Monday, 16 July 2012

Idris Elba

Man On The Move

It's Idris Elba’s year, the one where he gets to play Ahab, Luther and Nelson Mandela

Jeff Dawson Published: 27 May 2012 (Sunday Times)

Pinning down Idris Elba isn’t easy. There is a vague plan to meet in Atlanta, where he lives... No, hang on, New York... Er, make that Atlanta again. An 11th-hour switch finds us in LA, where Elba has jetted in on his day off, a Sunday, from shooting the thriller No Good Deed. Even then, there’s a mix-up with the time, until our elusive subject is tracked to Soho House on Sunset Strip, ensconced on the penthouse terrace, thumbing fruitlessly at his flatlining iPhone.

Elba extracts himself from a swallow-you-whole sofa, an imposing presence. He’s built like a heavyweight: 6ft 3in; solid muscle; 15st-16st? He has a trim beard, tattoos — every inch, physically, the man who played Stringer Bell, the mesmeric, malevolent drug lord in the super­lative television police series The Wire.

Appearances can be deceptive. Ask America, where, until Elba’s BBC detective drama, Luther, began to be shown, there was frequent confusion on talk shows over his cockney tones, the locals having assumed him to be one of their own. Dressed in jeans, Nikes, a D&G flat cap and a bluey-white T-shirt that looks suspiciously as if it has been chucked in the wrong laundry pile, he’s a long way, too, from the suits — the sharp ones of Stringer or the ­crumpled ones of poor John Luther, he of the perennial hangdog expression, by comparison with whom Elba seems exceedingly perky.

He springs over, pumping my hand. “Wanna drink?” he chirrups, having already performed sterling work on an industrial-size G&T. On a scorcher of an afternoon, we have a panoramic vista across the LA basin, humps of the Hollywood Hills to the left, all the way to the ­skyscrapers downtown. Though his name may not be household — “There was a trend in the reviews where it went from ‘little-known British actor’ to ‘formerly known as Stringer Bell’, then to ‘Elba’,” he jokes — this year could change all that.

Exhibit A comes in the shape of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s hotly anticipated prequel to the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. Elba plays Janek, a spaceship skipper, blasting off into the void in search of the key to life on earth. The marketers are in hyperdrive back home, I say: the trailer premiere during Homeland; the live Twitter responses; blah, blah, blah. And there’s the rub. For the intrigue of the promotional campaign, viral ads and all, lies in titillation, not revelation.

“The great thing is, it doesn’t spoil the surprise. In our culture, everything is wanted now, now, now,” he says, suggesting that, in story terms, you take your hints from the Greek myth — Prometheus was the Titan who filched fire from Zeus and gave it to man. “Of course, the Alien films are embedded in us, but I wasn’t fanatical,” he adds. “It was that Ridley’s a great film-maker. He said, ‘Hey, I’m doing another instalment. Would you like to be in it?’ I said yes without even reading the script.”

In space, they say, no one can hear you scream. Or the smoke alarms going off, apparently. Janek, an employee of the technology giant Weyland Corp — “very much a working man, a sea merchant, if you like. Ridley told me to read Moby-Dick to understand him” — chomps heroically on a stogy throughout. It recalls an amusing detail in the original, where the astronauts, released from their pods after years in suspended animation, reach immediately for their cigarettes.

Elba has worked with Scott before, on the film­ ­American Gangster. He likes the way the British director does things — CGI to the minimum, the more “real” stage sets the better, lots of tricks to get the cast playing off each other. “There are mind games going on.”

He’s quite tactile, Elba, touching your arm to emphasise a point. (When we part, I get a man hug.) He has been in the States, what, 10 years? “Bit longer, coming up for 15.” In the wake of Luther, shooting Prometheus at ­Pinewood afforded him another chunk of time on home turf. “I use it as an excuse to live in parts of London I haven’t lived in. I found a beautiful house in Richmond. Mick Jagger lived up the street. I’m an east London boy, and east London boys don’t move to Richmond.”

Born to immigrant parents from Sierra Leone (father) and Ghana (mother), Idrissa Akuna Elba is a card-­carrying East Ender — “Hackney, then Canning Town, then East Ham.” Where he came from, a career in acting was not high on anyone’s agenda. As a kid, he says, he got hooked on Saturday cinema matinées. Later, a school visit by Paul Barber — Horse from The Full Monty — convinced him thesping could be pursued professionally. “All the boys thought it was a bit nancy doing drama. It was, ‘You’re going to college to do what? Scene painting, dancing? Wait, what-what-what? Dancing?’”

Yet he had always been a performer. When his DJ uncle got drunk at weddings, the 14-year-old would take over. Elba still works the decks, under the handle 7Wallace. He has rapped with Jay-Z  and hangs with his new showbiz chum P Diddy. Three years ago, he cemented himself in the bling firmament by starring opposite Beyoncé in the popcorn bunny-boiler Obsessed (Elba in yet more bespoke cloth, Beyoncé catfighting in her pants).

He toured with the National Youth Music Theatre, did ­jobbing work in Crimewatch reconstructions, juggling it with the night shift at Ford Dagenham before full-time exposure on the soap Family Affairs.

Already up against the classical actor Adrian Lester for parts, however (“I thought, ‘I can’t be in the same room as him.’ He was a god”), he did something highly ambitious. “I figured to myself, ‘There’s that glass ceiling. Smash!’” So he moved to New York with his wife, selling the house to “live our dream”.

