IDRIS ELBA WEIGHS IN ON THE RACE DEBATE IN HOLLYWOOD AND DISCUSSES FILM V TV.
Nine in the morning is too early for fluorescent lighting. But here we are, level five of a suburban Sydney shopping centre, surrounded by ‘social media influencers’ (urgh), awaiting the sloping gait of Idris Elba. The British actor, who we’re not allowed to ask about Bond, is using a production break on Thor: Ragnarok to visit the Harbour City, “eat some good food, chill” and spruik the latest line he’s developed with highstreet label Superdry. It’s why he’s in store, before opening. Elba smiles his way through the media call and ‘influencer’ interviews (“As I said man, I don’t want to talk about Bond”), before we head to a corner in a nearby food court to talk Brexit, hustling and his role alongside Matthew Mcconaughey in Stephen King fantasy Western The Dark Tower. (At the time of writing, it was a confirmed February release. At the time of publication, it had again been bumped, and is now set for a northern hemisphere summer debut.) Despite his size – muscular and 6ft 3in – the 44-year-old has avoided the attention of the smattering of morning diners. That is, however, beyond 82-year-old Lynn. “Oh, it’s Idris Elba. I’m sorry to interrupt your meeting but I just wanted to say that you’re our favourite actor – my girlfriends and I love Luther.” Elba nods his appreciation and calls her “sweetheart”. Lynn eventually shuffles off to dine out on the meeting – and a possible lamington. She’s now replaced by thirtysomething Danielle. “Sorry, just wanted to see if you could sign this for me?” It’s a copy of Bastille Day on DVD, not the actor’s finest moment. “Ha – yeah, OK! It’s nice to meet you, too.” We poke Elba about the female attention – he’s seemingly got all ages covered. “Shut up, man. Cheeky bastard. To be completely honest, I still fuckin’ can’t believe people out here recognise me.” Lynn returns: “I’m sorry to interrupt again, but, Idris, I forgot to say that my girlfriends and I are very excited about James Bond. Have they made you James Bond yet?”
GQ: Fuck it, let’s take our cue – James Bond. We’re not meant to mention it, but what about the persistent media referencing? When your name’s brought up in relation to the role, it’s about being ‘the first black 007’. Is that frustrating?
Idris Elba: Look, that’s a solid attempt to get into it man, it really is, but I just don’t want to say anything about it. I’ve hit a brick wall [with Bond] and every time I mention that character it just goes off, you know, ‘Idris Elba says…’ So I’m not going to say any more. Sorry, man.
GQ: Don’t be, we had to try. Let’s get the plug out of the way then and discuss something you want to talk about – Superdry. Why go high street?
IE: Yeah, a lot of people are like, ‘Why Superdry, I don’t get it?’ Especially the high-end fashion mags and that. And my answer’s always the same – I speak to everyone and I speak to the everyman. My everyday wear isn’t a high-end suit. Superdry’s a great little British company, founded by these two lads. I suppose I could have possibly collaborated with a ‘big’ designer and made a big deal out of it, but that would be a bit disingenuous of me because I’m not trying to be Kanye West. I love Kanye and I love what he’s doing, but he wants to be a designer and I like the idea of being an influencer.
GQ: You appreciate fashion, all said and done?
IE: I love fashion, and the opportunity was not to be a designer, but an influencer on a premium line that Superdry wanted to step into. It’s affordable, good-quality stuff, and it’s ‘me’. I’m about comfort over style, but it has to look nice.
GQ: Talk us through the powerful address about diversity that you gave to the House of Commons last year.
IE: One of the scariest moments of my life, you mean? Man, for me to stand up in the House of Commons and give MY opinion, you know, ‘I’m an actor but here’s what I think’… It’s crazy.
GQ: And necessary. And also very well received.
