Idris Elba, an affable man from the East End of London who once worked at Ford Dagenham, and who seems remarkably unaffected by his rise to film star, sex symbol and much-loved national institution, does not give interviews at home, preferring to meet at his production company in a workshop in Camden Town.
You enter through a large, darkened garage space, where a Triumph motorbike — Elba’s — is parked, into an office where a team of people sits working at computers. A flight of narrow wooden stairs leads up to a studio, kitted out with a king-size mixing desk, a variety of keyboards, computers and instruments.
“It’s dark in here,” Elba says. “Shall we sit outside?” He leads the way out onto a terrace, bathed in sunshine, where we arrange ourselves either side of a picnic table. He is dressed in a gray lambswool sweater, brown patterned trousers and orange trainers. A tall, handsome, well-muscled man with a wide open smile, a voice like hot butter being poured over ice cubes, and the sort of relaxed, self-confident manner that makes you think of George Clooney, another actor who you feel could walk into a room, rearranging every particle of light in it to fall on him, with people bending over backwards to get closer to his aura, yet still radiate an air that mingled nonchalance, self- deprecation and a sense of being to the manor born.
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Before meeting Elba, I watched a series of clips on YouTube of him appearing on an assortment of talk shows, including
The View, a high-ratings American programme, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and a panel of other female presenters with an almost exclusively female audience. Elba walked on to be greeted by screams and whoops of approval, the smell of pheromones gone berserk almost vaping through the screen, the actor basking in the hum of sexual adoration with an easy, “Aw shucks, me?” expression on his face. He didn’t even have to open his mouth.
Amy Pascal, the Hollywood producer and former head of Sony’s Columbia Pictures who produced
Molly’s Game, in which Elba starred last year, has described him as “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.”
“There is that risk of people going, ‘Oh, Idris again...,’ especially in this country, where it’s like, ‘Oh mate, stay in your lane."
Which may be true, although the way Elba is walking today is better described as “stiffly”. He has torn a muscle filming a new movie and sitting for any length of time makes him uncomfortable, meaning that at various points during our interview he rises from his seat, looming over me, occasionally blocking out the sun.
The new film is
Hobbs and Shaw, a spin-off from the The Fast and the Furiousfranchise, in which he stars with Jason Statham and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Elba has made more than 40 movies in the past 25 years, and while he insists that he is not and never will be the kind of actor to phone in a performance — “anything with my name on it, as an actor or whatever, I invest time and creativity” — you can’t help thinking it’s the kind of thing he could probably do in his sleep. Elba is a brilliant actor, and one of the most charismatic screen presences you're ever likely to see. But his roles have not always been worthy of his talents, though nowadays Elba sees himself as much more than an actor.
Seven years ago, Elba, a man by his own description “ridiculously ambitious to a fault”, made a decision. He had spent the best part of the previous 12 years working in America. He had played the role of the drug dealer Russell “Stringer” Bell, in The Wire , and parlayed that success into a flourishing film career. But something was nagging at him.
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“I got to around 39 and I thought, ‘I want a different career.’ I was an actor for hire. I’d done
The Wire, Sometimes in April, Obsessed — a handful of movies that had made some money or made none. Commercial films. Some art house films. All were going in the right direction for an actor, but I was definitely lowest on the totem pole in terms of the creativity. The acting was very much, ‘Go up against this guy, then this guy’, say my lines, hit the marks, and I remember saying to myself, I’ve got stuff to say and things I want to do. But America felt like the wrong platform to relaunch my career, so I came back home and started to pull it together.”
Looking at Elba’s career now can remind you of an act that used to feature in light variety programmes, a man frantically moving back and forth across a stage keeping a series of plates spinning on tall, spindly rods, except it would be hard to think of any circumstances in which the word “frantically” would apply to Elba. Ice-cool seems more appropriate.
Right now he’s talking about a new series of
Luther, the fifth, the television show in which Elba plays detective chief inspector John Luther — battered overcoat, furrowed brow, a man who seems every bit as troubled as the suspects he’s tracking down. He has recently made his debut as a film director with Yardie. Then there’s his production company, Green Door Pictures. In the Long Run, the sitcom that ran last year on Sky, based on Elba’s childhood in Hackney in which he plays the part of his father, has been re-commissioned for two more seasons. He has recently signed a deal with Netflix for another comedy series, this one called Turn Up Charlie, in which he plays a 40-year-old DJ, as he puts it, “dealing with ambition management”. And he is also producing and starring in a film, Ghetto Cowboy, about a young boy (Elba plays his father) who finds redemption through handling and riding horses.