Already up against the classical actor Adrian Lester for parts, however (“I thought, ‘I can’t be in the same room as him.’ He was a god”), he did something highly ambitious. “I figured to myself, ‘There’s that glass ceiling. Smash!’” So he moved to New York with his wife, selling the house to “live our dream”.

The marriage didn’t last. (Elba lives in Atlanta to be near his daughter.) The job market, too, was tough. “My accent was horrible. I was in a pool of actors — Omar Epps, Mekhi Phifer, Taye Diggs — and I was never gonna get jobs against these guys.” He reverted to being a club DJ, commuting back to Britain for the odd acting gig. One show, Ultraviolet, was picked up in America. It was followed by Elba’s acclaimed turn as Achilles in Peter Hall’s off-Broadway Troilus and Cressida, which led to a part in the television series Law & Order. That put him in the frame for a gritty new HBO cop series set in Baltimore.

When Elba auditioned for The Wire, he concealed his British origins. “Even though Dominic West was in it, with the Baltimore street characters, [the creator] David Simon was, like, ‘I don’t want anyone that is fake.’” The bluff worked, and Russell “Stringer” Bell was his. The rest, as they say, is history.
Much ink has been used extolling The Wire’s virtues, more recently in Britain, where it wasn’t broadcast in earnest until 2009. For Elba, it’s old news. He has barely watched an episode of the three series he graced (“I’m a horrible critic”), though he acknowledges the show’s impact, with its morally complex drug dealers and the brooding Stringer merchandising his product in line with orthodox economic theory. Stringer cast a long shadow. “It’s some big shoes to fill once you’ve done something as magnificent as that, as well written and so culturally on point.” Later, Elba got involved in London anti-gang initiatives. “I just felt a sense of responsibility, because Stringer Bell was so glorified, and the glorification is dangerous.” Careerwise, he was stereotyped, not least with the thematically similar American Gangster.

No surprise, then, that the projects that have followed have been deliberately diverse — comedy (he has had recurring roles in the American version of The Office and The Big C), some Andy McNab-ishness (Legacy: Black Ops) and what they call in America, employing a clumsy demographic euphemism, “urban” films, most notably Daddy’s Little Girls.

It’s tiresome to bring up, but in several interviews, Elba is reported to have griped about the limitations for black actors in Britain. Not so, he says, bemoaning the repeated regurgitation of this non-remark. He does some arm-touching again. “My audience, you know, we’ve just evolved. We’re not seeing in black and white in the same way as we did before, and that’s worldwide, interestingly enough.”
If anything exemplifies this, it’s Luther. “I love Luther,” he trills. So does the BBC. So do the Americans. In ­January, they gave him a Golden Globe for it. Luther’s director, Sam Miller, is helming Elba’s current film, and there has been talk of a big-screen version of the London cop. “It’s on the cards, yeah,” he says. What is certain is that Elba will begin shooting a third series of Luther in London in September, his only complaint being the insistence on doing it over the winter — necessary for all those moody, drab exteriors.

“Warren Brown, who plays Ripley, a good friend of mine — there’s about 15 scenes where he and I have bloodshot eyes. After work, we’d go out and get a proper drink, because we knew we had to do the cold in the morning, and we’d wake up with horrible hangovers.”

There are other things in the works: another sci-fi extravaganza, Pacific Rim, for Guillermo del Toro, and a return to his role as Heimdall in Thor 2. There are smaller projects, too, including Swift, about a street kid turned star athlete, made by Elba’s production ­company, Green Door, which he didn’t realise was also the name of a notorious porn film, but now finds amusing. All thoughts, however, will soon be turning to Nelson Mandela, for Elba has just been cast as the former South African president in the film version of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which covers the 27 years of his incarceration.

The pressure is enormous, he concedes: “Absolutely. More than any other role. One, because Mandela’s very old. More so because the family have chosen me. It goes without saying he is an adored human being. He’s a saint. I won’t lie to you — I can’t put into words how fortunate I feel as an actor.”

Elba clearly feels a connection with Africa. He has appeared in Sometimes in April, about the Rwandan genocide, and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, shot in Botswana. “I grew up in a household that taught me everything I wanted to know about Congolese music, about Ghanaian food, about Sierra Leonean tribesmen, about Ethiopia. My dad has a wealth of knowledge about Africa, is so proud of Africa, and Mandela is very much part of that pride.”

He’s in demand, is Elba. A feature of our conversation is its interruptions by glad-handers — the director Antoine Fuqua; the actor Gerard Butler, with whom Elba swaps stories about fluffing sitters in charity football matches, and how Elba (an Arsenal fan) was coached in his most recent celebrity hoofing by none other than Harry Redknapp. Afterwards, downstairs, while Elba waits for a limo, his girlfriend, Melissa, on his arm, the producer/director Jon Favreau shuffles over to press the flesh.
There’s a big birthday coming up. “Four-zero,” Elba says. He quotes his father (channelling Edward Young): “A fool at 40 is a fool for life.” He’s been getting himself together, he says. “Taking huge strides to be a better man. As I approach 40, I’m at the pinnacle of my career.” Half-time in the game of life, I say; munching on the oranges.

“And, right now, I’m hopefully not getting a bollocking in the dressing room,” he chuckles. “I’m getting, ‘You’re doing well, son, keep it up.’”  
Prometheus opens on Friday.

Jeff Dawson travelled to LA as a guest of 20th Century Fox

No comments:

Post a Comment