Idris Elba is consistently listed as actor/musician/ DJ/producer. Now you can add another slash to that list – “director” – and he seems to have turned the slashie into an art form. The funny thing is, nobody seems to begrudge his different professional interests; that’s how much respect he has amongst his peers. Even when he decided to spend a year kickboxing for the Discovery film Idris Elba: The Fighter, there was no ‘Mickey Rourke’ moment when people thought, “WTF Idris!” He could just Be or Do anything, and just like his acting roles, people just took him seriously. That he went on to win a fight in front of an audience that included Madonna almost seemed like a foregone conclusion. Nobody seemed to doubt that he could actually win.
Granted you could say that given all the opportunities his career has given him, he is just happy to find different ways to express his personality, but it did occur to me, “Would the real Idris please stand up?”
I meet Idris on a Sunday afternoon a few hours after he landed in Kuala Lumpur. He moves through the room with a regal bearing and a confident masculinity. There was so much muscle in his gait that my first thought when I saw him was “Ooh, there’s Shere Khan” (the tiger character he voiced in The Jungle Book). There are times when you meet celebrities or Hollywood A-listers, and you realise that their off-screen personality and presence clearly needed the help of a good script and a 10-foot screen to project. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to confirm that even if Idris Elba were not the A-list actor he is, his masculinity and muscularity combined, exude incredible sexual presence and charisma.
Whilst he happily munched his way through a bowl of big fat chips as we talked, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was just sitting next to a big contented tiger, and was conscious not to poke the beast. He has a manner of being that is both unnerving yet beguiling. He is definitely the King of Any Jungle that he decides to make his residence.
We start our interview by talking about the early part of his career, long before the character Stringer Bell from The Wire cemented his arrival in Hollywood. Given his passion for discovering and nurturing talent through his production company Green Door, and his impassioned speech to the UK parliament about the need for diversity, I assumed that his beginnings might have been filled with obstructions and struggles. Perhaps, his work as an activist for cultural diversity was a way of paying it forward.
In fact, the opposite is true. As he says “it was very easy for me in the beginning… I was doing small things like corporate videos and films and even Crimewatch, (a UK TV show that re-enacts crimes for the public to identify the suspects). So as far as going from college to being a working actor and paying my national insurance, that was quite easy.” He goes on to say that for one of his first early roles in the Boot Street Band for the BBC, he made more money than his parents. This was ironic as his father had warned him that actors didn’t make any money, but he decided to prove them wrong in any case.
From there, he worked regularly but after a few years, decided to take the plunge and go to the United States to try his luck. He based himself in New York and says “there weren’t many moments in the beginning when I wanted to give up, but it was only in America that it seemed that giving up was the only option. After like 3 or 4 years of no work, I ran through my savings and New York was definitely a tough time. I thought I would maybe go back to England, and do my radio or do music or something, because the acting was not going to work.”
Thankfully things changed when he reached his lowest ebb, and Stringer Bell came into his life and into our living rooms through the hugely successful series The Wire. He admits that Stringer Bell is one of his favourite roles, and says “Stringer Bell was a completely different spin on a caricature or stereotype… I was so fortunate to play a character that was so well written, so well thought out. The writer David Simon and I grew together with that character. I could see him writing him as I was playing him.”
It is a fact that actors leave a little of themselves in each character they play, as the emotions and actions of any role are drawn upon an actor’s own unique perspective and well of emotions. He says he is more Stringer Bell than Luther, but that Mandela was one of his favourite roles to play. I ask him why, given his physicality, which would allow him to play those big action roles with the cheesy one-liners (to which he interjects “You mean the ones with the bigger paycheques?”), that he seems to prefer to play the more Tortured Hero type. Almost like he never considered the matter himself hitherto, he states, “I think tortured or something going on is what I go for. Not so much tortured, but something going on. Because that’s real life – I like to play characters that live a real life… the dilemma of a character is what draws me, draws me towards it. I think a lot of the roles I have played, have that duality.”
