Idris Elba has had a couple of years to remember. Critical acclaim for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and Netflix’s Beasts Of No Nation, the endless Bond speculation, and the birth of his first son, Winston, in 2014.
The coolest man in Hollywood is stepping away from Hollywood this Christmas to return to TV screens in BBC’s Luther.
In Loaded’s classic interview from 2014 he discusses everything from family, to fame and what’s keeping his feet firmly on the ground.
Interview by Lia Nicholls
Getting tossed around in his broken boat by waves under the control of media gods, Truman Burbank is the epitome of the lost little man in the search of big answers.
So it’s a shock when the world’s man-mountain of the moment chooses the movie metaphor to describe his place on the planet.
Idris Elba is, after all, the majestic Hackney hulk who mesmerizes men and women, and makes Barack Obama want to change career.
He’s the Oscar-contender who made it despite living in a van and peddling weed to make ends meet. He’s the man who became Stringer Bell, Luther and Mandela. He spent hours kissing Beyonce for a movie before hanging around with her husband Jay-Z.
And he’s carved a reputation as being ‘Mr Cool’ – with a nice line in furious rage when it’s required on screen. You’d think philosophical fears including uncertainty about your position in the world would be the last thing to burden his linebacker-broad shoulders.
Yet he’s in a pensive mood when talking to me about his juicy spot as a power-player in Hollywood.
“You know the Truman Show?” he asks me.
Yeah – the one about the average, powerless Joe who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.
“Sometimes you’re not sure what’s real or not, especially when it comes to relationships,” Elba growls, in the voice soon to be used to give life to Shere Khan in the remake of The Jungle Book. “If you’re adored by millions, sometimes even on your own front doorstep you can become paranoid and constantly question, ‘Who is he? Who is she?’ I know I’ve been guilty of that in the past.”
Elba isn’t over-egging how famous he has become. He is adored by millions. Whether you know the 42-uear-old for the thinking man’s drug mastermind Stringer Bell, as world-weary John Luther in the BBC’s cop series, for his acclaimed acclaimed portrayal of freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, or for his ever-increasing blockbusters (Pacific Rim, Prometheus, Pacific Rim, Thor) or for the rumours he’s going to be the first black Bond, chances are you like him.
There are plenty of reasons why mere mortals admire stars – there’s those who make us laugh, there are those the old cliché goes who men want to be and women want to bed.
But there are few stars admired so widely by other stars – and that’s when you know you’ve really made it.
Elba spent a lot of time getting close to Beyonce Knowles in the critically-derided Fatal Attraction-esque thriller called Obsessed.
“Mr Cool? Me? I think people like to see some genuine attributes in people they admire, you know a bit of relatability, I think I have that. And I think I’ve always managed to remain as Idris”
At a White House dinner last year Obama asked Elba to sit beside him. Prince Charles has had him at Prince’s Trust Awards, he made Mumford & Sons cool by appearing in one of their music videos, Vogue editor Anna Wintour things he’s a style icon and Daniel Craig says he’s the natural successor to the Bond crown.
And Elba has admitted he has the desire to be CEO of his own brand and become a one-man empire like Jay-Z.
His storming CV is all well-worn territory by now.
What I want to about about Elba – full name Idrissa Akuna Elba – what is the secret of being ‘cool’. Especially if sometimes feels like Truman.
“Mr Cool? Me?” he chuckles (very modestly.) “Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far. You know what I think it is? I think people like to see some genuine attributes in people they admire, you know a bit of relatability, I think I have that. And I think I’ve always managed to remain as Idris.
“It goes a long way in this business if you’re relatable to people. They believe in you more, they want to see you win more and support you better.
“I’ve been on both sides. I’ve gone to America as the new boy and come back to England as the old boy and I’ve watched American actors come here and realise immediately why they aren’t relatable – you just don’t want to go to the pub with them.”
He really has been on both sides – a proper Hackney boy-done-good who has referred to himself in the past as a “fucking Dutty rude boy”.
