Actor, DJ, musician and all-round righteous badass, Idris Elba makes doing everything look easy. As The Jungle Book, in which he plays tiger Shere Khan, opens in cinemas, he tells Olly Richards about the secrets to his success
Idris Elba always knew he’d be here. Well, not here, in a conference room in a PR office in Mayfair, which is so absurdly large that it feels like we’ve arrived at a summit nobody else has bothered to attend. Here in his career. And here is on top.
Elba’s current achievements read thus: he’s the lead in a long-running detective TV show (Luther), the villain in one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters (Star Trek Beyond), a regular in the Marvel cinematic universe (as Thor’s associate Heimdall), a multi-award-winner, a DJ, an album producer, a fashion designer, a writer, a director. You’d have to write very small to get everything on his business card. To Elba, none of this is a surprise.
“I always knew I was going to do what I want,” he says, in that rumbling voice that sounds like the beginnings of a landslide. “You don’t ever imagine it will be like this,” he continues with a sweep of the hand, presumably indicating his wonderful career and not the horrible conference room, “but I always imagined I was going to be working and successful.”
In person, Elba is exactly what you’d imagine. Tall, broad, classically handsome, clearly very comfortable in his own skin. The man’s got presence. He rarely breaks eye contact when speaking and talks only as much as he needs to. Confidence emanates from him, a confidence he says has always been there. Elba was born in east London 43 years ago. He developed an interest in drama early, even though at first he thought it was ridiculous. “You go to a boys’ school,” he says. “You’re 14, drama is a bit like, ‘What?!’ But it’s a release, especially for boys… [We had this] beautiful drama teacher who used her influence and beauty to make us think outside the box and go for it. I remember how impactful that was. I remember coming out of that class and thinking, ‘F**king hell, man’ and being given a slightly different confidence that I then put into other things.”
Mostly, though, he applied it to acting, always his primary trade. Despite constant work, mostly on stage or TV, his major success came relatively late. He got his breakthrough role as Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell in The Wire when he was 30. His title role in Luther, perhaps his signature, came in 2010 and it’s only very recently that he’s received top billing in films, most notably last year’s Beasts Of No Nation, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. What made him believe that he was going to make it, even when the parts were small? “I would say I’m fearless,” he says. “I’m not worried about failing. A lot of people are, because it’s embarrassing to fail, isn’t it? I’m not really worried about that. I’ve failed at a bunch of stuff. It just makes me get up and go back in.” He illustrates his point with a memory from filming Luther.
“I think you have to re-programme your head a bit. I can’t stand heights, but in Luther it seemed like every episode they wanted to put me on the roof,” he laughs. “I’d be standing there going, ‘Jesus Christ, what am I doing?’ But now I don’t – well, I don’t love heights, but I don’t have the same anxiety about it. That makes me a better actor. When the director says, ‘Do you want to take a step forward?’ I go, ‘Fine. Bosh.’ On camera that makes me look fearless, but I had to really re-programme how I dealt with fear. I think everyone can do that.”
He wonders why more people don’t spread their talents wider. “In this country, being a jack of all trades is kind of frowned upon. That’s fair enough. It’s important to be focused. If you’re focused at being a painter then do that, but I think it’s also fair that if you want to drive cars as well as be a painter then you should do that… It’s in trying things that you expand and learn. I’m intrigued by people who make things happen and think outside the box. Richard Branson and his whole empire. That’s fascinating that he found a cohesive way to make it all work. In England we’re usually like, ‘Turn it in, you’re doing too much,’ but he was a mentor, in a sense, for my ambition. I think somehow that’s what’s happening to me. I’ve got all these strings to my bow. I’m not Virgin or anything but when I speak to kids, particularly boys of a certain age, they say, ‘You’re an inspiration.’ I don’t even know if they’ve seen my films, but they see I’m doing something.”
