Idris Elba Is a Force to Be Reckoned With
The acclaimed actor talks music, sex, auto racing, and a certain martini-swilling special agent who shall remain nameless.
Take it from the man himself: It’s just not happening. Elba, Idris Elba, will not be the next actor to introduce himself with that famous construction as Ian Fleming’s spy with a license to kill. The oddsmakers have spoken, tipping Damian Lewis to take over from Daniel Craig following this year’s Spectre. True, the franchise’s fans have not been shy about their desire to see the producers slide the Aston Martin keys across the bar to Elba, the scrappy kid from working-class Hackney. But in the actor’s estimation, this very attention has all but killed his chances to land the role. So, in an effort to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, let’s all just shut up about it, foil the search engines, and not even mention the famous spy he’s never in a million years going to play, OK?
It should be enough to celebrate the work of an impressively talented 43-year-old actor with the range to go from playing The Wire’s drug kingpin Stringer Bell to Nelson Mandela, and soon the villain of the Star Trek reboot. Next month, Elba plays the frighteningly charismatic commandant of an African child army in Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, a performance sure to land him on a red carpet or two. And who knows? Given his recent auto-racing exploits and his prowess as a DJ, maybe the sight of the actor strutting before the global entertainment media in a designer tux will land him the role after all. Oddsmakers have been wrong before.
You shot Beasts of No Nation in Ghana, where your mother grew up. Were you received as a hero?
I think there’s some pride there about my heritage and pride that I can use my skill to tell African stories. I’ve been acting a long time, but playing Mandela was certainly one of the big touchstones where my family said, “Wow, well done.” Playing a part in Thor didn’t quite get the same sort of reaction.
Your dad, who was an autoworker, died in late 2013. You based your portrayal of Mandela partly on him.
Although my dad was a simple, working-class man, he was very charismatic and always wanted to stand up for the underprivileged. Even at Ford, he became a shop steward, a union rep. I got to show my dad that film; that’s the last performance he saw. There was a huge amount of satisfaction there.
How did your father react to the news that you wanted to be an actor?
He said, “Boy, think of something else.” He just straight told me actors don’t make money. And I was like, No, I’m gonna do it.
You left a solid career as an actor in London to struggle in New York. Did you ever fear you’d blown it?
Yeah, definitely. My agent in England didn’t support it. She said, “We’re just getting you work in the first place! Why do you need to go over there and be another hamburger? They already have hamburgers.” And I was like, Well, I wanna be a bigger and juicier hamburger. So I ended up in America only to find out that I wasn’t even a ham sandwich. It was tough.
You went through a rough patch in the States. Your marriage fell apart, you found yourself homeless…
Yeah, I had “the Grizzly,” my Astro van. I loved it, but it wound up being the place where I had to sleep. In my personal life and my financial life, I was practically on my knees.
You were working as a DJ at that time.
I would deejay till late, jump in the van, sleep wherever I parked, get up really early, and then go on to whatever my next day was. I had people who would let me come over and have a wash. I did that for about three months. It was tough, I’m not gonna lie.
Finally you landed The Wire, and everything changed. But I read that you were glad that Stringer Bell was killed off in the third season. How come?
David Simon called me and said the character was coming to an end. And at first, I was definitely like, Why? But it was at the pinnacle of my character’s popularity. In hindsight, it was absolutely the best thing for me and my career to be able to move on. It catapulted the next stage of my career into megadrive.
Have people finally stopped shouting “Stringer Bell” at you?
Oh, no, no. I deejayed in Glastonbury [in June], and as I looked up, two guys were holding this banner, and it was like: STRINGER. I don’t think I’m ever gonna get away from being called Stringer Bell. Which is fine. But my name is Idris.
There’s been a lot of talk about you becoming the first black actor ever to play a certain superspy, which you said was killing your chance to get the part.
If I were the Bond producers and everyone was pointing me toward one actor, what’s the surprise in that? Honestly, it’s one of those things that if it should happen, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; it would be the will of a nation.
Speaking of rumors: When a paparazzi photo of you emerged that made it look like you were packing an English cucumber in your pants, you corrected the record and said it was a mike wire. Why not just go with it?
What am I gonna say? I’m not gonna go out there and pretend that I have a 12-foot dick. It’s just not how I was raised, you know what I mean? For a minute, the rumor was great. I saw my Twitter account rise. I was like, What is this popularity? Oh, oh, I see, it’s ’cause they think I have a massive penis. But we all had fun with it. I certainly did.
You once called women your “Kryptonite.” Do you have a certain type?
Oh, man, I can’t go there. I can’t. Everything I say is misquoted and it just goes nutso for me. I can’t talk about women.
Can we talk about your music then? I have to say I really enjoyed “Pervert,” the song with the chorus that goes, “I’m a perv, I’m a pervy pervert.”
[Laughs] Yeah dude, that was actually music I was making in my trailer in my downtime. I would spend hours in there making songs, thinking no one’s ever gonna listen to this stuff. I’m just a guy that’s in The Wire. But I certainly put it all out there. And now it’s caught up with me, thanks to you!
For Idris Elba: No Limits, a new series for Discovery, you actually broke the British land-speed record. Is speed an addiction?
A little bit. I just like the velocity, and I guess I’m slightly addicted to the risk of it.
I’m a little worried about you. In the show, you wreck a rally car. And in another series for the BBC, you flipped a BMW!
Check it out: I love to drive. And, yes, I’ve crashed a couple of times. I never want to tip a car over on its head again; that’s not very cool. But it didn’t discourage me. Every rally driver has crashed a bunch of times. At least I tried. And in fine style.
Photos by Robbie Fimmano