The rags part of his riches memoir is that he was raised in the East End of London where he struggles to pay his acting school fees. When he upped sticks to the US he ended up breaking up with his wife, living in a van, working as a doorman and hustling by selling ten-spots of weed in New York before landing The Wire job – ironically as a drug kingpin.
Surely the essence of Elba is more than just being in touch with his roots and the feeling blokes get that they’d like to have a better with him?
The answer to his cool is probably – and more unglamorously than you probably thought – family.
It seems that’s what keeps him grounded when he could so easily spiral into the drugs, drink and orgies that are on a plate for him most places he goes.
It’s 9pm and he is speaking to me in Paris after a day on set – his family by his side. Elba and girlfriend Naiyana Garth are happily bringing up their son Winston, named after his father who died last year after a long battle with lung cancer.
Elba’s able to travel with his family because Winston is only seven months old.
It’s probably why he tones it down a bit when talking about he temptations that could take him down a Stringer Bell-style path. Chuckling again, he tells me: “I get so many people coming up and asking, ‘Will you come to my birthday party?’ Will you come to my wedding? Will you…” (he trails off – probably for the benefit of his loved ones’ ears.)
Elba and his ex-wife Kim have a 12-year-old daughter Isan, and he’s said before he would “give it all up” for his little girl if the sacrifice was called for.
The man has also never forgotten where he comes from.
He’s supporting a £6.2 million affordable homes scheme in Hackney, where Elba House is one of two blocks in the Andre development, an ex-factory site and one of the more prominent affordable home schemes taking root across Britain to ease the pain of first-time buyers.
But even when Elba stays indoors with his family – shunning the women throwing themselves at him – he causes meltdowns.
Twitter went batshit crazy when a man tweeted a poem in February complaining about his wife’s obsession with him.
Called I Am Sorry I’m Not Idris Elba, the amateur poem read, ‘I am just a regular man / With a regular 9-5 / That does regular things / But you let the characters he plays / And the pictures he takes / Interfere with our relationship / I’m building companionship / But he’s your man crush / When it’s me you should be crushing on.’
Idris responded by posting a picture of himself on Instagram with the caption, ‘I am not sorry I’m Idris Elba.’
Again – see – cool bastard.
A similar frenzy followed in October when a short video of Idris doing press-ups in preparation for his part as a CIA agent in new action thriller Bastille Day. He was topless.
He tells me, “I was in the gym with a few of the guys and I thought it was funny to show the pain they were putting me through. The next thing I know, it’s on the bloody news. I mean, what’s that about?”
This is a men’s mag, but the answer is rippling pecs, Idris, pecs.
With or without clothes, he’s aware of the full-scale intensity that surrounds him. “Yeah, the attention is all a bit mad now… you know, how I’ve become this person,” he says.
What, a sex symbol?
“Yeah. But remember you said that not me.” Luckily, so far, the adoration has never come with any stalker-type bother.
“It’s funny, a lot of people approach me for different reasons,” he says. “There’s the Luther shout-outs, a lot of Stringer chat, but never any trouble.
“It’s always hugs, especially from blokes. Well, they give me hugs and the women give me kisses. It’s all good.”
Kisses stop at kisses these days though as he insists to me that his “hustler days are over”. He was once given the DJ moniker ‘Mr Kipling’.
Elba was once quoted as saying it was because of his “exceedingly good tunes”.
In fact, it’s a name his mates gave to him because of the amount of “tarts” he had at his heels. Now, the two-legged tarts are gone.
Elba wants to talk about more serious matters than fame and fortune. And again, its basis is in family.
He’s keen to stick his neck out about the Ebola crisis. “You can’t lose that many people and not do much about it,” he barks, all the chuckles gone. “It could have been worse than the plague, and for me, it wasn’t acted upon quick enough.”
He’s full of far more passion discussing the outbreak of the disease than when chatting about Mr Kipling nicknames and Twitter poems.
It’s because the crisis is close to Elba’s heart. He may have been born in Hackney, but his mother Eve is Ghanaian and his late father Winston was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where entire villages have been wiped out by the disease.
Ebola is claiming the lives of thousands and Elba says more isn’t being done because it’s a third world problem.
“Because it begun in West Africa, there was lethargy about it,” he says. “It would have been different had it have been a western country.