If there’s one thing Elba is still wary of, it’s in that last sentence. He’s still making his peace with the personal attention that comes with reaching this level and being known as much for who he is as what he does. You don’t make it to the point of toplining TV shows and movies without the world taking an interest in you personally. There are several points in our conversation when he becomes testy. The questions aren’t about his private life or his family but about subjects on which he knows his responses will be widely quoted. And no, we didn’t mention Bond. He’s taken the position of refusing to talk about whether he wants to be the next 007, which is entirely fair given he’s never had a meeting about it and the part is still technically Daniel Craig’s. The subject that makes him turn inward is the speech he gave to Parliament on January 19 about diversity in TV, calling on those in power to do more to ensure that the faces on TV and the stories told are more representative of the people watching them. He wasn’t specifically talking about black actors, but all people of colour, different sexual orientations, disabilities, gender identities. Basically just adding a few more shades to the kaleidoscope besides straight, white and middle-class. It was an important, powerful speech that got the attention he’d hoped, so what developments has he seen since? His answers become short and careful. He sounds like a politician.
“Everything starts with dialogue, talking about it and understanding. I think my speech definitely fuelled ongoing debate,” he says. “Specifically in my industry, the powers that be have to all talk to each other and have a standard move forward. I think I achieved that at least, to get the people in my industry to speak to each other.” Are there any specific things that have happened as a result of the speech, that he’s aware of? “I know for a fact that at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, literally the next day there was a summit of all the creative heads about diversity.” There is a moment in the speech where he talks about how, early in his career, he was only “asked to read the ‘black male’ character”. He’s moved his career beyond that – he’s just been cast as the second lead in the big-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, alongside Matthew McConaughey, in a role that in the book is white – so when and how did he make that change happen? He looks away. “I don’t want to talk about that. I know it just gets misquoted and becomes a headline.” It’s not an unreasonable response. He’s right – his opinions on these things do make headlines – but in the context of what he’s trying to do for others, his own experiences feel important.
We’re meeting today because he’s working with the soft drink Purdey’s on a campaign called Thrive On, which launches on April 27. It aims to encourage young people to follow their dreams, to try things they might not think they can do. It’s fitting: Elba’s success has made him not just a celebrity but a role model. The former is what he struggles with. “I’m still adjusting to celebrity, to be honest,” he says, running a hand over his head. “You can’t imagine what it’s like until you get there and I’m still there now. I like the work; that’s what I like. The celebrity aspect is something else entirely.” But does he accept it as part of the price of getting the best parts? “To a degree, yes. But I’m good at being an actor, I’m not necessarily good at being a celebrity. I don’t get a job and then think I need to be a good celebrity that’s in Star Trek.”
With everything he’s already achieved, you have to wonder what’s left for Elba to try. He has five films coming out between now and the end of summer. There’s Star Trek Beyond, on which he’s sworn to secrecy, the thriller Bastille Day and three projects that seem very un-Elba, in that they’re designed for children: animations Zootropolis (out now) and Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory, and then The Jungle Book (he voices the tiger Shere Khan). “I wanted to make some things my kids could see,” he says, grinning. “They can’t watch the rest.”
In summer he’ll start work on The Dark Tower, his biggest project to date. It’s a fantasy Western, Sergio Leone meets JRR Tolkien, with shootouts and magic. “That’s going to be a long, technical shoot,” he says. “I hadn’t read any of the books but I like Stephen King and the director [relative newcomer Nikolaj Arcel].” There are eight books in the series, meaning if the first is a hit it’s a role Elba will be playing for years. “I like franchises,” he says. “Franchises are long-term work. I like to take a character and do as much work [with them] as I can – Luther, the Marvel character… There are actors who prefer to jump from one to the next, but I like the idea of keeping a character going.” Surprisingly, the other thing he wants to try is a musical on stage. “I don’t know if I’ve got the chops to sing, but I’d like to explore it.” Like he said: fearless.
All this, though, is only the second stage in the Grand Elba Plan. As you’d imagine, he’s staked out his final act. “All these things I do are toward at some point less about making a living and more about influencing the next generation,” he says. “When I’m acting less and not as popular, I think I could still be a beacon for another generation.” Thing is, he kind of still is, even if he’s still getting used to all that comes with that.
Thrive On is a partnership between Purdey’s and Idris Elba, a platform designed to enable and inspire people, giving them the courage to follow their own path. https://www.facebook.com/Purdeys/ #THRIVEON.