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
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.
IT’S A SATURDAY AFTERNOON
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