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And let’s not forget the music. He DJs and has co-written and produced two “character albums”, he calls them, inspired by his acting projects:
Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela, from his performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Murdah Loves John, inspired by Luther. The clothing line he launched in 2016, Shoot the Rehearsal, may be off to a slow start, but he can console himself with another new project, a London cocktail bar called The Parrot, at the Waldorf Hotel, where, according to the press release, “visitors to the 60-seater bar can expect a whole host of A-list surprises, from a hidden cocktail menu to regular, unannounced secret shows and an exclusive guest list.”
Elba laughs. “I’m just a
partner in a cocktail bar. I’m not in there serving the drinks.”
The week before our meeting, Elba, a devoted Arsenal fan, had appeared as a guest presenter at The Best Fifa Football Awards, rubbing shoulders with Luka Modri?, Mo Salah and Gareth Southgate, and wearing a waistcoat emblazoned with images of the England manager (geddit?). Idris, the fashion plate: what were you thinking?
He groans. “It wasn’t my idea. I kid you not. The gag came and went, but in between the gag coming, being delivered, Gareth going ‘OK’... there was two minutes of me standing there in that fucking thing, looking at the teleprompter, willing them to speak faster, do something, ‘I’ve got to take this off’...’” He laughs.
"I’m a businessman; I’m putting a product out, which is my entertainment."
A stunt that doesn’t quite come off. A guest appearance too far. It’s the risk you run from being, as he puts it, “out there”.
He nods. “There is that risk of people going, ‘Oh, Idris again...,’ especially in this country, where it’s like, ‘Oh mate, stay in your lane. I like you doing this, but I don’t really want to see you doing other stuff’. We want to see success, but we don’t want people rubbing it in our faces, you know. You have to be careful to not find yourself overstretched and not watered-down. I try to be mindful of that. But at the same time, I’m a businessman; I’m putting a product out, which is my entertainment. And you’ve got to be out there.”
And that’s how you would define yourself, as a businessman?
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Elba was born and spent his early years in Hackney. His father Winston was Sierra Leonian; his mother Eve, Ghanaian. His parents had arrived in London from Sierra Leone in 1971. Idrissa, their only child, was born a year later. His father had received a scholarship in Sierra Leone and come to London to study for a degree in marketing. He ended up working for 30 years at Ford in Dagenham. He died five years ago, but remains an incessant voice in Elba’s ear.
“A strong, graceful, charismatic man. There’s not a day goes by even now when I don’t think ‘I wonder what the old man would say or do’. It’s a benchmark. It’s funny, we weren’t best mates; I think he enjoyed the company of my cousins more than me, but he was definitely the most important figure for me.”
At 14, he moved from Hackney to Canning Town, just a few miles, but a world apart. Hackney was a melting-pot of white, black, Asian and all the races in-between. Canning Town was BNP territory. “You were aware of it but I try to be really careful of painting a picture about there being a lot of racism. I had black friends, white friends...”
The bigger issues were the ubiquitous problems of inner-city life: drugs, gangs, teenage violence. As an only child, his mum, he says, “was like a hawk. Don’t go out with this person, don’t cross this boundary. But it was my upbringing that kept me out of trouble. My mum and dad didn’t have much money all of my life, and when you don’t have it you don’t miss it. I got my first job at 14 fitting tyres. I was earning 15 quid a Saturday, plus tips — I was coming home with 26 quid sometimes. That’s a lot of money for a kid, so I didn’t turn to crime — I didn’t have to. If I wanted something I was quite self-sufficient in that way. Some kids ended up in prison quick, I saw that all the time, it was a well-trodden road… and it wasn’t a road I wanted to go down. And I think because I was an only child, creativity and imagination really kicked in.”
