Elba’s Ease

Why is Idris Elba all smiles? Maybe be­cause he’s about to en­joy a big au­tumn as the star of sev­eral films, be­gin­ning with The Dark Tower, based on the stephen King se­ries. Max­imil­lian Pot­ter catches up with him in lon­don and dis­cov­ers a man who com­mands a

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS -

He’s about to en­joy a big au­tumn as the star of The Dark Tower, based on the Stephen King se­ries. Max­imil­lian Pot­ter catches up with him in Lon­don and dis­cov­ers a man who can’t shake the shadow of James Bond.


in late spring, and the Farm­ers’ Mar­ket in Lon­don’s Not­ting Hill neigh­bour­hood is bustling: peo­ple mill about the tents and the ta­bles, bliss­fully shop­ping for or­gan­i­cally grown toma­toes, raw milk and lit­tle gem let­tuce. A white Range Rover pulls up and Idris Elba steps onto the side­walk. He is dressed in black, from his loafers to the over­sized beanie cocked atop his head, and from the looks of it—eyes low­ered, hands in pock­ets—he is do­ing his best to go un­no­ticed.

Not gonna hap­pen. As he heads for a nearby restau­rant called Elec­tric House, the mar­ket comes to a halt. All eyes are on him. Okay, so maybe the mar­ket doesn’t come to a com­plete stand­still and per­haps not ev­ery­one turns his way, but close to it. Honey, honey, look . . . ohmy­god! Ohmy­god! Ohmy­god! If this were a mar­ket in Topeka—or, heaven help him, Bal­ti­more—the 44-year-old Elba would most likely be recog­nised as Stringer Bell, the Machi­avel­lian heroin dealer he played on the HBO se­ries The Wire.

In the UK, where he was raised, he’s bet­ter known as the Golden Globe–win­ning star of Luther, the BBC se­ries on which he plays a gifted de­tec­tive with a dis­as­trous per­sonal life. To­day, how­ever, he’s called out for a role he’s never had and may never play: just as Elba ducks into the restau­rant, an en­thu­si­as­tic fan cups his hands around his mouth and shouts, “Idris, you gonna be 007?”

The ru­mour that Elba is in line to play James Bond has en­dured for years. In 2014, in one of the thou­sands of emails made pub­lic when Sony Pic­tures was hacked, then– stu­dio cochair Amy Pas­cal told a col­league, “Idris should be the next Bond.” Steven Spiel­berg said in an in­ter­view that Elba would be his “first choice” to fill Daniel Craig’s tux. Elba has long main­tained that the con­ver­sa­tion is moot; no one, so far as he knows, is se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing him for the role.

Nev­er­the­less, the ru­mour’s per­sis­tence high­lights a large part of what makes Elba such a rare tal­ent. Why did Pas­cal in­tuit that he had the qual­i­ties re­quired to play a con­ti­nent-hop­ping man of mys­tery? For the same rea­son each one of his hy­per­mas­cu­line char­ac­ters is so mem­o­rable: the guy has an in­valu­able Some­thing Else, a swag­ger and self-con­fi­dence that he brings to ev­ery scene even be­fore he ut­ters a line. Hany Abu-as­sad, who di­rected Elba and Kate Winslet in The Moun­tain Be­tween Us,

a plane-crash-sur­vival movie out this Oc­to­ber, says that “with Idris, you im­me­di­ately think, This is a man who is go­ing to sur­vive. This is a man you can count on. This is a man who can han­dle any­thing.”

Aaron Sorkin, who cast Elba as a crim­i­nal-defence lawyer in his up­com­ing di­rec­to­rial de­but, Molly’s Game,

tells me, “There are cer­tain things an ac­tor can’t fake. They can’t act smart, they can’t act be­ing funny, they can’t act like they have grav­i­tas. . . . Idris brings all those things. Plus, he can act.” It was, he says, an easy de­ci­sion: “If Idris Elba says he wants to play a part, that’s pretty much the end of your cast­ing search.”

Elec­tric House has an am­bi­ence that might be de­scribed as mod-dick­en­sian. As the host leads us to a ta­ble in back, many pa­trons, from the well-heeled hip­sters to the ca­su­ally dap­per young par­ents with their more-dap­per chil­dren, get wide-eyed and whis­per in our di­rec­tion. Elba fixes his gaze for­ward, out­wardly un­af­fected by the at­ten­tion. He slides into a U-shaped booth that seems large un­til his wide frame oc­cu­pies it. This month, Elba stars in The Dark Tower, a sci-fi thriller based on the Stephen King se­ries that is set in a part–blade Run­ner, part-spaghetti-west­ern mul­ti­verse. He plays the Gun­slinger, the soli­tary hero who sur­vives through his su­pe­rior in­stincts and weaponry skills. Niko­laj Ar­cel, the di­rec­tor of the movie, says that talk­ing to Elba is like “look­ing up at the sky.” Even seated, he has a com­mand­ing pres­ence.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, Elba is the one do­ing the in­ter­view­ing. “I think my life is pretty well doc­u­mented,” he tells me. “If you look me up, you’re gonna find some shit.” He rests his hands on the ta­ble, fin­ger­tips pressed to­gether pro­fes­so­ri­ally; his eyes are locked on mine. “And that must be—not dis­heart­en­ing but dis­cour­ag­ing for a jour­nal­ist.” He pauses. I wait. He con­tin­ues: “Like, How the fuck do I ap­proach this to get any­thing that no one else has read be­fore? What is that ap­proach?” He takes a sip of John­nie Walker Black and Diet Coke and tilts his head to the side, never drop­ping his stare.


but let’s give it a shot. One ap­proach, at least the one to un­der­stand­ing how Elba came to be one of Hol­ly­wood’s most com­pelling lead­ing men, be­gins with his fa­ther, Win­ston. Be­tween bites of steak, flame-licked to well-done, he tells me about some ad­vice Win­ston once gave him. “‘Look who­ever you’re talk­ing to in the eyes. Don’t look away. Two rea­sons: you can tell whether they are ly­ing. Also, so that they can see what­ever you’re say­ing you mean and you can con­nect to that per­son.’ That’s great ad­vice for a young ac­tor.”

Elba was born in Hack­ney, one of Lon­don’s poor­est bor­oughs, not long af­ter Win­ston, from Sierra Leone, and his Ghana­ian wife, Eve, em­i­grated to the UK in the ’70s. Whereas many of his friends ended up on the dole or deal­ing drugs, Elba, an only child, de­voted his en­ergy to mu­sic. As a lit­tle kid, he’d turn ce­real boxes into make-be­lieve turnta­bles. At 14, he worked part-time with an un­cle who had a DJ busi­ness and was soon spin­ning at gigs of his own.

At 18, Elba at­tended the Na­tional Youth Mu­sic Theatre, a pres­ti­gious school for the arts. Win­ston, who worked at a Ford plant, ponied up the money for the tu­ition not cov­ered by a grant. Though mu­sic was Elba’s first cre­ative pas­sion, his drama classes cap­ti­vated him more. Af­ter he fin­ished the pro­gram, he got a job at the auto plant, work­ing the night shift in or­der to make au­di­tions dur­ing the day. He nabbed bit parts on BBC se­ries in­clud­ing Crime­watch, play­ing char­ac­ters too small to have proper names—drug Dealer, De­liv­ery Man—and ap­peared as a gigolo on Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous.

It was his par­ents’ pil­grim­age to Lon­don that in­spired Elba to try his luck in New York. “I was not afraid of this

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