The star of TV's The Wire discusses his latest project, Luther, the notion of 'black film', and why he's come home.
Idris Elba is best known as the Machiavellian, suit-wearing, economically-literate drug warlord in HBO’s The Wire. He was born in grew up in Hackney, left school at 16 and won a scholarship to the National Youth Music Theatre, working night shifts in the Ford factory in Dagenham before scratching around in British TV with shows like Family Affairs, Ultraviolet and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.
Around the millennium, he made a conscious decision to pursue a career in America and moved to NYC. The Wire followed, closely accompanied by the American version of The Office and the BBC’s Luther. Tinsletown is now showing some serious thigh with a starring role propping-up Beyonce’s blonde-beating vanity-trip Obsessed, with DC/Vertigo’s comic adaption The Losers and the ensemble thriller Takers coming in quick succession.
Despite this success, Elba believes in his national cinema. He stars in every frame of Thomas Ikimi’s low-budget drama Legacy, almost all of which is set in one room. He also acts as Executive Producer on the film, which was funded by private investors in Nigeria and shot in Glasgow. LWLies sat down with Elba last week after the film’s screening at the Raindance Film Festival.
LWLies: In the screening tonight you were asked a question from a black man about the state of black cinema. It obviously meant something for him to ask that and you said, pretty pointedly, 'Anyone can make a film about any subject.' Is it a question you get alot, and is it a question you resent?
Elba: Have you seen a yellow film? Have you seen a blue one? I always get bogged down by the question of black film and what that means. What does a black film mean? If it’s a film that represents the African-Caribbean culture, cool, but I don’t resent any of it, I just don’t think we need to label film in that way. Film is film and we can put it genres but when it comes to race I just don’t like to be pigeonholed. It's one of the things as an actor I’ve always avoided. I’ve always said, 'Don’t call me a black actor, because I can’t remember seeing a red actor or a yellow one. I’m just an actor.' If you felt any tension in my answer, and there wasn’t at all, it was about me going 'Hey, listen, filmmakers can make a film about anything.' A white director can make a great film about the African-Caribbean experience and a black director can make a film with black actors in it, or people of colour in it, that is typically a white experience. Why not?
The director was quite resistant to the political reading of the film. He said after the screening: 'People can see it like that. That’s fine, but I don’t.' Are you also resistant to that reading?
I don’t see it as a political film. I think its set in that arena that might suggest it was political. You are dealing with a soldier who is in the army. You are dealing with a Senator who is in the race for the Presidency. But if you really look at it, that’s it. It’s framed in that. It’s a story about these brothers, it’s a story about loss of identity, it’s a story about the deterioration of someone with schizophrenia. It’s framed within those worlds, that make it seem to be about the politics.
Let’s talk about approaching a character that suffers from schizophrenia and has had a terrifically violent life and had all these horrific experiences. How do you approach a part like that? How do you climb into that guy's mind?
Obviously my first entry point is what the script and the writer are trying to achieve. But for me as well, there are very well documented medical studies of people who have come from a regiment like an army and have fought some sort of mental disease. The paranoid schizophrenia in this case is quite text book so a soldier that has paranoid schizophrenia is often going to reflect all the bad shit he has done, and he is going to try and justify why he does those. His schizophrenia is going to kick start him into a justification of who he is as a soldier and question who he is. That’s quite a documented thing. So I used that as a skeleton and I also had the script to figure out how to turn the character into that. And physical acting in terms of mental diseases are so varying, I just didn’t want to be cliched by twitching eyebrows and blush, blush, blush. I had to really use the text.
It looked like a waring performance, emotionally and physically...
Completely. Very, very intense. It was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in my life. There was no respite from it, I couldn’t stop. We had 12-hour days, I’d get home, have a curry, go to bed and then get up and I was back in it. And that was it.
Did you change for the way you approached the role from other roles you’ve had. For want of a better word, was this a more 'method' role?
Yeah, yeah. On set I’m always Mr 'Hey, how you doing everyone?' But on that film I just couldn’t. I was completely involved. I went Daniel Day Lewis.
To talk more broadly about you as an actor, you left England to pursue a career in America and have said that you don’t think there are enough opportunities over here. But you seem to be coming back now and making a lot more British TV. Is that because there are more opportunities or did you just want to come back at some point?
I always wanted to come back. It was always an experiment in a different market place. I think Luther is one of the pinnacles of his career, and even though people are saying 'ooh, he’s come back from Hollywood,' for me being on the BBC, being in a top drama, leading that position is pinnacle. It was a huge, huge, huge deal to me.
You’re making Luther 2, right?
Yeah, we’re making it now.
Are you at all concerned about taking it into a second series?
It's supply and demand to be honest with you. I would be concerned if no one really liked it and we were making more. But the truth is there is a demand for it and we’re making it our way. We’re not doing it how people are expecting us to do it. You’ll see.
Do you feel much of a pressure to get into movies. If I said to you, 'You’ll spend the rest of your career making good TV,' would you say 'That’s cool?'
No, no. I definitely want to theatre. I want to do film, film ranging from big blockbusters to small independents. I want to produce a lot more television. I don’t just want to act in television for the rest of my life.
Is there a medium you feel more comfortable with are you happy with any of them?
Happy with any of them. It all comes from the same process. As a producer, it’s a different side of my brain that I have to use. If there was one piece of my profession I’m less comfortable with its producing because its not what I’ve done for most of my life.
So why get into it?
I’ve seen many producers and worked with many producers. I feel like its an opportunity to try and expand, man. Branch out.
Producers spend so much time so far removed from the creative process. You’re good at the creative process. Why remove yourself from that? Is it purely a case of supporting projects you believe in?
Yeah it stems from just getting behind projects a bit more, rather than just turning up and sitting in your winnebago, you know what I mean? I’m in meetings trying to make sure that we clear this location, I’m in meetings saying 'let’s get this actor.' It’s fulfilling. Different, but fulfilling.
A lot of people recognise you as Stringer Bell. He’s a great character, but do you worry you will have difficulty shedding that tag?
As long as I carry on doing interesting work I’m happy. One journalist goes to me, 'Listen, now I’m really fuckin’ confused.' And I say, 'What’s wrong mate?' And he was like, 'If Luther was after Stringer, who do you think would win?'
Who would win?
I don’t fuckin’ know. There it is. I love those characters, and I don’t care that people still call me Stringer on the street. Now people are going, 'Fuckin’ hell, that’s John Luther!' I love that.