Tuesday 20 August 2019

Idris Elba has a lot going on - just don't mention a Bond role again

From Hackney to Hollywood, Idris Elba through hard graft, sheer determination and talent has become a fearless actor who brings life experience to every role, he tells Chris Harvey

Survival instincts: Idris Elba says he bonded with the 'tortured character' of Luther in the BBC murder thriller from the very start
Survival instincts: Idris Elba says he bonded with the 'tortured character' of Luther in the BBC murder thriller from the very start

Chris Harvey

It's 30 minutes and three seconds into my interview with Idris Elba when the "B" word is first used. "Can we talk about the media obsession with you playing James Bond?" I ask him. "Can we not?" he says forcefully.

Why not?

"Because it feels like I'm campaigning, and I'm not. At first it was harmless - oh, I know, wouldn't it be great? - and now it's started off racial debates. I'm probably the most famous Bond actor in the world, and I've not even played the role. Enough is enough. I can't talk about it any more."

He leans back in his chair. This has been going on for six or seven years now, but it came to a head when a leaked email from the 2014 hack into Sony revealed that there was talk about it at the highest level at the studio.

Then author Anthony Horowitz suggested the Hackney-born star was too "street" to play the Establishment spy, leading to raised voices from Elba's supporters, though not from Elba himself, who brushed it off with a witty riposte on Instagram.

The 43-year-old has just got on with building an impressive film and television career -Pacific Rim, Thor, Mandela - that has been moving forwards ever since he made his name playing the calculating drug dealer, Stringer Bell, in David Simon's landmark TV series The Wire in the early Noughties. He says he still considers it his defining role.

Today, though, he's talking about the return of another character he has made utterly his own: detective John Luther, from Neil Cross's adrenalising BBC One murder thriller Luther, which is back for a fourth series. It's a drama that answers a racial debate all by itself, about the almost complete absence of black lead characters on British TV. Luther, a hit from the start, proves incontrovertibly that it's not about ratings.

A success in America, too, it brought Elba a best actor Golden Globe in 2012.

Elba still has his East End accent, complete with all the little tells that reveal it's the real thing (he says "arks", for instance, instead of "ask").

Elba has an extraordinarily commanding screen presence, and Luther - whom he describes as "a Batman-type character in a Gotham City-type world" - is a perfect fit.

Luther's fearlessness finds an echo in Elba's: "I'm intimidated by the idea of being overcome by fear. I see how fear makes people make a lot of decisions that aren't insightful because they're worried or scared. I don't want ever want to be that person who doesn't do something because they're worried about it or because it might be the wrong move."

Elba says he bonded with Luther from the start of the first series back in 2010. "He was a tortured character who had a lot of stuff going on. I had stuff going on as well."

That bonding process has continued into this fourth series, which sees Luther mourning not only his former partner Ripley (Warren Brown), who was shot and killed in the previous series, but the psychopath Alice Morgan (played by Ruth Wilson), for whom Luther had developed an intense love, apparently now a murder victim herself.

"In this season, I dealt quite unashamedly with the loss of my old man. My dad died two years ago and I brought all the heartbreak and mourning of his loss into the work, without a doubt. John and I are quite similar in certain ways: lone people who are absolute workaholics."

He's the son of West African immigrants - his mother Eve was from Ghana and his father Winston from Sierra Leone. Eve found clerical work, Winston got a job at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, east London. Idris got his work ethic from his dad, and from his mum came his absolute self-belief.

He grew up in the high rises of the Holly Street estate in Hackney, since demolished, but then considered to be one of the worst estates in London. It was the address on Sid Vicious's passport. Tony Blair once said of it: "I got used to the society of fear in the Eighties canvassing on the Holly Street estate, when people were too scared to open the door."

Elba, though, remembers the area as "culturally rich" and a source of pride - much preferable to Canning Town, where his parents bought a house as soon as they could afford one, and the teenager found himself getting into fights with racist youths.

No part of his rise came easy. He needed a £1,500 grant from the Prince's Trust to be able to take up a role with the National Youth Music Theatre in Edinburgh. Then came years of pub theatre and bit-parts - Crimewatch reconstructions, a gigolo in Absolutely Fabulous. In the mid-Nineties, he decided to take a chance and move to America with the woman who became his wife.

"It was a pivotal time for me, make or break, stay in America and continue to do something that was not going very well, or come home? There were bouts of absolute poverty, homelessness, jobs that could have got me into an awful lot of trouble, but the truth is, it was survival instincts.

"Around that time my daughter [Isan] was born and I had nothing to give to her. I was not just going to roll on my belly and give up, you know.

"I don't regret any of that, it's all part of building who I am as a human being, making my journey real. I think the best actors I've ever worked with have come from places where they haven't had controlled environments, drama classes and all that, people that can bring some real life experiences."

His marriage broke up during that period, but he's philosophical about it.

"It's quite a selfish profession being an actor. And it definitely has detrimental effects on your personal life."

Fatherhood, though, has "been the beating heart of all of it", he says. "I want both my kids to look up at the old man and go, 'Daddy went for it'."

He moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to be close to his daughter growing up, and he had a son, Winston, last year with his partner, Naiyana Garth.

"As I'm older, I'm a lot more settled in how I raise them. Second time round is certainly easier, but just as intricate."

Recently, he provided the voice of the tiger Shere Khan for Disney's 3D remake of The Jungle Book. Reproducing George Sanders's haughty original was not an option: the director, Jon Favreau, assured him that "there are a lot of people who have a quality very similar to the original, but it's you I want to bring it alive". Elba says: "One of the main reasons I did it was because I want my kids to go, 'my dad, he did that'."

And their dad, who, through hard work, talent and determination, has propelled himself from Holly Street to Hollywood, should be proud.

Luther returns to BBC One on December 15


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