The first time he walked into a drama class at school, he says, “I just thought ‘this is me’.” His drama teacher, Miss McPhee, was Welsh, a lovely woman, blonde. “Imagine it. That was playtime for the lads, come into class and take the piss. But Miss McPhee was a strong woman. She wasn’t having any of it. All the boys would be, ‘Oh Miss McPhee, Miss McPhee’ and she was like, ‘You’d be fucking lucky’. That was her attitude. Teaching drama to a bunch of teenage boys who think they’re too cool for school must have been a fucking nightmare, except for me.” He laughs. He was, he says “teacher’s pet”. Leading the class in improvisations, always the first to stand up whenever visitors dropped in to see what the class was doing.
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“Devising storylines. Tell us a story about a car breaking down, use the chairs, two torches for headlights, use the space, use your imagination. I
loved all of it,” he says, punching the air.
“I was a good tyre-fitter. I brick-laid, I plastered boards. What do you want me to do? Hang that up? Show me how and I’ll do it. I could have been a laborer and earned decent money. I could have worked at Ford for 30 years like my dad. But when I discovered acting, the creative side of me just exploded.”
Leaving school he won a place at the National Youth Music Theatre, then began finding small acting parts wherever he could. He had another interest: music. From the age of eight or nine, he had been the one at family parties choosing what records to play. His uncle was a professional DJ and later the young Elba would accompany him on his wedding gigs, carrying speakers, watching and learning, eventually working himself under the name DJ Big Driis, playing parties, clubs and a stint on pirate radio. It kept him solvent when acting parts were hard to come by; he also worked as a shop assistant, and on the nightshift at Ford. He began to get roles, in a
Crimewatch reconstruction playing an African petty thief, a gigolo in Absolutely Fabulous — he doesn’t need to spell out the kind of parts that were generally available to the majority of black actors in Britain at the time.
"I could have been a laborer and earned decent money. I could have worked at Ford for 30 years like my dad. But when I discovered acting, the creative side of me just exploded."
“I remember early on I went to see Antony Sher at the National [Theatre], and he did this fucking incredible performance. It was like an apprentice magician watching the magician. I remember sitting there and just being enthralled, and thinking, ‘I can do that’; color aside, I could see myself at the National one day.”
So you’ve never lacked self-belief?
He laughs. “No. But my medium wasn’t the theatre so much; my medium was TV, and what we saw on TV then was English stars, and sitcoms and
EastEnders. David Jason was a huge star when I was a kid. I didn’t see myself in David Jason’s shoes in 10 years’ time. But looking at America there’s Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, the young Don Cheadle… wow! Those are movie stars. I could do that. I’m not too bad-looking, I’m tall!…” He laughs. “I could have a go.”
He travelled to New York, checked in to the YMCA at Union Square and started “hustling” for work. He worked as a DJ, and on the door of a comedy club, selling a little weed on the side, working on perfecting an American accent in his local barber shop in Brooklyn. In 1999, he married his girlfriend Hanne “Kim” Norgaard, a make-up artist. They had a daughter, Isan, in 2002 but the marriage soon failed.
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He was living out of an Astro van and sofa-surfing at friends when in 2001 he auditioned for a new HBO show,
The Wire, landing the role of the drug dealer Stringer. His three-season part in The Wire, which ultimately ran for five, finally made him.
It also created a minor furore about an English actor playing an American character. It was a debate reawakened last year when Samuel L Jackson took aim at the casting of the young British actor Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele’s
Get Out, leading Elba to comment, “Black actors all over the world look at Samuel L Jackson as a great actor who happens to be black. The idea that he can dissect us into English actors that are black, stealing roles from American actors, is really ignorant and made of things that divide us instead of pulling us together.”
It’s a debate that gathered yet more heat this year with the casting of British actress Cynthia Erivo in the lead role in a film about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman who, having escaped from slavery in the American South herself, then led many slaves to freedom on the so-called “Underground Railroad”.
“I can understand that, quite rightly, there is a pride in having a great American historical character played by an American actor. There’s a pride there,” Elba says. “Stringer Bell was a drug dealer from Baltimore, and when I was auditioning it made no difference to the people in the room that I was English and no difference to the audience, because, guess what, I was an actor, paid to act.”
He sighs. British actors playing American characters. Cultural appropriation. Ethnicity. These are areas he’d rather avoid.
