May 2011

Q+LA Idris Elba

Drug dealer or cop, mortal salesman or Nordic god, American or Frenchman, this Brit plays both sides of the line
by Leslie Gornstein


Articles about actors like Idris Elba usually fall into one of two categories: Cor-Blimey-That’s-One-Bloody-Good-English-Actor or Great-Googly-Moogly-Just-Clap-Your-Eyes-on-That-Hunk. Your more sanguine magazine hacks might be tempted to file Elba into one of these categories or, let’s face it, both—but if so, said scribes are missing out. Yes, Elba is ridiculously beautiful. People and Essence have both dubbed the Londoner one of the hottest blokes on the planet.

And yes, he has delivered some of the most memorable TV performances in recent history, including upwardly mobile drug hustler Stringer Bell on the HBO series The Wire, buttoned-up heartthrob Charles Miner on the NBC sitcom The Office and, most recently, John Luther, an English big-city detective with a distinctly shaky moral compass—and his own self-titled show on the BBC. His Luther portrayal earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor, as did his head-turning guest spot on Showtime’s The Big C.

Then there’s the rest of Elba: the DJ, the TV producer, the music impresario, the...rapper. Yes, really. And lastly, there’s Elba the controversy. He costars with Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in Thor, the big-screen, big-budget adaptation of a comic book filled with very Nordic—read: very white—characters. In taking the role of guardian deity Heimdall, Elba stepped into a Ragnarök of outrage from purists who refused to accept a child of West African parents wearing the sacred Viking horns of Asgard. Elba, in turn, has told those haters where to go. And if that isn’t sexy, nothing is.

Luther returns September 28, but given that we last left him with a corpse at his feet—one he helped get that way—I cannot imagine him keeping his badge.
Well, we don’t start where we left off. We kind of jump forward. [Writer/creator] Neil Cross doesn’t want to spoonfeed audiences, so when we come back, we’re going to take a leap of faith. It’s an unorthodox way of telling a story.

TV loves tortured cops. What was it about this show that attracted you?
Well, like I said, it’s the unorthodox storytelling. Yeah, my character is tortured—they all are. But you kind of forget that you’re watching a police officer when you’re watching Luther. He almost takes on a superhero quality—I mean, he never changes his clothes, he never sleeps. That’s what really appealed to me. The writing is so good and so dark. Television has shied away from being too dark, because so much has happened to us recently here in the West, and people are sort of wanting to see more uplifting sorts of things.

Scenario: Luther wants to arrest Stringer Bell. Who wins?
[Laughs.] It’s a tough one, because I don’t think Luther would be attracted to someone like Stringer Bell in terms of crime. But it would certainly be a different meeting of the minds. It would be interesting! If Luther did need to interview Stringer, I think they would like each other—maybe even admire each other. But in the end, Luther would eat Stringer up, personally. He would have the full force of the law behind him.

Your American accent was so good on The Wire fans were surprised to learn you’re British. Why are some actors so great portraying accents and others not?
There are a few reasons. I lived in America for a long time before I started working as an actor. Some actors show up on set and have never done an American accent before, so they rely on a slew of technical mechanisms. Part of what makes an accent is understanding why people speak that way—you have to understand the culture.

Some seven years later, people are still outraged that the Wire creators killed off Stringer. He was one of the most popular personalities on cable.
I supported the idea of that character going when he did, because, again, it’s attractive to me to be unorthodox in my roles. Everyone does formula—I’ve even done formula. What really excites me in a project is when it goes in a way you haven’t been before. With Stringer dying, we could probably have kept him going a little while longer, but ultimately I wanted him to die at the pinnacle of his popularity.

You had a hand in Stringer’s death? Judas!
I guess we didn’t realize what it meant. The audience was very, very pissed. There was a lot of rallying from fans. And in fact, a lot of high-powered entertainment people called in and were like, “What the hell?!”

You’re teaming with Nic Cage in the Ghost Rider sequel, playing an alcoholic warrior monk. I would imagine that entails a unique martial-arts style.
That’s a pretty good description of him...except there are no martial arts. There is some fighting, but in the end he resorts to a gun—sorry. He’s also French. That’s the other part of the description you missed. [Laughs.] I kind of adopted an Algerian French accent for that role and had a great time doing it. I liked playing that part. Nic is a very generous actor.

I hear that phrase all the time—generous actor. What does it actually mean?
When you have an actor of that size and weight, who has been around that long, and you have an ensemble cast, he doesn’t have to do all the things he does to make the cast comfortable. He’ll feed you lines himself again and again and again. He’s very polite to the crew, talks to everyone, doesn’t mind stepping up to his own mark to line up a shot [instead of using a stand-in]. That is generous.

Want to talk Thor?
I did green screen for the first time! I wouldn’t like to do a whole movie of green screen, though. You kind of forget the plot a little—like being in a Broadway play and doing it over and over and forgetting your line halfway through. It’s a bit of, Wait, what is this again? Oh, right, Frost Giant. Okay.

Taking the role of Heimdall put you on the defensive with purist comic-book fans. Do you find yourself still having to defend that choice?
Purist comic-book fans are one thing; out-and-out racism is another. Of course, the more I speak on this topic, the more I fuel it. But look, if people have a problem with me playing the character, just don’t go see the movie, you know?

Do you find any time to DJ these days?
Well, right now I’m in London, filming Prometheus, so I’m not able to spin a lot. I do it unannounced in little bars—that kind of thing. But I can’t really say I’m a real DJ. Real DJs do it every night.

Oooh, Prometheus. That’s the Ridley Scott flick rumored to be a return to the alien universe. Do dish.
If I did, I would probably be fired. I’m bound to silence.

Are you currently working on any new music?
I have a small label that I use to put stuff out. I have maybe two EPs of my own stuff, but right now I’m working on a unique soundtrack. It’s for a slasher film I’m executive producing called Suicide Kids. I’m sort of trying to create the music to fit how the film will make you feel...emulate what the characters listen to on the soundtrack. We’re going to mix in soundbites and commentary from the actors and throw all that into the soundtrack.

You’re friends with Diddy. I have this image of him throwing insane parties every night with bathtubs full of Cîroc and entire rooms filled with models dressed entirely in white. I far off?
I have hung out with Diddy, but I haven’t been to any of those parties. When we see each other, we spend time chatting, catching up. I do know Diddy throws a big party.

You’ve been one of People’s 100 Most Beautiful People, and Essence twice named you among its “10 Hottest Men on the Planet.” Don’t lie to me and say that isn’t a huge ego boost.
It is, except whenever I am reminded of that, I always happen to feel like s--t that particular day. On the day I think it was People, came out, I was, like, in bed in my scruffy underpants. It’s an ego boost, of course, but the reality is I’m just a regular dude.

Stylist: Rosie Philidor
Hair: Steve Gilles
Makeup: Janice Kinjo