Exclusive: Idris Elba talks Fassbender, Oscar buzz for Beasts of No Nation, and his desire to do 'silly' comedy
The way Hollywood insiders tell it, Idris Elba is on course to bag the Best Actor Oscar for his latest role in Netflix’s very first feature film, Beasts Of No Nation. All the signs point to the possibility that he could very well be walking alongside his Prometheus co-star Michael Fassbender in the running for the same gong.
Of his Kerryman pal, currently wowing audiences in Macbeth, Elba enthuses: “Aw mate, what a great actor. We only had one or two scenes together (in Prometheus) but he was massively characterful, even while playing a robot. He’s lovely, a great guy.”
Elba (43) is perhaps more circumspect about the white-hot Oscar buzz surrounding his portrayal as a complex, conflicted Commandant of an unnamed African country in Beasts Of No Nation.
“It just makes me think the film will get more recognition, which it deserves,” he says simply.
In Beasts Of No Nation, Elba’s Commandant enlists child soldiers to rebel against the country’s corrupt regime. One of them is the innocent Agu (played with blistering force by newcomer Abraham Attah). The film is uncompromising and compelling, propelled mainly by Elba’s star power.
“The truth is that films like this are usually made palatable for an audience,” muses Elba. “It gets Hollywoodised and people lean on stereotypes. But here, it’s as real a depiction of war as any. The action all happens without any sentimentality.”
Yet by all accounts, Elba was initially hesitant about taking on the role.
“I was certainly nervous, I’m not gonna lie,” he laughs. “A film about child soldiers is a pretty bold move (for a filmmaker), and I did wonder about doing the film as a career move.”
Adding insult to injury, Elba’s son Winston (with his make-up artist partner Naiyana Garth) was only six weeks old at the start of shooting. He also has a 13-year-old daughter, Isan, who lives with her mother in Georgia.
“I think in our industry though, it’s a very common story for crews and actors to be nomads,” Elba reasons. “I guess it’s just part of our life fabric now.”
Still, there was plenty on offer to incentivise Elba to sign onto Beasts Of No Nation. As Netflix’s first original feature film offering, all eyes will be on the streaming service’s first crack at features. As such, Beasts of No Nation will be beamed into 65 million households worldwide this week. As an added bonus for Elba, the film was to be shot in Ghana, where his mother was born and raised.
“I was quite influential in getting the film to Ghana, as I knew the Ghanaian jungle would be amazing,” he says. “It’s actually been a while since my mum was there, but I know the people and the landscape are really beautiful.”
Meanwhile, getting his teeth into the charismatic and muti-faceted Commandant was an opportunity too good to miss.
“The main approach was to figure out a way to humanize him, and to make him as real and well-rounded as possible,” says Elba, suddenly animated. “I looked at several dictators and the common thread between them is that in order to successfully lead a group of rebels, they had a lot of charisma.”
It’s something that Elba himself has no shortage of, which is likely how he recently ended up being mooted as a potential replacement for Daniel Craig in the James Bond franchise. Bond author Anthony Horowitz publicly deemed the Londoner ‘too street’ to play Bond (Elba took the high road, posting on Instagram: “Always Keep Smiling!! It takes no energy and never hurts! Learned that from the Street!!”). Public favour didn’t quite agree with Horowitz and he promptly apologised.
Bond or no Bond, the future looks megawatt bright for the star. Not only will he voice Shere Khan in the Jungle Book reboot, he is also filming the latest instalment in the Star Trek franchise. In an even more intriguing development, he is teaming up with his onetime co-star of The Wire (and Trinity College Dublin alumnus) Dominic West on the animated film Finding Dory - a sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo.
“It’s been really fun, in fact I just saw him yesterday in New York,” he smiles. “We spend a lot of time laughing on the job. It’s interesting (doing animation) as you have to use your voice to express these different facial expressions.”
His CV is now running the proverbial gamut; not bad for a man who spent some of his early career living out of his car in East London. But for all the bountiful jobs Elba is being offered, one type of role still looms just out of reach.
“I’d love to do comedy,” he enthuses. “I love to be silly and it would be great to do, but I’m just not funny. I think people see me as too serious. I think it’s difficult for some audiences to accept a dramatic actor in a comedic setting.”
* Beasts Of No Nation will debut on Netflix worldwide on October 16. See www.netflix.com for more information.