Idris Elba, the multitalented British star, has turned his hand to acting, music and fashion, and gives no indication of lifting his foot off the accelerator. Alpha male roles, such as that of the eponymous detective in Luther, suit the charismatic “hardman-with-aheart” Londoner so well that rumours have been flying that he could be named the next Bond.
In addition to his numerous accolades, he has also been nominated for Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie in the Emmy Awards next month.
Elba has recently been focusing on his role as Krall in Star Trek Beyond, released in Hong Kong on July 21 – the third movie in the rebooted Star Trek series, which began in 2009 with Star Trek, and was followed by Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013. He reveals that “it was a total rollercoaster ride, very different to anything I’ve ever worked on before. It’s been challenging, physically and mentally; I’ve pushed myself hard”.
As an only child raised in some of London’s toughest boroughs, Elba had to graft hard to reach his current level of success. His father, originally from Sierra Leone, and his Ghanaian mother moved to Britain in order to give Elba a better future. But despite their best intentions, the actor still recalls facing plenty of prejudice during his school days.
“I stood out because I was black and tall and was immediately picked on by the best fighter in the school,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for me. I used to get into fights all the time with white kids and I got a reputation as someone who wouldn’t take any shit. I never looked for trouble, but you can’t back down from it either. I was fortunate that my teacher, Miss McPhee, thought that I had talent and she pushed me towards acting.” Before hitting the big time, Elba went straight from school to the National Youth Music Theatre, with the help of a £1,500 (HK$15,100) grant from Prince Charles’ charitable organisation, The Prince’s Trust. The actor’s tough background may well have informed his first major role as street savvy Stringer Bell in The Wire; he played the drug dealer in the cult HBO series for four years, gaining a global fan following. However, other dramatic projects quickly beckoned. “After playing Stringer I decided that I needed to shift gears and do other kinds of work,” he explains. “I didn’t want to get stuck playing those kinds of characters.”
Elba hasn’t looked back since Stringer but has recently reunited with his The Wire co-star Dominic West for Finding Dory, the new Finding Nemo sequel.
In a throwback to their Baltimore days, they play a pair of “gangster” sea lions. Smiling at the memory, Elba was happy to work with West again.
“He’s a great friend after all these years; it was the best opportunity to laugh and mess around.” In addition to Finding Dory, Elba has recently added several voice-acting roles to his resume with Zootopia and The Jungle Book. “I love portraying a story and a character with just your voice, your tone,” he says.
“It’s a big challenge but it’s a lot of fun, and working on these films has been a great way to exercise that.”
Back in front of the camera, the high-velocity thriller Bastille Day, also released this year, shows Elba at his best – running along rooftops, throwing punches, and tackling a sinister terrorist conspiracy as the CIA agent Sean Briar. Elba got along famously with the director, James Watkins, and co-star Richard Madden. “There were a lot of laughs between takes,” he grins. He was drawn to the movie’s overall seventies feel and this vintage influence meant that there was little CGI, so both actors performed many of their own stunts.
Recalling the roof-top chase scene, Elba reveals: “It was pretty terrifying – there was no wirework.
Richard and I practised for six weeks in a sequence doing that scene in a warehouse; it was gruelling, and dangerous, but I like danger. Danger is my middle name.” That risk-taking attitude fed into his explosive breakthrough role as DSI Luther in the BBC’s 2010 dark detective drama – a career-defining performance which prompted Guillermo del Toro and Ridley Scott, respectively, to give Elba leading roles in Pacific Rim and Prometheus. Elba reflects on that life-changing BBC role: “Luther takes on an almost superhero quality – he never changes his clothes, he never sleeps. That’s what really appealed to me. The writing is so good.”
When he isn’t impressing TV viewers, Elba can be found headlining packed nightclubs as his DJ alter ego Big Driis, and collaborating on collections with fashion retail giant Superdry. Named as one of GQ’s most stylish men of this year, moving into design was a natural progression for the star. He also finds time to support The Prince’s Trust and the campaign to fight Ebola, and is setting up the Write To Green Light competition with the help of Lionsgate UK, designed to provide opportunities for new creative voices in television.
He has dabbled in documentary with a race driving series, Idris Elba: No Limits, airing on Discovery Channel soon. Work has also begun on the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, which will see him star alongside Matthew McConaughey; and he has Thor: Ragnarok, The Mountain Between Us and Molly’s Game set for release in 2017. The burning question, however, is whether the unstoppable star’s suave attitude and need for speed will be enough to secure his status as the next James Bond. With the internet aflame with rumours and the bookies giving him very favourable odds to beat fellow 007 contender Tom Hiddleston to the role, Elba feels he has to set the record straight – for now: “There hasn’t been any discussion with James Bond producers. But it is lovely that there is so much interest. I’m very grateful and thankful.”
1972 Born in Hackney, London
2002 First stars in his breakthrough role as Stringer in The Wire
2007 Secures his first leading film role in Daddy’s Little Girls
2012 Wins a Golden Globe for Best Performance in Luther
2013 Wins a Bafta Humanitarian Award
2015 Receives Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for Best Supporting Actor. He also opens for Madonna as DJ Big Driis during her Rebel Heart Tour in Berlin, Germany
2016 Receives the NME Best Actor Award, and a Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male Actor for his performance in Beasts of No Nation. He appears on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World, and is also named as one of GQ’s most stylish men in the world