“I don’t like the term ‘black actor’ in the first place. I don’t understand what that is. When we talk about Benedict Cumberbatch, we don’t call him a ‘white actor’. When you speak about van Gogh, or any other painter, they’re painters; they use all the colors in the spectrum. They don’t use colors confined to where they’re from,” he says.
“I’m a British actor, but America made me who I am as a popular actor by playing an American. But it just turns out that my grandad on my mother’s side was born in Kansas City. So, am I allowed? Or not allowed? The debate thickens, do you know what I mean? So I struggle with that argument and try not to give it any fuel.” He laughs. “Even though I’ve just given you a 20-minute answer.”
But there’s more to say about this. “I’m English, born of African parents, born in the country, and successful, and now we’re in a time talking about the very fabric of what makes England great — its cultural mix. We look at the England football team and we have a pride not in the black players or the white players, but the
ensemble of players. We’re proud of that. And as our country has embraced the fact that this is a melting pot, I can stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I’m English, born in this country. I’m West African as well.’ And that’s world citizenship for me. I’m proud of that.”
But now, he reflects, we seem to be in a place where there is more talk of what separates us than what divides us. He gestures to his mobile phone on the table.
“My theory about that is that with the advent of technology, when a lot of us spend our time looking at this device, we stop looking at each other. We absorb more information about each other from our phones, sitting next to each other, than we do talking to each other. And that has definitely got to do with the rising amounts of fear and separation, and the lack of empathy,” he says. “You don’t get empathy from a phone. You read something about your neighbor, form an opinion on them and you build up more of a fear and before you know it you’re at war.”
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One of the most important lessons his father taught him, he says, was always to look someone straight in the eye. Naomie Harris, his co-star in
Mandela, once remarked that Elba has “this amazing ability to look at you and make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world”.
Being an actor, he says, has helped to teach him empathy. “It’s massively important. And that’s something I guess I pride myself on being able to cultivate, which probably comes across as confidence but actually isn’t.” The easy charm, the personability, the ability to switch it on in public, and look comfortable in any situation... “You wouldn’t know it because I play the part. I go out. I’m vocal. I’m seen about, but the truth of the matter is I’m not really cut out for the ‘personality’ side. I don’t necessarily love the attention.”
“There’s an odd fact that some percentage of doctors are absolute germophobes. But it doesn’t stop them from being a good doctor and treating someone’s wounds. And the truth is I am shy. Unless I know I’m about to be in the spotlight, don’t put me in the spotlight, man, because I hate it. I need to be prepared.
“But I recognize to a fault now, almost like being overly self-conscious about yourself, that part of the territory, part of the obligation, of being an actor, especially in our country — I’ve been told a lot that I’m a national treasure, I get that said: ‘the Queen loves you!’ — that part of that obligation is to be one, to put yourself second sometimes.
"My parents were working class, my mum got made redundant at one time in her life. Times were really hard. And I’m over here flying around the world pretending to be other people and being paid really well. What the fuck do I have to be complaining about?”
“It’s almost like, we want you to cheer us up! You’re an entertainer and we love you! Smile! And I do feel a sense of responsibility to be that person. It costs me nothing. And I’ve adapted to that. I always take pictures with people, even if I don’t want to sometimes, because I feel like it’s a moment for me but it’s a lifetime for them.
“Having met George Clooney, having met Denzel... the guys that I find are the most successful in life are the ones that take that on board, because you are public property. I’m still learning how to be that way, because I think it is a responsibility. And by the way, my parents were working class, my mum got made redundant at one time in her life. Times were really hard. And I’m over here flying around the world pretending to be other people and being paid really well. What the fuck do I have to be complaining about?”
He rises from the seat to stretch his injured leg.
The film he’s making now requires early starts and late finishes. His life has changed so much, he says. Five years ago he was more “wild and wayward; there’d be lots of partying and out socializing”, but now he’s interested in spending “quality time”, when he can regroup, think, “shut down, watch some entertainment, make a song,” spend time with his son Winston and his fiancée, the model Sabrina Dhowre. “I’m valuing that more and more.”
He thinks about this, stretches and smiles. He’s blotting out the sun again. “I’m trying not to burn myself out,” he says.