“I’m not afraid of Ebola, but I am afraid of ignorance. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”
It’s not just Ebola that is eating away at the actor with a social conscience, he’s also at war with the conflict in Syria.
“The world is at crisis point,” he says.
“Of course we’ve been here before but this happens to be our time. We have all the tools to talk one another, all the advancement but we’re still fighting over religion, I mean really fucking each other up. As a race, we’re super successful but so primitive in certain things. I find that fucking mad.”
Elba’s humanitarianism is probably heightened by the reason he’s chatting to me about his album Mi Mandela.
It’s the result of days of research dedicated to discovering the music loved by anti-apartheid icon Mandela.
It’s also a love letter to Elba’s dad – and says it’s the first of many planned “character albums”.
“Mandela was really into his music and it was my job to understand what he liked,” Elba says. “What I probably didn’t realise at the time was just how much there was to discover. In the course of that journey, I felt like I discovered the roots of South African music.”
Once he’d finished filming his role as Mandela, Elba says he watched the movie with his dad, who was seriously ill at the time. His father said how inspiring South African music was – and it stuck with Elba.
“My dad said, ‘You’ve always loved music, so you should go back to South Africa and do it’,” Elba recalls. “A little later my dad passed away. At the funeral, my uncle was DJ’ ing and he played all of these amazing songs that my dad loved. I just said to myself, ‘Man, I’m going to do it’.
Idris Elba being Idris Elba, he managed to get some big hitters on the record.
James Blake, Maverick Sabre, Mumford & Sons, Nothembi Mkhwebane and George The Poet are a few of the names on the album. “They’re all my boys and all hugely talented,” Elba says. “They saw what I wanted to do and supported me 100 per cent. Mumford & Sons and I have mutual respect for one another. They took it away and loved it so much, they ended up playing on it. It all happened rather organically.”
Just like that. No bribe necessary.
He adds, “It’s definitely been a labour of love. But when you care about something so much, you want to get it right. It started off as a love letter to my dad and Mr Mandela and now I’m planning to do it for some of my other characters and others in the future.
“It’s a different take to the classic soundtrack.” As well as a record deal with Parlophone, he has the blessing from the Mandela estate. “Winnie Mandela has heard it, yes. She said, and I quote, ‘I love, love, love it!’ That is the most satisfying of all.
“I’ve become close to the family and they champion what I’ve been doing. They were among the first to hear it, I was so nervous about playing to them but luckily they like it.”
So not only is Elba a power-house actor – he’s now in the inner circle of a revolutionary family.
Music has always been part of Elba’s path to success.
A record deal means graduating musically to the ‘next level’, in the parlance of The Wire’s drug overlords.
“I’ve done music all my life, one way or another, whether it’s producing for my own desire or being a DJ, but I’ve never really tried to sell music,” Elba says about the industry. “I didn’t have a record deal before so this is all very new to me. Playing music to someone is a very personal process so I was nervous playing it to the experts at Par lop hone. They were very honest and criticised it in parts but on the whole they genuinely loved it. They felt there was a future for it and went for it.”
When things get too crazy, the studio is the place he goes to find solace.
“It is important for actors to have other things, that is why I DJ,” he says. “When I’m in Ibiza spinning to a room of 200 ravers, they don’t really care I’m an actor.
“I’m letting off steam with my personality. You know, shaking some of the bullshit off.”
Most people would assume he’s talking about Hollywood “bullshit”.
It is rare for actors to slag off Hollywood – and bite the hand that feeds.
Occasionally they pop up, like John Cusack, who earlier this year laid into Hollywood, calling it a “whorehouse” on the verge of producing “kiddie porn” and saying it’s “ripe with frontier crazies”.
Elba’s nowhere near joining Cusack. Tinsel Town has been kind to him.
“For the film industry, there is no other place,” he says. “I like being in Hollywood, I do a lot of business there, I can’t knock it. It is what it is, an engine.
“It is work but if I go there to live it’s an entirely different thing.
“In the industry, you need to go there, you need to get work there – it’s a very progressive system. Hollywood has always reached out to different people to make it richer culturally. It’s incredible for British actors right now.”
