Playing Nelson Mandela is a little like playing God – the public is most likely to be supportive and an aura of saintliness comes with the job. Not that Idris Elba is worried about his image. The dashing British actor who hails from Hackney is now on the verge of Hollywood stardom with the upcoming release of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the first definitive biopic of the South African freedom fighter and president. In addition, he is about to reprise his role as DCI John Luther in the third season of the eponymous BBC-TV series. Not bad for an actor whose breakout role was his portrayal of a ruthless gangster in the American TV series, The Wire.
Elba, whose father hails from Sierra Leone and whose mother is Ghanaian, has spent the past decade trying to make his mark in the U.S., including an on going side gig as a DJ who goes by the name Big Dris the Londoner. Having worked as a DJ since he was 14, Elba hit the big-time when he worked with Jay-Z on his American Gangster (2007) album, loosely inspired by the Ridley Scott film of the same name in which Elba also had a minor role. While living Stateside, the handsome 6’2″ actor with the velvet voice managed to land key roles in films like Obsessed (co-starring Beyoncé), Prometheus, and Thor. With the Mandela film, however, Idris is on target for a possible Oscar nomination that will undoubtedly put him on the A-list. Meanwhile his career will gather additional momentum with a lead role in the upcoming Guillermo del Toro sci-fi blockbuster, Pacific Rim, and a return role as Heimdall in Thor: The Dark World.
Recently, the 40-year-old Elba spent an afternoon with Prince Charles as part of a ceremony where they presented awards to young achievers from The Prince’s Trust. Ironically, Elba’s career as an actor was born out of his being given precisely such a grant himself as a teenager: “Without that £1,500, I don’t know what I’d have become. It got me into drama school.”
Q: How does it feel to be playing Nelson Mandela?
ELBA: I’m very, very proud to have the role. I can’t put it into words…Growing up he was this amazing, inspirational figure. His influence can’t be measured. I’ve been acting for 20 years, and this is the role of a lifetime…I really haven’t processed it in my mind but it was definitely a momentous moment. I thought it was a joke I couldn’t understand why anyone would come to me. I don’t think I was accomplished enough as an actor to play someone like Nelson Mandela and that’s the truth you know. Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, these people have given massive performances of this nature but me I didn’t feel like I was worthy of it. That’s the truth, gods honest truth and I actually didn’t respond to (the offer) for about two or three weeks. Then I got an email from Zindzi, Mandela’s daughter who just said: “We’re just thrilled, my father and I are thrilled.”
Q: Do you expect a film like this to take you to the next level in Hollywood?
ELBA: I’m hoping I get the chance to do more and more interesting films. I’ve been fortunate to get recognition from doing The Wire and Luther but people in Hollywood don’t necessarily remember my name. (Laughs) I’m not a household name in the U.S. where people might know me on sight but that’s all. Maybe that’s going to change with Mandela.
But I don’t necessarily want to be famous. I want to be known for great work. I want to be known to surprise audiences. That, to me, is what is really fulfilling.
Q: You’re also coming back to your highly popular role as DCI Luther. What made you want to return to TV while your film career is soaring?
ELBA: It’s always been a huge thing for an English actor to be the lead on a BBC series. I love the character and even though some people on my management team thought I might be making a mistake by returning to the role I always took pride in it. I also won a Golden Globe and got an Emmy nomination for the role so that told me that it was something I should carry on with.
Q: You’re also starring in a big sci-fi film, Pacific Rim?
ELBA: Guillermo del Toro’s film is an Earth/human story with the looming attack of another race. Guillermo del Toro is an amazing director to work with. I learned so much about precision from him — about looking at you now and then looking one layer behind you at the leaves and then looking at the wall behind you and then looking at shadows on the wall. My depth of field is now so unbelievably clear I feel like I want to direct now because of what Guillermo taught me.
Q: You’ve gained a huge following for your work in two seminal TV series – The Wire and then with Luther?
ELBA: Yeah…Both have been big. Playing Stringer (in The Wire) brought me lots of attention but the same thing happened with Luther which was also shown in the States…Luther gave me an opportunity to show that I love to act. I’m a character actor in my heart of hearts. So, Luther gave me not only a confidence, but a showcase to kind of go, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I do play these other characters and I can act.” Plus, it changed the kind of people that were calling. I got Pac Rim because Guillermo loved the show. Ridley saw me again in Luther and was like, “Oh my God, I promised Idris he and I would work together again.” Because he did (they first worked together on American Gangster). And then we did (on Prometheus).
Q: When you won the Golden Globe for best actor in a miniseries (Luther), you stated that Luther changed your life. In what sense?
ELBA: Prior to Luther, I was doing sort of like drop-in film work: Obsessed, Takers, This Christmas — films that were sort of more in a space that was skewed urban, if you like, and smaller films. Good parts, but smaller.
With Luther, I bring American sensibilities to an English character. Luther is way bigger in his manner than an English cop would ever be. He’s very American-esque in that way.
I think part of the TV show’s popularity in England is that it’s sort of ridiculous to see an Englishman play that big in a lot of these scenes. But it actually works because of how grandiose some of the crimes are.