IE: Thanks. I hope so. It was about thinking outside the box a little because our industry is the gatekeeper for imagination, and our imaginations determine how we see each other in the world. In Britain, we’ve been a multicultural melting pot for so long, and it just needs to be represented in the media and in film and television. I have a TV production company and my
“I WAS NEVER THE LIFE OF THE PARTY. I HAVE A BIG IMAGINATION THAT JUST SWELLS AND COMES OUT OF MY EYES AND EARS. I CAN’T SIT STILL.”
motto is that we don’t look at colour – if you’re right for the job, you’re right for the job. If I can encourage more people to do that then more opportunity will come – a lot more interesting work might come from it as well. You know, when you and I are gone, our children are not going to have the same angst about the colour divide, the gender divide, disability versus none – the human race is going to evolve, we’re not all going to be separated by colour.
GQ: We hope so. Still, there was recent backlash about your role in The Dark Tower – people wailing that in the novel your character’s white. IE:
If I’m honest, I didn’t pay much attention. But what I like about that reaction is that it opens forums for debate about casting and how much our own stereotypes influence film. The truth of the matter is that you write a story about a human being, not about a colour.
GQ: Which is pretty much what Stephen King said – that he didn’t write with race in mind, it was simply, ‘How quick can this guy draw a gun?’ IE:
And the archetype for this character is Clint Eastwood. I don’t care what colour you are, but you’re never going to be Clint Eastwood. It’s a shame that people get angry about a black man being cast in what could be considered a ‘white’ role, but ultimately it opens up discussions and if I don’t break the mould, then maybe those discussions end up dissipating and more people start thinking like that.
GQ: Was lack of diversity in roles why you bailed Britain for America early in your career? IE:
The truth is that I wanted to be in the American market, because it’s a bigger scale. All the biggest stars and the greats seem to come from there – actually many had similar backgrounds to me, but they all ended up being in this amazing place, making incredible TV and film and playing amazing characters. So I wanted to do the same. Look, diversity was part of it, too. Was there a shortage of imagination in England at the time when it came to the characters being written? Yeah, absolutely. But I still worked all the time – I didn’t go because I couldn’t get work. GQ: But there was a glass ceiling in the UK? IE:
Yeah, there’s only so far you can go in a certain market when there’s only four TV channels. I wanted to go to America where there’s a bigger, bigger, BIGGER playing field. I don’t regret it. I had a good time and America afforded me my ‘international’ career. I came back to England more well known. As I say, to be known in Australia today, of all places, just blows my fuckin’ mind. And America opened that up for me.
GQ: Much of the attention and praise heaped on The Wire was retrospective. Was work still a bit of a struggle even after playing Stringer Bell? IE:
Well, it changed my career, and the effects are ongoing now, but back then, less so. After The Wire I didn’t make a TV show or anything close to that for years – until Luther actually. Everything was popcorn films, little bits of interesting work and small independent films. Still, I got Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom because of the The Wire, without doubt.
GQ: Mandela must have been a role that came with tremendous pressure? IE:
It was massive pressure, yeah. When I look back, I wish we hadn’t made that film then – it was amazing, but it was too much of a pill to swallow knowing the great man wasn’t going to be with us much longer. But playing the character was one of my proudest moments. At first I thought it was a joke. I was too young and not qualified to play Nelson Mandela, you know, ‘What are you talkin’ about – me? Surely they have me confused with Denzel?’
GQ: And it’s true that Mandela died the day you premiered the film?
IE: Yeah… That was hard. GQ: It’s been said that you were quite closed off as a kid, happy to stand at the back and avoid attention. So why acting? IE: I was never the life of the party. But I have a massive imagination, and one that just swells and comes out of my eyes and ears. And as an actor, I can’t sit still, and there’s other things I want to do. Why? Well, not to be in the spotlight – that’s just residue. It’s about being able to expel my brain, because it just does too much and my heart wants to do so much – it’s a release. And maybe I secretly wanted to be the guy that made everyone laugh, and I couldn’t do it in real life but I could do it in a film.
GQ: That energy’s why you still DJ and push life to the extreme – like what you’ve done for the Idris Elba: No Limits TV series?
It’s that and because I’m just not satisfied to use the 12 per cent of my brain, or whatever, that I’ve been allocated to use, I want to try and push it a bit more. When you’re an actor and have some influence, especially over men, people tend to emulate you. I’d rather people emulate me doing things that are outside my comfort zone as it makes them push outside their own boundaries. I just feel like that’s my legacy, so when I leave, it’s like, mate, I did what I did but also, I influenced a few people to do other things. My mates actually call me the male Oprah… Moprah. That’s a good use of being in the spotlight.
