Idris Elba, David Simon Look Back on Painful Decision to Kill Off Stringer Bell on 'The Wire'

"A point at which you let a character or charisma or any of that stuff dictate the story you're telling, you're kind of becoming a hack," says showrunner David Simon.
Erik Carter
Idris Elba

As drug kingpin Stringer Bell, Idris Elba's star rose swiftly.

But now, in a series of interviews as part of this week's The Hollywood Reporter cover story, Elba and his former boss, The Wire creator and showrunner David Simon, reveal not only how the actor landed the role on the HBO drama but also how he later walked away from it.

According to Simon, the producers had also considered Elba for the part of Avon, but ultimately decided he was better suited as Stringer, who was conceived as the brain of the operation. Of course, it helped that Elba had disguised his East London accent in the audition process. By that point, Simon had cast another Brit in Dominic West (as McNulty), and he anticipated a rough patch as West got comfortable with an American accent. It wasn't until the cast-read that Simon realized Elba was British, too.

"I was probably in a mode where if I was being asked to take on more Brits, or more anything, I would have been like, 'Come on, can't I get some tougher New Yorkers?'" says Simon. "I know I can't get a Baltimore accent, but can I at least get some Americans?"

It wouldn't take long for Elba to break out in the role. Though the Baltimore-set drama wouldn't enter the pop culture pantheon until several years later, the actor was being stopped in the street and at airports as early as season two. “It was sudden,” he says, “and it was typically African-American people, who as soon as they saw me would shout, ‘Striiiiiing!’” Around his New Jersey neighborhood, Elba became instant royalty.

Then came the infamous call from Simon toward the end of season three. Stringer Bell was being killed off. Elba was devastated. Why would they do this to a character so beloved?, the actor wondered. And, selfishly, what would it mean for him? Would he ever work again?

Simon knew the decision would be unpopular — including with his own wife, then girlfriend, who told him he was an "idiot" — but he felt it was utterly necessary. "Stringer and Colvin [played by Robert Wisdom] are both from different sides trying to reform the drug war, and it's unreformable," he explains. "It belongs to the gangsters and to the career cops who want to get paid, and so Colvin and Stringer needed to have the same arc, thematically, to make the political point. And at a point at which you let a character or charisma or any of that stuff dictate the story you're telling, you're kind of becoming a hack."

It was only after Elba finished reading the second-to-last episode's script that his frustration turned to fury. As Stringer’s death scene was originally written, Omar (played by Michael K. Williams) doesn’t simply shoot Stringer. “He then whips his dick out and pisses on him,” recounts Elba, who couldn’t believe what he was reading at the time. “I was pissed,” he says now. And he let Simon know. “I told him it was absolute tragedy, that it was sensational, and that it wasn’t going to happen.” Eager to avoid an ugly sendoff, particularly when Elba was already so distressed about exiting, Simon and producer George Pelecanos, who had written the episode, ultimately acquiesced and removed that part from the script.

As both Elba and Simon recall it, the filming of Elba's final episode wasn’t grim, with the actor uncharacteristically quiet throughout. At one point, the two would take a long, emotional walk around the Baltimore set, which was fittingly a graveyard on that day. Simon tried to assure his star that he had a big career ahead of him, and that this was going to free him up to take all of the opportunities that would come his way. (Simon reveals now that he still writes "the Idris Elba part" into many of his scripts in the hopes that the two can collaborate again.) In the end, Elba got to a place where, as Simon describes it, he "acted the hell out of the final scene."

Then came another, with Stringer’s corpse being zipped into a body bag. The mood on set was still heavy as a camera zoomed in for a close-up as the zipper came up over Elba’s face. In that moment, Elba opened his eyes wide, looked directly into the camera and whispered, "Boo." Immediately, the formerly somber crew began howling. "We all just fell out laughing," says Simon. “It was one of the most charming things I’d ever seen.”

The morning after the episode aired, Elba walked out of his New Jersey home into what he says looked like a funeral. “Who died?” he remembers asking a few neighbors. “And they go, ‘You, motherfucker. You.’”