Idris Elba wants to know exactly how this is going to go.
Are we going to spend the next hour or two running through the beats of his career, he asks, with a bluntness I hadn’t anticipated, or am I looking for more of a freewheeling conversation? His investment time, after all, has already been negotiated.
He likely isn’t going to read the finished piece, he explains on this early evening in late February, just as he’s never gone back to watch his three career-defining seasons on The Wire or much else that’s come after. Nothing personal, he says, there simply isn’t time to look backward. So, he asks again, what will it be?
A freewheeling conversation, I say, as we weave through a smattering of slack-jawed patrons at The London Hotel bar in West Hollywood. We settle on a quiet, corner nook, where Elba, in a muscle-hugging Ralph Lauren sweater and Converse high-tops, slowly lets his guard down.
He’s ostensibly here to promote his Netflix comedy, Turn Up Charlie, which will drop with eight episodes March 15. In addition to his creator credit, he stars as a struggling DJ who’s the manny to his actor buddy’s preteen daughter. Elba, 46, also has his directorial debut, the gangster thriller Yardie, about to hit a handful of theaters, and a few days after we meet he’ll head to New York to host Saturday Night Live for the first time. Before this, Elba was back home in England filming Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats, where he sings (or “grunts,” he teases) as villainous feline Macavity opposite Taylor Swift; and before that, in Hawaii, filming the first spinoff the Fast & Furious franchise alongside Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. Then, this spring, it’s back to California, where he’ll DJ a set at Coachella.
“I want to be Donald Glover,” he says. “He’s the man. He literally does it all.”
Though Elba can’t yet match the Atlanta creator’s giant haul of trophies, his ambition is every bit as intense. The five-time Emmy nominee has two other TV series (Sky’s In the Long Run and the BBC’s much-lauded Luther) and a thriving film career, along with a music label and production company. He’s made documentaries about race-car driving and kickboxing, two of his pastimes, and has parlayed his celebrity into high-profile endorsement deals that include a series of Squarespace spots directed by Oscar winner Spike Jonze. There’s a fashion line, too, and a bar in London. And now the father of two — a 17-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, both from previous relationships — is planning an April wedding to model Sabrina Dhowre.
When Elba’s first double Black Label and Coke arrives, I ask if perhaps he has a hard time saying no, to which he laughs and, as if on cue, says no.
“My career is more like a buffet, and I like it that way,” he explains. “It’s what keeps me alive and interested.” When it comes to his film choices, he has started taking more of a “one for them, one for me” approach, referring to the mix of four-quadrant tentpoles (like the forthcoming Suicide Squad sequel, for which he’s in talks to replace Will Smith as Deadshot) and prestige dramas (Mandela) that line his résumé. The only thing missing now is a franchise that sits squarely on Elba’s shoulders, as James Bond would surely do if those rumors turn out to be anything more than that. But Elba says he’s never been formally approached about the 007 role, which Daniel Craig will grudgingly play for one more film. And while he’s flattered by Twitter’s fixation on the possibility, it’s not necessarily the career move he’s after, even if it were to present itself (more on that later).
Fueled by the arrival of his second drink, Elba offers another, considerably more personal answer to my original question.
“It’s not about the money,” he says. “It’s that I watched my dad die [in 2013]. And he and I had big plans. There was this sense of, ‘You’re going to go to America and make it, son,’ and I did and I wanted to come back and share it with him. But by that time, he wasn’t well, so I never got the chance to show him the fruits of my labor. We’d talked about all the things he could have if I made it, but then he got sick.”
Elba pauses to collect his thoughts, and then he continues. “It was heartbreaking, but it also grounded the fuck out of me. So, when someone tells me, ‘You’re doing a bit too much.’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to die one day. I’m going to take that last breath, and you know what I don’t want to be thinking when I do? I should’ve done that.’ “
He pulls up his sleeve, and there, etched into his skin, are two words: one life.
“That’s it,” he says. “That’s all we’ve got.”
The only child of a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother, the East London-born Elba made his way to the U.S. in the late 1990s, eager for a break. He’d already put in several years on the U.K. circuit, but he was growing weary of the limits for a black actor there. “I saw that glass ceiling, and I was very close to hitting my forehead on it,” he told Parliament in 2016 as he lobbied for better representation in British film and TV.
But the situation in the U.S. wasn’t too much better. Casting directors had not yet warmed to the idea of a black Brit playing an American, as they later would, thanks to an influx of U.K. talent like Elba, David Oyelowo and Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya. “Back then, the U.K. black actors didn’t even go up for African-American roles,” says Elba. “The feeling was, why would they? You go to McDonald’s to get burgers. You don’t go into McDonald’s to get fish and chips.”
So, Elba’s early years in New York were lean. His first marriage fell apart, he worked a comedy club door, peddled weed and, at one point, slept in his Astro van. Then he got a call about a new, Baltimore-set crime drama called The Wire on HBO. He went in to audition for drug kingpin Stringer Bell with clear instructions from casting director Alexa Fogel to keep his British accent a secret.