GQ: Righto, Moprah. As part of that series you broke the land speed record in a car. Is going that fast better then sex? IE:
NO! Man, great sex will always top the list – it’s just that I probably won’t be making a documentary about it anytime soon.
GQ: You drive fast cars and have a Thai kickboxing fight coming up. Then there’s the swagger and the charm. There’s a throwback masculinity about you. Where do you think we’re at, as men? Is there this sense of fear that cloaks being proud of being a man? IE:
I feel ya, and I hear that a bit. With Luther, that character, masculine or not, defines himself by good versus evil. Good old fuckin’, ‘I’m getting him for doing that’ and it’s unapologetic. I think you’re right – there’s a feeling that if you’re too masculine, you’re almost chauvinistic. You know, a sexy woman is not any less smart because she’s sexy, right? So, therefore I’m not any less of a nice person if I’m masculine. At the same time, if you look back to the time in TV when masculinity was celebrated, it was coupled with bigotry and that’s not fuckin’ cool. Look, my son’s two-and-a-half [Elba also has a daughter, aged 14] and I’m teaching him that being a man means opening doors, apologising when you’re wrong and having respect.
GQ: What was your upbringing in East London like? Was it tough at times – did you hustle a bit to get by? IE:
I’m an only child, my parents didn’t have a lot of money and as I said, I’ve a big imagination and wanted what I wanted, so yeah. When I moved to Canning Town, before East Ham, I was at a boys’ school and everyone had this like fuckin’ East London big bravado bullshit going on. I had to fit in, so I hustled and I worked. I worked hard from 14 onwards, Saturday jobs tyrefitting and paper rounds. I wanted money to have the clothes to look good. And at 14, I had this Mini Cooper, which I’d bought for 50 quid and was driving about and my mum and
dad didn’t know. I had a moustache and knew how to groom it and was going out with girls who were 17. My hustle was not getting one over on the man, but more, ‘You’ve got what you’ve got, so go for it and don’t let anyone say you can’t have it.’
GQ: Again with the older ladies, hey? You’ve never seemed to struggle with female attention? IE:
Cheeky bastard. Mate, I was in a mall yesterday and there was nothing. But once people realise or learn you’re an actor, well then, yeah, that’s just part and parcel of it. To be honest, my characters get the attention – the girls love Luther and Stringer Bell.
GQ: Luther also embodies the strong place TV’S in right now. Is that because decent film creatives have moved over?
It’s a natural progression – people who were working in film 20 years ago at the pinnacle of great film have moved into an arena where the budgets are smaller but the accessibility and the storytelling is just as prolific as any film back then. And there are so many more ways to digest TV – a lot more ways to get stuff out there and audiences are more savvy. I’ve been part of two TV shows I feel not only broke the mould, but stepped it up. The Wire was slow-burn, novelistic television, no stereotypes and if you got into it you got into it and if you didn’t, well, see you later. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, Luther was complete escapism. But look how big a fuckin’ episode that is? It’s like a fuckin’ movie and a thriller. For me, if you’re going to give me that then I want it big and I want it real and I want great actors to give me that shit. So everyone’s making great TV right now – it’s the best time, but I don’t think film is suffering. I think it’s going to get better as well.
GQ: So film’s looking back at TV and realising it needs to step up? IE:
Right – I mean look at The Dark Tower – it’s a TV offshoot of a film. Actually, you’re the first person I’ve spoken to about this, but it’s part of my deal – there’s a film component and then there’s a TV component, and I’m part of that. But what I mean is the TV series can’t be any worse than the film – it has to be different and deeper and layered to work.
GQ: Which now you mention it, is much like Idris Elba. IE: Man, I’ll take that. Cheers.
“AT 14, I WAS DRIVING ABOUT AND MY MUM AND DAD DIDN’T KNOW. I HAD A MOUSTACHE AND I WAS GOING OUT WITH GIRLS WHO WERE 17.”