Interview: Idris Elba

Longer stuff
April 23, 2013

There is a lazy vogue of describing film stars and musicians and sportsmen as “surprisingly normal”, or “down to earth” or “disarming”. These are usually synonyms for “boring”; shorthand for someone who is more interesting on screen than off it.

I’m glad to say Idris Elba, star of the best TV series ever made, odds-on favourite to be the next James Bond, unlikely musician and certified ladies man, is far from disarming. If anything, he’s arming, with his hulking figure and his leopard smile.

He is a man of contradictions; a talented actor who is taking time out to be a DJ; someone best known for playing a ruthless gangster who tells me what he really wants is to make a musical. We meet in a bar in Soho. A loud bar. Elba’s various minders – almost as big as he is – are dotted about the place. He is dashingly, almost impossibly handsome. Clad in a beautifully fitted charcoal suit, gin and tonic in his tattooed hand, it’s clear why he’s favourite to take over as Bond when Daniel Craig bows out. He’d be perfect. Women flock to him like seagulls around a trawler. When he poses for the assembled cameras, his friend Rosario Dawson, fresh from filming Danny Boyle’s Trance, is on hand to pick a bit of fluff out of his hair. He is a Movie Star, a Big Deal, he is Famous and he is comfortable with that. An intense conversation with a leggy redhead continues long after our interview is due to start. Eventually his manager prises him away, pointing him in the direction of a seated alcove where we might – just might – be able to hear each other over the noise of the crowd.

Elba is having none of it. “Stand with me,” he commands in a Hackney baritone that’s a world away from the perfect East Coast accent we’re used to hearing on film. If it’s a move planned to wrong-foot an interviewer, it’s a masterstroke. Elba is over 6’2” and broad; if he said he was 6’5” you’d believe him. I’m 5’8” in my socks: to hear each other, he has to loom over me, his face so close I could see the flecks of grey in his carefully clipped beard; smell the musk of his aftershave.

Elba, now 40, has earned the right to act like a movie star. In the last couple of years he’s starred in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (“amazing fun”) and, less auspiciously, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. He has also gained plaudits for his starring role as an off-the-wall cop in Luther.

But to the legion of fans of seminal US crime series The Wire, he will always be Stringer Bell, the gangster with aspirations of becoming a businessman; the driving force behind Avon Barksdale’s Baltimore drugs empire. His towering performance helped make The Wire one of the most successful series ever made. His face graces DVD box-sets across the world. Elba, though, makes no attempt to hide how tired he is of discussing it. He physically winces at the mention of the name Stringer Bell.

I wonder how he avoided being typecast after such an iconic role.

“It was easy,” he says, shaking his head. “I just didn’t accept any more roles as gangsters.”

Ask a silly question…

If Stringer Bell is becoming a millstone around Elba’s neck, an upcoming role could help ease the burden. Later this year he will play the lead in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, an ambitious project chronicling the entire life of the revolutionary who led South Africa out of apartheid. Early accounts suggest Elba shines. There are whispers of Oscar nominations. What was it like playing one of the most important icons of the 20th century?

“It’s hard to describe, you know? Growing up he was this amazing, inspirational figure. His influence can’t be measured. I can’t put it into words.”

The boy from Hackney, whose film career started off making Crimewatch reconstruction videos and included a forgettable turn as a gigolo in Absolutely Fabulous, has come a long way.

And he could be going even further if the bookies are to be believed: he’s 5/2 favourite to be named the next James Bond. Don’t bother asking him about it, though, he’s saying nothing (“he’s worried he might jinx it if he talks about it,” confides a PR afterwards).

All of this makes reports that he’s set to take a year-long sabbatical from filming to concentrate on his music career seem all the more implausible.

“That’s been overplayed – I’m promoting two movies at the moment. It’s not about saying: ‘I’m only making music’ or ‘I’m only making films’. There is a lot I want to do – I’m enjoying the music and we’ll see where that goes.”

There is a noticeable shift in Elba when he talks about music. He lightens up. He leans in even closer and lowers his voice. This is pleasure, not work.

He recently finished a seven week stint in Kilburn nightclub Love & Liquor and has an upcoming summer residency in Ibiza, where guests DJs will include Zane Lowe and Mark Ronson.

Elba also sings – and, true to form, it’s not what you would expect. His voice is surprisingly tender, his debut EP full of soulful love songs that are actually pretty good.

“People see 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.”

So where is the music heading?

“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 [including 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.”

If anybody watching the Wire thought to themselves: “This guy is going to end up writing musicals,” they have greater foresight than I do.

But this is Elba all over: he refuses to be typecast. If you think he’s going to go left, he’ll damn well go right.

Just then, he clocks a pretty girl who has been hovering beside us. He fixes her with that smile of his – the smile a lioness might flash a buffalo. He turns back to me: “We done?” he asks in a voice that suggests we most certainly are.

Yeah, I guess we’re done.

First published in City A.M. Bespoke