Interview: 'Luther' star Idris Elba
Yesterday, I offered my review of the cop drama "Luther," which BBC America debuts Sunday night at 10 p.m. While I had problems with the series as a whole, I had none whatsoever with the lead performance by Idris Elba, best-known to many people who hang out on this blog as Stringer Bell from "The Wire." He's fantastic as a damaged but clever detective.
Back at press tour, I sat down with Elba to talk about his career, the appeal of headlining a BBC series and (briefly, because it's clearly not his favorite subject) "The Wire."
The first thing I noticed about Luther is your walk. You move differently than I’ve ever seen you move before. Was that something intentional or did it just happen as you were doing the character?
Yeah, I think it’s by design just as the character’s formulating. It’s clustering and stuff. So it gave him a posture. Gave him a sort of physical element. He stoops a little bit, just by way of his posture.
Well in general when you get a part, what’s your process in terms of creating it? Where do you start?
It’s always with the words. It’s always with the story. Always with the big structure and then once I start designing what he looks like, the rest of it sort of happens within rehearsal, you meet the other actors. There’s no sort of set preparation. Every role is different.
So for instance when you got Stringer Bell, at what point did you sort of realize, "All right, now I’ve got him?"
Once I got the job, because when you’re in the audition stage you create the character in that stage and then once I’d gotten the job, I decide right from the beats, so it starts to come together.
So why did you want to play Luther? What was it about the part?
I’m a fan of that sort of genre of detective shows and characters from Columbo to Cracker where they're flawed. And also sort of a personal ambition to have a show on the BBC. Sort of like a pinnacle as an actor in England. Even though I had left the country, it’s sort of a pinnacle to step back to.
Really? It doesn’t quite work that way over here. Television is great but the movies are always considered a pinnacle on this side.
It depends on what your goals are, but in England you can sort of have a television and film career. I mean I’m hearing it so much.
At this point you’ve got a pretty good film career going, so I take it you would not be at the moment wanting to do another American series anytime soon?
Not really, no. Unless, you know, I’m sort of involved in television hopefully in a production side and in that capacity, but other than that, no.
Although you did do that temporary stint on "The Office" a couple of years ago. Why did you want to do that?
That was just an arc, and a departure into comedy - a fun and different thing for me to do. I had just done some work on "The Big C," and again it's just a small arc. It’s not that I won’t do television, it’s just that I’m not trying to do career TV.
So what drew you to "The Big C"?
Laura Linney’s personal request, to be honest, and the scripts were really good and it’s a very, very good subject. It’s a subject that I think needs to be aired in a different way.
You said you did "The Office" as a chance to do comedy. Certainly on "The Wire" you have funny moments, but I guess you’re thought of as a dramatic actor. Was it important to you to be able to show another side?
Yeah, I mean, is there such a thing as a dramatic actor? Is there such a thing as a comedic actor? I didn’t know actors are known for doing one thing and for me I think I’m known for sort of spreading out a little bit.
There were a lot of great actors on "The Wire," but most of them have, after the show ended, not gotten incredibly high profile work. You have been the exception to that. What do you think it is that you’ve done or been able to do that’s allowed that to happen?
I think it’s just a matter of timing. The show left me on the third season at the height of my character’s popularity. And at the time, you know, people didn’t really know my name. HBO doesn't support a star system. So at the height of Stringer Bell’s popularity they killed him. That catapulted my career into what's next, basically. If I’d stayed any longer, having to try and create a career after "The Wire," or after any long series, is very tough.
When you took that part, did you have any idea that it would eventually lead to these other things?
No. No. It was a job as an actor and it was a job.
So why did you want to do that one?
It was a job.
Yeah, it was a job.
Getting back to "Luther," if the BBC decides to do more series, would you be game for that?
We are going to do more. We’re just going to change the format a little. Perhaps do it into smaller bite sizes, but yeah we’ll do more.
It does seem in other interviews that I’ve read and seen with you that you have a very keen business sense and you’re very aware of how to build a career and what you need to do. How did that come about?
I made decisions about my career alongside my agents, but essentially it's my navigation that has gotten me where I am. And I watch careers that I admire and emulate. That’s really how I do it. And to be honest, I’m not at the top of my game that says I’d like to be and I’m still heading towards that. There are things that are coming together in terms of production, directing, writing, producing and then there are bigger roles in acting and perhaps more specific roles.
"Thor" is coming up, and likely will be the most people will ever have seen you in anything when that comes out. What are your expectations from that?
It’s called "Thor." It’s not called "Heimdall," and I’d be a blip on the screen. Those films, the Marvel comic films, are huge, huge films but they’re not exactly star-makers. They are sort of based on the characters, you know, more than anything.
Why did you want to become an actor in the first place?
I love to act. I love to release from my personality, to be able to play these other personalities. I was always a tall kid, had presence and whatnot, but I’m not always the personality in the room and that suits me fine, but when I become an actor or a character I can live all that stuff.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable doing the American accent?
About 4 years. 4 years of living here.
Do you have a favorite character that you’ve played?
A favorite one? My most challenging role to date has been a film called "Legacy." I play a character called Malcolm Gray who had paranoid schizophrenia. And it’s a very tough character to film. So I think it’s a date in recent time that’s my most challenging work and something that I’m really proud of.
You said before your career is coming but it’s not necessarily where you want it to be. What do you want it to be ultimately? What do you want to be known as?
Again, I keep highlighting that my business side is definitely something that I’m going to open up and build and then as far as an actor is concerned I’d like to be considered a great character actor, that can lead or not.
And you said that when you were coming off "The Wire" people didn’t necessarily know you as Idris, they just knew you as Stringer. Do you feel that now people actually know your name?
No, it’s still, "Ain’t you the guy from 'The Wire'?" "Ain’t you the guy from 'The Office'?" That’s fine.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com