Perhaps the role that sits less comfortably with him is playing “Mr Movie Star”. A couple of times during the UNRESERVED launch party, I observed that whilst he was charismatic and playing up to the audience, there were times that the smile didn’t quite reach the eyes. As he said during the interview, “Fame… I have a healthy distance from some of it, because I don’t enjoy it. And obviously there are benefits to it that I do enjoy. I don’t think it’s changed me, but it’s changed people around me…” Clearly, he does not believe his own hype, and he restores my faith that the adage “Fame changes everyone” does not always apply.
If anything, he seems to have parlayed his fame to launch other talent, either through his production company Green Door or his recording label 7 Wallace. When I asked, out of the many different hats that he wears as Mr Idris Elba, which one is closest to him, he remarks, “All of my work, whether it’s producing music or acting, is about expressing my creative side. But I love acting though, acting is where I live, where I therapize – that’s an actual word apparently, therapize! Acting affords me really interesting journeys in life…”
He cites playing Mandela as being his most favourite role to date. And perhaps in a case of Art imitating Life or vice versa (nowadays that seems interchangeable or indistinguishable in this age of reality TV and celebrity worship), Idris recently addressed Parliament in the UK. Not for him the lament that there are not enough black roles in Hollywood (as demonstrated by various actors led by Will Smith at the 2016 Oscars), rather he focused on diversity.
Related: The UNRESERVED Party
Echoing the philosophy of his production house which promotes “Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion”, Idris’ speech opened with “I’m not here to talk about black people,” the 45-year-old star told those assembled in the House of Commons. “I’m here to talk about Diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – Diversity of Thought.” Bravo, Mr Elba! In a tweet posted after his statesman-like appearance in Parliament he tweeted, “The most important speech I’ve ever made, no other time has made me realise the torch I hold.”
After a few years of doing dramatic roles, he has decided to do a one-eighty in his next choice – His latest project will reveal Idris in a comic turn in the series In the Long Run. The series is loosely based on his childhood in Canning Town, East London. And in a rather Freudian twist, he plays a character based on his father. An experience he describes as “… bittersweet. My dad passed on five years ago, and it was a really weird thing for me to step into a role where I missed my dad desperately, as I was the only child, and have to make light of him not being there. There was some really interesting therapy that came out of it.”
The series is set in the 80s, and encapsulates a time that he believes “… where there was a lot less sensitivity around race relations. Even though there were riots… The UK were standing up and saying, “We don’t believe that’s right”, everyone had a voice.” He describes journalists as being taken aback at this nostalgic look at the 80s and the inherent attitude of expressing an opinion without a politically correct filter. He goes on to say “People used to say racist remarks, which was not cool, but we got on with it. And life moved on… it didn’t become this really depressing state of affairs now, where everyone is sensitive to what they say. Even if they don’t like someone, they will pretend that they do, in the name of being PC. At the time, you felt that if you had a friend that was white or black, it was genuine as opposed to (a statement that says) I’m trendy or cultured.”
He ends our interview by expressing a desire to leave behind a legacy: either through education or creating a platform for people to express. To my mind, there is no doubt that he is the only actor of his generation who has the kind of gravitas to express this kind of society-changing ambition and be believed. Still waters run deep with this one.
All the different hats he wears is an expression of the different sides of the man. It seemed clear to me that the numerous slashies are not about finding different platforms for his brand. The Real Idris can be found in all the different manifestations of his creativity. That is the way he likes to live, and that the importance of Being Idris is all about expressing his different ideas.
Idris Elba will most likely reveal yet another role – whether statesman or cultural influencer. The Tiger will no doubt claim a territory that will be all about diversity and inclusion as he intends. Watch His Space, in all its magnificence.
This story was first published in the May 2018 issue of UNRESERVED. Out in major bookstores and newsstands now.