “irrepressible magnetism and man-of-stone solidity”.

“I don’t tend to read reviews but this was inescapable,” he says. “Cause it made such a big fanfare – Dark Tower is coming out!’ And the reviews really beat it up. I didn’t take it personally but I was like, ooof, that hurts.”

But Elba, coming from a country with much tighter gun-control laws, agonised over taking the part of the interplanetary vigilante, telling Esquire: “I had a clash of conscience with my character. In America, there’s a real awareness of gun culture.” Luther, the London lawman, is about reasoning, not shooting.

Elba revisited the subject when I reached him after the Las Vegas shooting. “Yes, I had an internal struggle with the Gunslinger. Given his title, it was impossible to avoid. The human spirit took a meteor-sized hit yesterday, and the world of America is falling off its axis.”

His father once advised him to look people in the eyes. It was the same technique Alfred Hitchcock used when he directed the great actress Eva Marie Saint in her sultry performance opposite Cary Grant in North by Northwest.

In our attention-deficit planet, it works. Elba does not look away at his phone, at the waitress when he asks for a knife, at his publicists trying to hustle him along or at his steak and eggs. His expressive brown eyes are always on you.

His vibe is cool but his career is frenetic. When he’s not starring in films and Luther, he’s directing movies, designing clothes, DJ-ing in London and Ibiza, and producing his own music, as well as making documentaries about his adventures kick-boxing in Thailand and car-racing in Ireland. Maybe that’s why his personal life is so turbulent; he has vowed never to marry again.

He has had two children – a 15-year-old girl and a three-year-old son – with two makeup artists, one of whom he married, and a brief second marriage to a lawyer. He publicly stepped out with his new girlfriend, Sabrina Dhowre, a former Miss Vancouver, at last month’s debut of Molly’s Game at the Toronto International Film Festival. He met her when he went to Vancouver and British Columbia (standing in for Utah) to make The Mountain Between Us.

“Falling in love while falling in love,” he says, dreamily.

Stepping out: with his girlfriend Sabrina Dhowre at the premiere of ‘The Mountain Between Us’ at the Toronto International Film Festival in September

He also experienced that “You are not the father” moment that can either be the worst or best moment of a man’s life. In a therapeutic incident four years ago, he told a GQ reporter the “tragic, punch-in-the-face” story of how he discovered that the son he thought he had had with a woman he was involved with in Florida was not his.

“It is definitely without a doubt one of the worst things to happen to any person, and I include her,” he tells me about his ex. “Because whatever she went through and did, she was hoping that I would never find out, and I did. So for all three of us, including the boy, it was...” His voice gets softer with each word until he finally trails off.

How did he find out? I ask.

“My mom came and saw us and she said, ‘That’s not your son’,” he says, adding: “So I just did a paternity test.”

I note that a lawyer has recently said in The Daily Mail that the marriage broke up because Elba’s handlers thought it would be better, given his sex-symbol status, if he were single.

He shakes his head ruefully and says that was absolutely not true and that many stories about his relationships are “completely wrong” but he doesn’t like to fight back in public.

“I think I’m the most misunderstood partner ever,” he says, looking distraught. “I’ve had many failed relationships but not because I’m an ass, just because there’s so many complexities to relationships and perhaps I’m very guarded, just like Luther’s guarded. And being guarded, people presume things and I often haven’t corrected them.

“They just have so much of who I am wrong, they feel like I must be a playboy. I must be noncommittal. I must be the kind of guy that jumps in and out. And, you know, I suppose if you look at my history or you know anything about my history or you can read on Google who I was married to or what’s happened, you know, it might appear that way. But it’s completely misunderstood. People think they know about me and my past and my relationships and they don’t. There’s very few people that can say they really, really know me and I can say, ‘Yes, you really, really know me’. Very few people. Very few.”

I ask him about a rap lyric he wrote that fame brings you to the “devil’s door”.

“I live a duality, do you know what I mean?” he says. “I got an OBE. It’s Officer of the British Empire but I’ve always known it as a British sweetheart, treasured.

“But I’m a naughty boy. Do you know what I’m saying? I sort of live a full life, and naughty. And I’m one knock away from the devil’s door. Because, you know, I’m human, man. But at the same time, I’m honoured by my country and I’m like, yeah,” as long as he doesn’t mess up or be a jerk, he says, using raunchier words. “There’s responsibility to be a leader on the right moral side. Don’t go out there and get coked off your face and get caught in orgies. Not that I would.”

I reassure him that Mick Jagger has been knighted, so other naughty boys are in the Queen’s pack of aces. And I wonder if there’s any other challenge on the horizon, noting that he would make a remarkable Othello.

“Don’t like the story,” he says brusquely.

But why?

“Jealousy’s a real poison and I’m not into it,” he says.

Is that because you get jealous?

“It’s a poison,” he repeats, laughing. As we get ready to leave, I pose the question I know Elba doesn’t like: “I have to ask about James Bond because George Clooney has now said you would be a ‘perfect James Bond and it would be a great step forward’.”

“George Clooney said that?” Elba asks with a sceptical grin.

“I don’t know, man,” he says. “It’s interesting that the James Bond thing continues to go. I think it’s more about, we just want to have a black guy play James Bond rather than Idris Elba the actor play James Bond. That’s the part that I’m like, ‘Ugh, come on’.”

So at long last, we need to know: does he like martinis? Offering his most suave look, Elba murmurs: “I like them stirred. Not shaken. Jesus Christ, did I just say that out loud?” © New York Times

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