Q: What makes Luther such an iconic TV character?
ELBA: Even though he’s very British, it’s larger than life and larger than the usual for British TV. I think that weird conundrum of elements is what makes Luther a bit special. 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. It’s like watching a comic book version of Columbo. It’s slightly cooler, and just as weird and troubled. I love Luther.
Q: Did growing up in some fairly rough areas as a child make you more determined to succeed in life?
ELBA: You learn to defend yourself and not be pushed around. When my family moved from Hackney to Canning Town I stood out because I was black and tall and I was immediately picked on by the best fighter in the school. It wasn’t easy for me and you learn from those tough times. I used to get into fights all the time with white kids and I got a reputation as someone who wouldn’t take any shit. I never looked for trouble, but you can’t back down from it either. But I was fortunate that my teacher, Miss McPhee, thought that I had talent and she pushed me towards acting.
Q: Where do you call home these days?
ELBA: Whatever hotel I happen to be staying in! (Laughs) I’ve been living in L.A. a lot but I’m always travelling for work. I kind of enjoy that. I think getting to know different cities and different kinds of people gives you a different perspective as an actor. I’ve also lived in places like Brooklyn, N.Y, Miami, and East London. Your imagination gets stimulated and all that winds up informing the characters you play.
I also own a home in Atlanta and my daughter, Isan, lives with family there. I’m in and out there, and she’s in and out to see me.
Q: Is DJ-ing still a big part of your life?
ELBA: It’s my secret hobby and it’s been a big part of my life. I supported myself working as a DJ while I was struggling to make it as a young actor and when I went to the States (in the late 90s) I was able to make good money to pay the bills until I start getting enough work in TV.
Then when I did my album, people would see me as an actor making music and they’re like. “What do you think you’re doing, stick to what you know.” I think a few people were surprised when they enjoyed it.
Q: How did you start out as a DJ?
ELBA: I worked with my uncle. I would do African weddings, lots of Calypso and African music, the electric slide. I still get asked all the time, “Mr. Elba, can you come D.J at my wedding?” (Laughs)
Q: What made you want to do a seven-week residency on the decks at Love & Liquor (a club on Kilburn High Road – ED)?
ELBA: I’ve had an amazing year — an amazing seven years, really — and I wanted to celebrate. I wanted to DJ at home, in London and the truthful, honest way to celebrate is to get on the turntables and have a party.
Q: Would you like to keep your hand in music?
ELBA: I just want to build it up slowly. I’m not in it to be a superstar DJ, I just want to do what I love. I’ve deejayed since before I was an actor. Over the last few years I’ve collaborated with a few people (Jay-Z and Mumford & Sons) and it’s gone down pretty well.
What I really want is to converge my film and music work. I wanna write the tracks for my films. And I wanna make a musical. I’m hanging about with the people that Baz Luhrmann goes to, I’m getting some great inspiration – it’s something I’m taking very seriously. I already have some projects in mind.
“I love my daughter, I love being a dad, I love the connection of family, you know what I’m saying? It’s been tough you know because I don’t live with my daughter. It’s been a tough run that way but it’s also the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I have supported Arsenal since I was a teenager. My earliest memory was when I was at school, we would play football in the playground and declare our teams. I would always be Arsenal! We didn’t have the real kit but would wear red t-shirts, so my earliest memory is pretending to play for Arsenal in the playground. Thierry Henry is a mate.”
“I crave a kebab now and then. And not only that, but also giving a kebab man shit at 2am. (Laughs) ‘Bruv, did I say garlic sauce? Sorry, you’re gonna have to take it off.’ You can’t beat that Saturday-night banter.”
“I think of tattoos as body art. My tattoos are a form of personal expression. My daughter’s name is on one arm and my grandfather’s name is on the other. I see the body as your personal canvas.”
“(Having spent a lot of time in the U.S) I miss the pubs…Sticky carpets, velour cushions. There’s something about an environment like that where you can talk. In New York you’ll get to a bar and think, “What am I going to do, just stare at the birds that are walking by?”
HIS SEX SYMBOL STATUS
“Whenever I am reminded of that, I always happen to feel like shit that particular day. I look in the mirror and I wonder what the fuss is all about. It’s an ego boost, of course, but the reality is I’m just a regular dude.”
After nearly getting into a fight with Liam Gallagher at the NME Awards earlier this year when the latter tried to grab a red hat Elba was wearing: “We just had a little exchange of words. It was a good hat, man. I guess he just took against it. He must have thought it looked silly, because he tried to grab it.. (The confrontation) got blown out of proportion…we kept our hats on, so to speak.”
COMIC BOOK FAN RACISM
In response to comments made about his appearance in Thor, where he plays Heimdall, a character rooted in Norse mythology: “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 (in Thor), just don’t go see the movie, you know?”
“After playing Stringer (in The Wire) I decided that I needed to shift gears and do other kinds of work. I didn’t want to get stuck playing those kinds of characters because it’s easy to find yourself typecast like that. You’re much better off playing the good guy in the long run.”
**Interview supplied by Interview Hub