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Idris Elba on business, Stringer Bell, and James Bond

Idris Elba is an East-End boy who made his way to worldwide fame. The actor, DJ and singer speaks to Tim Aldred about trading, laziness and James Bond.

There’s no-one quite like Idris Elba. The name – it’s short for Idrissa, for the record – is unique; his gruff, gravelly patter holds in it a curious appeal, and with a look that sways wildly, yet somehow comfortably, between rugged and polished, it’s little wonder the Londoner has emerged as something of a style icon for the modern elite.

Elba’s breakthrough on the small screen was as the business-savvy Stringer Bell in what became one of the most highly acclaimed TV series in history, HBO’s masterpiece The Wire. It was a pivotal casting that saw his star ascend across the Atlantic at a time when he would rarely garner column inches in the entertainment pages over here.

Five series and 60 episodes later, he flew home, switched sides, and became arguably the coolest and most abrasive British modern-day detective since Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Dr Eddie Fitzgerald in Cracker, when taking up the title role in cult classic Luther. These days it’s a passion project, after all – he’s now a bona-fide Hollywood name who could well afford to leave detective work on the mean streets of London.

But the capital remains his home. For Elba the strength of Hackney, of London itself, is worth more than any hilltop mansion overlooking Beverly Hills. “It’s always the people who make a place what it is,” he begins. “Forget everything else. I’ve visited social housing initiatives in east London that have more heart and soul than any other place I’ve been to, and that’s what life should be about.”

The reality is Elba spends most of his time racing fast cars, making millions as a bad guy or exciting millions as the good guy; the actor rarely has a moment when he isn’t behaving like the icon you wish you had on speed dial. A passionate Arsenal fan (OK, so he’s not perfect), his association with the Gunners even sparked a friendship with possibly one of the most laid-back and gifted men to ever play the sport – all-time top scorer Thierry Henry.

Even when Elba wore a red woolly hat to the NME Awards – not his finest sartorial moment – he still managed to come out on top after having a bit of a barney with Liam Gallagher over it. Money, cars, looks. Elba is, to many, the epitome of the modern day geezer – a contemporary, albeit original, James Bond figure. More on that later.

Taking care of business

Elba was a tough kid growing up in an equally uncompromising area. Hackney in 1972 wasn’t for the faint of heart, and the skinny student set his stall out early by getting into a fight on his first day at school. He has commented in the past about a reputation for getting into trouble. “I never looked for it,” he insists, “but you can’t back down from it either. I got a reputation as someone who wouldn’t take any shit, and that was fine by me. I guess I was fortunate in that Miss McPhee, my teacher, thought that I had talent and pushed me towards acting.”

It follows that, these days, Elba is keen to ‘pass it on’. He regularly champions the Prince’s Trust, the organisation that helped him gain a place at the National Youth Music Theatre. He’s a passionate advocate for youth engagement, and he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the traditional avenues when it comes to getting spotted. “What the internet has given us is a platform to showcase what we can do. Musically, it’s been going on for years, but in drama now you can get spotted from your own bedroom; it’s incredible.”

Despite the leg-up Elba received, acting roles didn’t come easily, and while earning a few seconds of screen time on The Bill and 2point4 Children, as well as portraying the odd unsavoury type in BBC Crimewatch reconstructions (an early precursor to the character roles that would follow, it seems) he took to cold-calling advertising sales, night shifts at the Dagenham Ford plant and stints as a wedding DJ in order to make ends meet.

Silent Witness and Dangerfield followed, but venturing Stateside ultimately set Elba up for his next chapter. He landed a one-off appearance in Law & Order, a booking that would soon see him recruited for The Wire.

Thrilled to land his first major US gig, Elba celebrated his first Stringer Bell pay cheque by placing on the driveway a “humungous” Dodge Ram 1500 truck. And that was before the show had passed the pilot stage. “When the series got picked up, it felt like winning the lottery. We had no idea how it would do, but you could see there was something behind it.”

His portrayal of Baltimore gangster boss Bell was one of the most applauded in modern drama. Stringer is a bad boy with business smarts, trying to teach his army of drug dealers about market saturation and his childhood friend about diversification, while struggling to get city officials to allow him to make legit money in property development.

It’s a few years on but you bump into people and they still define you The Wire

When quizzed, the actor is coy about how well he’d fare as an entrepreneur in real life. On the one hand, he says his biggest downfall is his procrastination. “I’m lazy,” he says bluntly. “‘I’ll get round to it,’ is a phrase I say far too often.” Is this the truth, or just self-deprecation? After all, this is clearly a man with die-hard ambition and talent to match.

“I’ve always been creative rather than structured; I wasn’t academic in that sense, but I liked challenges. Do I have a head for figures? Not really. But do I have ideas and energy? Definitely. You don’t meet many people who can combine the two – I’m more than happy being the way I am.”

That’s not to say Elba hasn’t seen a side of the commercial world that resonates with some of his former peers who grew up around east London. The trading floor certainly feels an appropriate stablemate for an actor whose characterisations often end up with the star using a chink of insight on his way to, ultimately, spin the wheel of fortune. And when invited to visit BGC Partners’ trading floor in Docklands along with a party that included Princes William and Harry, Rod Stewart with his wife Penny Lancaster, and fellow actress Helen McCrory, Elba really made himself at home.

“I could relate to it – it didn’t feel too alien,” he admits. “What I found really fascinating was that this was a world when everyone was working to feed a colossal global force – finance. Yet you look at what each person was doing and, ultimately, these were individuals, some completely isolated from their workmates.

