Let’s start with the accent. It’s easy – too easy – to get seduced by it.
Idris Elba isn’t the first actor to cross the pond and tease our ears with an old English twist, but let’s be real: it sounds different coming from a 6-foot-3 smoldering black man.
And Elba is used to having his way with American journalists because of it. It’s endearing – even when the 39-year-old drops salty language into the conversation – because every syllable is draped with the Queen’s finest inflection.
Let’s also give credit where it’s due: Elba isn’t just sex on a stick. He’s black Hollywood’s answer to George Clooney, which makes him an anomaly. In a Hollywood world where the leading man is diminishing – it’s hard out there even for Tom Cruise — Elba is emerging as a bonafide leading man.
Race be damned.
Still, there are challenges for a guy like Elba. Sex appeal may get him in the door, but the work has to pan out. And seeing as how he’s already collected a coveted Golden Globe earlier this year for his turn in the BBC’s critically acclaimed detective series Luther (he also produces it), he’s proved that he’s not just another pretty face. With a dreamy accent.
He’s an actor. He’s a producer. And, if we’re patient, he may very well be the first black James Bond.
Elba, who’s currently co-starring in Ridley Scott’s long-awaited science-fiction flick Prometheus, talks with The Shadow League about being black, being a badass and being black Hollywood’s go-to heartthrob.
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You live in a hyphenated world now — rare for a black actor. What does being a producer do for when you live in front of the camera?
Oftentimes actors get told nothing. Actors can be emotionally driven and reactionary. When I’m producing, I realized that the world does not revolve around me. Although I’m on the camera all the time, the world doesn’t revolve around me, which makes for a more pleasant working experience for the producers and for me. I’m working with actors as a producer and sometimes producers are like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not talking about you right now; go away.’ That sounds terrible. Even though actors are the most famous component, the ones that get all the shine, they’re oftentimes the last people to be told anything.
You certainly have emerged as this heartthrob — and not just within the black community – but with mainstream Hollywood. You’re regarded as the Black George Clooney …
Yeah. I mean, I’m saying this just the other day. It’s obviously complimentary to get people saying, ‘you’re a heart throb; I think you’re sexy.’ But the reality is I wake up in the morning, look at the same face every day, and I literally don’t hear all these compliments on a daily basis. I’m talked about more than I’m talked to, so I stay pretty much feet on the ground, you know? I think last year we had a really big joke about me being the third sexiest man. And that was the funniest shit to me and my team. They called me The Third for a little while. It was like ‘I’m not the first sexiest, I’m not the second sexiest, I’m the third sexiest.’ How do you quantify that? But, listen, it’s great for business, especially people that don’t know me and when they say, ‘Ladies love him,’ there’s a curiosity that comes over their heads and they look at you and they go, ‘Really? Why?’
You definitely have co-starred in many women’s dreams as their husbands, as I have heard in the week leading up to this interview, so…
Oh wow. I love it. I love it!
Let’s go back a little bit, because Stringer Bell from The Wire was such this iconic role for you. People who never even watched The Wire know about Stringer Bell. Has it been difficult or challenging for you to break past Stringer Bell?
It’s definitely a role people love and it’s given me the green light to get some bigger roles. But definitely there’s an audience that don’t see past Stringer Bell. They’re like, ‘Aw man, I like them other movies, but I really love you as Stringer.’ And it’s been an educational journey for them, especially with me doing roles that are smaller, comedic perhaps, some that are not gangster at all, or some with my own accent. People that love Stringer Bell go, ‘Mm, yeah I only like him when (he) plays Stringer.’ But it’s never been a hindrance. I’m proud of that character, I helped carve him into reality and it’s become an icon for television.
What did that teach you about the industry?
It’s taught me that good work is recognized. You know? I didn’t win any awards for Stringer Bell … I (got a call from) Ridley Scott. When I first met him for American Gangster, he was like, ‘Oh and you as Stringer Bell? Amazing.’ Ridley Scott?! Who knew he was watching it? But it certainly helped me get a job. So, good work never goes unnoticed. There’s no such thing as phoning in a part. There’s no such thing as sort of just doing something half-hearted. If you’re gonna play a character, play it to the fullest because good work will get recognized. You know, Stringer Bell was a smaller role in The Wire but somehow it resonated with a lot of people.
Yeah, it’s the name that people know even if they haven’t watched The Wire.
Right, right, right.
You have a lot to do with that. Fans thought it was a travesty that there wasn’t a nomination for The Wire. That said, you certainly made up for it with a Golden Globe in Luther. Congratulations on that.