But there are heaps of casualties from Hollywood excess.
It seems natural then the conversation turns to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, who both paid with their lives this year from the deadliest cocktail of all – depression and drug-addiction.
“It is important for some actors to let off some of the burden they carry,” admits Elba. “No-one feels sorry for actors, you are getting paid, and millions adore you.
“But there is a lot of residue when it comes to actors, especially those who throw their heart and soul into their work. You end up taking something home with you.”
With back-to-back film jobs booked for the next two years, Elba is not gearing up to knock on doors, flat cap in hand.
There’s the remake of The Jungle Book, Bastille Day, Avengers: Age of Ultron, independent project A Hundred Streets, in which he’s starring and co-producing.
“Who wouldn’t want to be Bond? It would be a huge honour.”
Maybe Guy Ritchie’s remake of King Arthur, or Bond are on the horizon.
Bond had to come up in conversation.
It seems Elba’s been touted as the man to get into the spy’s tux for years.
And as our shoot shows, the agent’s garb would fit him like a glove.
It is not that Elba minds being asked about the Bond gossip. But it seems to be getting tedious for him.
And it appears it’s the bit about being “the first black Bond” that jars.
In keeping with his usual response to being asked about Bond he says, “Who wouldn’t want to be Bond? It would be a huge honour.”
With or without the golden gun, Elba hasn’t many complaints about life at the moment.
Worldwide accolades came for his portrayal of Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom, a Golden Globe for Luther, and most importantly, the birth of his son has made this year one of his best yet.
He’s smiling as he says, “It has been an amazing year, we’re incredibly lucky. I say ‘We’ because I have a team of people who make it work, I don’t do it by myself. When you’re trying to do a number of things, you know, acting, music, DJ’ing, you end up having to really rely on your team. I’ve had some personal highs and some real personal lows but the work has been consistently growing and I’m very happy about that.”
There doesn’t seem to be a minute when Elba isn’t working. He’s always being a dad, actor, DJ, musician – or using his velvet baritone to sell us Sky 1. Despite family being central for the man, you can empathise with his loved ones, who think he takes on too much.
Defending his schedule Elba says, “People say I do too much, but I think it is based on faulty logic. It is based on the idea we’re not meant to use more than 12 per cent of our brains.
Most comes down to logistics. You have to be clever with your timing. I’m a workaholic and I love the idea of being multi-faceted. I can’t just call myself an actor. I’m an entertainer, an artist – and if you are, you have more than one art.
“I find the time to fit it all in because I love it. I also think it’s important not to ram what you’re doing down peoples’ throats. Some people make that mistake.”
There’s one thing that won’t make him work this Christmas though.
It’s his first festive season with son Winston and his second without his dad – so he’s going to be home.
“It’s even more important to be together at Christmas now,” he says. “It’s a time to rebuild bridges and spend some quality time with the family, and as we know I’m pretty bad at taking time off throughout the year. You need to take time off when it’s there.” If existential Truman Show worries about his fame and ambition might keep him up at night, Elba can rest assured his boat hit the wall a long time ago – and he knows exactly where he is headed.
“Robert Redford is the perfect example,” he says of his acting idols. “He directs and every now and again he’ll pop up in a movie and for me that is the way to do it. Classy, in and out, but stay acting.
“I’m always going to want to act but it will be more about directing and producing for me in the future. I don’t want to be too old and trying to pull in the crowds. I think it’s admirable to have lifelong careers but I don’t want to have to do it. It is far more satisfying seeing a film that you have helped make come to life than a pat on the back at an award ceremony.
“Awards are great. I mean, they’re great for your ego, they’re great for the kudos, it’s great for your pay check but I don’t work for the awards, I really don’t.”
With regards to the cash – Elba will let his team to run his schedule, but he is the boss of his bank.
“Doing your own banking really puts a lot of things in perspective. I leave the technical stuff like tax up to the accountants but on a basic level, I like to pay my own bills,” he says.
“You’ve got to know where it’s coming in and coming out – like a very good curry.
And his is one full–on, no–messing–about vindaloo.