“You can get quite philosophical about it but I liked that idea of individuals ultimately making the team, because that’s what we do in film or music. It’s several people’s creativity being channelled and feeding the machine.”
The annual BGC Charity Day raises funds for charity in memory of the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald and 61 Eurobrokers employees who lost their lives in the New York World Trade Center terrorist attack in 2001. To date, it has raised more than $110m.

“I’ve absolute admiration for those guys. It’s a pressure job and probably not my sort of thing – I’m definitely too laid back to be left in charge of someone else’s money,” says Elba. So if Bell’s passion for macroeconomics hasn’t rubbed off on the man who played him, what does Elba take from the drug kingpin?

“The influence that The Wire had was spectacular. You know, I had been knocking on doors in the States for four years and it wasn’t working, and I’ve said it before, but for me it was a complete lifeline, and that was how I regarded it at first. But it quickly became so much more than that when I saw how people were really taking it forward. It’s a few years on now but you bump into people and they still define you by it, despite all the other stuff I’ve done. And that’s fine by me, I like that. It’s all about what someone wants to take out of it.”

True Brit

It all seems a long distance from when the first batch of film offers began dropping on the doormat. Elba found himself drafted into 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to 28 Days Later which, while successful, failed to live up to the heights of its predecessor; while RocknRolla and The Losers were mediocre handgun-heavy efforts. “It was good getting a taste – I enjoyed those projects a lot and I was keen to see what would come afterwards. Film remains a completely different animal to television and it takes a while to get your head around the demands.” As it materialised, the next step was Luther, playing a detective attempting to solve murders in his own ‘punch them in the mouth, dodge questions later’ style.

Elba agrees that reinventing and reviving the 1970s interpretation of the tough English cop could be the thing that draws us to the troubled protagonist the most. “It’s that, but it’s also looking at how grandiose some of the crimes are. The writing is so good and so dark. It’s like watching a comic book version of Columbo. It’s slightly cooler, and just as weird and troubled. I love Luther.”

Not one to do things by half measures, Elba agreed to not just star in, but help create, the US version of Luther. It’s a huge gamble. Luther already has a Golden Globe award in the States, so with nothing left to prove could it be about to follow in the footsteps of Gracepoint, the US version of Broadchurch, which was scrapped after one series? Like Luther, Gracepoint was a minor hit in the US. Gracepoint also imported its director, and its British lead David Tennant. Despite positive reviews, though, it never found an audience.

But Elba has more of a chance than most. After all, many credit him as starting a new revolution of British actors in the US. Where once we exported Hugh Grant et al as foppish if essentially loveable rom-com characters, Elba and his Wire co-star Dominic West shot, shagged and drank their way to anti-hero cult status. In doing so, they paved the way for the likes of Elementary’s Jonny Lee Miller and Homeland’s Damian Lewis.

“I think it needs a couple of exports to really take the lead; that then sparks an interest. It kind of validates what we’ve got going on over here, and we should be proud of that.”

Certainly in the context of the film industry in 2015, Americans, it seems, now want to be wowed rather than wooed by their British men. Elba adds: “I believe the industry is much more open than it ever was in the past. Nationality and geography don’t really come into it anymore, and why should they?”

If I played him, I don’t want to be called the black James Bond

Although the actor’s representation of the late Nelson Mandela, in Long Walk to Freedom, received mixed reviews, he has clearly ascended to a level of performance that brings about continued speculation of him taking the MI6 reins from Daniel Craig. Of course, there’s a race card that inevitably comes into play. No sooner had Elba himself responded to rumours from a leaked Sony HQ email that had him scoped as 007, were some commentators noting that Ian Fleming’s vision for the hitman was a white man from Scotland. That’s all very well, but Pierce Brosnan is Irish, Timothy Dalton Welsh, and Craig hails from those tartan-clad climes of, er, Chester.

But Elba isn’t hung up on the Bond speculation. For a start, he’s far too busy experimenting with his other hobbies. His passionate love of making music has been brewing since he was a teen, and he put out his own album, Mi Mandela, to coincide with the biopic of the South African president.

Elba has also progressed from manning the decks at marriage receptions to some of the hottest clubs in London and Ibiza. It’s difficult to tell whether he’s a draw because he’s a star – he often gets asked for autographs and to pose for pictures while he’s performing live – or whether he’d have made it as an unknown. Most agree that he has real musical talent, however, and he deserves his opportunity.

“You have passions and they rarely go away. My passions were music and acting. Can I believe I’m in a place where I get to live out both? Probably not. But I’m not going to sit around thinking about it; I just want to get on with enjoying the opportunities.”

And that’s him in a nutshell. Elba will never be afraid to roll the dice, to get stuck into a project that is meaningful, even if success is far from guaranteed. And above the music and everything else, you sense his true focus will always remain fixed on acting.

Just as well – his fans won’t be satisfied until he slips into a tux and orders a martini, shaken not stirred. But it seems they may be waiting a long time: “I just don’t want to be the black James Bond,” he’s admitted. “Sean Connery wasn’t the Scottish James Bond and Craig wasn’t the blue-eyed James Bond. If I played him, I don’t want to be called the black James Bond.” That said, when quizzed by fans in a Reddit Q&A as to whether he’d be willing to take on the role, he said: “Yes, if it was offered to me, absolutely.”

Cryptically, his final word on the matter so far has come from his Twitter account: “Isn’t 007 supposed to be handsome?” Why yes, Mr Elba, he sure is. And suave. And unafraid to break the rules. Hmm. Sounds familiar.

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