Thank you very much. That was a real special moment in my life and, you know, again, another character that I sort of helped create and to see him celebrated in that way was just phenomenal in such a short time as well.
Is it more comfortable to stay in the pocket of a BBC? Or do you prefer to stretch yourself and play these badass gangster type kingpins?
I like to stretch myself, I really do. I mean, I’m playing a character at the moment in a film called No Good Deed, which is a thriller. It’s a real stretch for me, you know, the accent, the character, and he’s a really nasty guy. He’s not like Stringer Bell, he’s a really nasty, simple guy. And, you know, it is a stretch. But there’s no such thing as natural to me, even though working in my accent is way more natural, obviously. But there’s no character that’s natural to me. Every character’s a challenge and one that I try to create. Luther is probably my most challenging, although it’s in my native accent, but it’s way more complicated than playing Stringer or playing Capt. Janek in Prometheus. Way more.
You started shooting No Good Deed off of the success of Think Like A Man, which Will Packer also produced. Now you and Taraji P. Henson are shooting this thriller. What have the conversations been like on set? Different genres, of course, but it’s another black film by the same production company. Any pressure to get a comparable response to this film?
It’s definitely not in the same genre, obviously, but it’s certainly in the same success pattern. We consider it a film that will break molds. Think Like a Man — although I wasn’t in it — I’m part of that family; it broke a mold. We’ve seen comedies before about love and all of that, but this one had a real fresh take to it, a real honest approach, a real adult-like, ‘Let’s make fun of ourselves, let’s just be a bit more honest with ourselves and let’s call it what it is’ kind of film. With No Good Deed, it’s a thriller and it reminds me of a cross between Misery and Panic Room. For me, we don’t see black or African-American leads in these type of films unless they’re skewed culturally one way or another and this doesn’t do that. We don’t skew it culturally. I’m black, she’s black, but we’re not the same black; we’re different people and I’m very, very, very mean to her in this film.
And as far as cultural reference or anything like that, it’s a thriller so we want audiences left, right of any color spectrum to be able to go, ‘I went to see No Good Deed and that shit scared the shit out of me,’ or ‘That shit was great!’ You know? That’s what we’re aiming for. It’s lead by example and Think Like a Man was certainly a very good example of, ‘Yeah, you can make a film with all African Americans in it, and other audiences will go and see it.’ That was evident in the ratings and the reviews. Audiences across the board liked that film. So that’s what we’re trying to achieve with No Good Deed. It’s a thriller and … I know my female audience will not like me that much in this movie because he’s really horrible.
I’ll warn them. Do you think that’s the formula? To bleach out color? It sounds like what you’re saying is No Good Deed is just a thriller that just happens to have two black people as the leads. It’s not Boyz n the Hood and it’s not Soul Food. It’s not about the black experience …
I don’t think it’s the formula for success, per se. I think it’s the formula for opening the boundaries of what we call black cinema, just opening it up a little bit. And the idea that they just happen to be black is one that we should discover more and explore more and then we might be able to see sci-fi films with black people in it and it ain’t Soul Plane. We could open up the boundaries of our storytelling just by pushing forward the idea that we just happen to be black characters. When you walk into an emergency room and you’re sick you’re gonna have a black nurse, a white nurse or an Indian nurse. It just happened to be that way. You’re not gonna get any different of a service from each one of those nurses. You’re gonna get treated, right? It shouldn’t be any different in the way that we tell stories and films. And by the way, white films are never called white films. They’re films with white people in it. For me, I don’t know about the success part, I just know it’s a way to open up boundaries for us to make more films, to tell more stories to view ourselves in a reflection that isn’t typical all the time.
Along the same lines, everyone is buzzing about you being the first black James Bond. Have you started having conversations? Might that be a reality at some point in the future?
I mean, look, I’m gonna be honest with you and say I’ve certainly entertained the idea. I don’t think James Bond is up for renewal at the moment. Daniel Craig is doing an amazing job, and I think he’s gonna continue that. Should they ever get to that place, I think very positively I’m on the list. But there’s not official word of that. But like I said, right now they’re married to Daniel Craig and that divorce isn’t happening any time soon.
Last question: the Olympics in London, what will your role be?
You know what, the Olympics is set and based in the area that I come from, so I’ve been an ambassador for it. But unfortunately because of my commitments to Nelson Mandela film I can’t be there this summer, which is gonna be tough for me. I’m gonna be instrumental if I can in just getting people to go there and be a part of the London festival, because it’s my neighborhood.