It proved shrewd advice. The series’ creator, David Simon, had already hired another Brit, Dominic West, whose accent would require work; and Simon admits now that he might not have hired Elba, too, had he known he wasn’t actually American. “I was probably in a mode where if I was being asked to take on more Brits, I would’ve been like, ‘Come on, can’t I get some fucking New Yorkers?’ ” says Simon. ” ‘I know I can’t get a Baltimore accent, but can I at least get some Americans?’ “
Though it would take years before The Wire secured its place in the pop culture pantheon, Elba was already getting recognized in restaurants and airports by the series’ second season. It was the kind of success he’d always dreamed of. Then he got a call from Simon. He wanted to know if Elba had read the script for the second-to-last episode of the show’s third season. It had arrived when Elba was in the middle of a recording project, and he hadn’t read to the end yet.
“Yeah, I have it,” he told Simon. “What’s happening? Everything good?”
“Well, yeah, so you know that String goes to meet homeboy …”
“Yeah, yeah,” Elba jumped in. “I’ve got that. What’s up, Dave?”
“Well, yeah, Stringer goes in this building and, well, he doesn’t come out.”
“He doesn’t come out the back or the front? How does he get out?”
“No, no, no, that’s it,” Simon told him. “He doesn’t make it. Omar gets him.”
There was dead silence on the line as Elba tried to make sense of what he’d just heard. Why would anyone kill off a character as beloved as Stringer Bell? And, selfishly, what would become of his career? Would he ever work again? Simon says his then girlfriend, now wife, novelist Laura Lippman, was similarly distressed, telling him: “You’re killing off Idris? You’re an idiot, David. Have you talked to any women about this?”
When Elba arrived on the Baltimore set, Simon took him on a long, emotional walk. “I remember saying to him, ‘Idris, you may not know it yet, but you’re a leading man, and you’re about to have an incredible career,’ ” he says. “You say goodbye to a lot of good actors and think, ‘Man, that guy’s a great actor, I hope he finds work.’ But with Idris, it was different. You just knew.” Simon still writes “the Idris Elba part” into his scripts, hoping the two will work together again.
The decision to kill off Stringer devastated plenty of Wire fans, but few had more trouble moving on than Elba himself. Every script seemed to pale by comparison, and he’d ruled out playing another gangster. Over time, however, he found success in a series of lower-budget films (Daddy’s Little Girls, Obsessed) aimed at black audiences. “I became an alternative to the expensive actors, like Denzel and Wesley,” he says. “I was the younger breed and I rose.” Then his father got sick, and Elba decamped to London.
It was during that period that Neil Cross came calling. He’d written a British detective drama, Luther, and he wanted Elba to play its morally flexible lead. Calling him was a shot in the dark. “The thought that you’d go to someone of Idris’ talent and presence seemed presumptuous,” says Cross, “like inviting Prince Harry to your birthday party.” Then one Saturday morning in 2010, as Cross stood on the sidelines of his son’s soccer game, Elba rang. He was in.
Like Simon, Cross was immediately struck by what Elba could do with the words on a page. There was a tenderness, too, that belied the actor’s 6-foot-3, linebacker physique. “He has this rare gift of being intensely masculine,” says Cross, “without having a single iota of machismo about him.” The part ultimately would earn Elba four Emmy nominations along with Golden Globe and SAG Award wins. And his star rose swiftly from there.
Elba has at least a dozen projects in various stages of development and seems to add more almost weekly. What energizes him now, he says, is the range, which has allowed him to be an actor-for-hire when it’s appealing, as it was with Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw; and the person calling the shots, as he did with Yardie, when it isn’t. How an all-consuming franchise like James Bond would fit into that mix isn’t clear, though it’s hardly worth stressing since Elba, who’d be approaching 50 by the time the part would even be available (Daniel Craig is now 51), suggests it’s pretty unlikely.
So, why blast out that infamous Tweet — “My name’s Elba. Idris Elba.” — to his 2.6 million followers last summer? “I took the piss a little,” he says, “but I was also reminding people that I never got referred to as James Bond. So, I was like, hello, my name is Elba. Idris Elba. It was a joke. I swear to God.”
The decision to make a Netflix comedy at this point in his career grew out of a kind of battle fatigue. Elba was tired of always being cast in dramatic roles, he told his reps; he wanted to have a little more fun. “I’m a goofball all day,” he says, “and my kids and people who know me see it, but nobody was offering me those roles.” So he decided he’d create one of his own.
Elba’s team set him up with Gary Reich, who’d just had success with the ITV sitcom Vicious, fronted by an even less likely comedy star in Sir Ian McKellen. Elba and Reich spent a day in London working through ideas in the two arenas Elba was eager to mine: DJing, a world he’d dabbled in since his teens, and parenting. “Most of the meetings I’ve had with writer-performers, you sit quietly around a table with a notepad,” says Reich. “But with Idris, I could barely keep up with the stuff he was coming up with. He’s this powerhouse of energy, bouncing around the room, acting everything out.”
Once they’d fleshed out the series, the pair came stateside and pitched Turn Up Charlie to Netflix. Elba already had a comfort level at the streamer, having starred in Beasts of No Nation the previous year. “Ted [Sarandos] knew him from that and I’d seen him on The Office [where Elba did an arc in the fifth season] and thought he had great comic timing,” says Netflix exec Jane Wiseman, “so we said right there, ‘Let’s do it.’ “
They shot most of the series in London, save the portion they filmed on location at a music festival in Ibiza. It was there that co-star Piper Perabo says she realized just what scale of stardom Elba had achieved. “When they’d yell cut, he’d have to sit on the ground, pull down his baseball cap and wait till the next take,” she says. “Otherwise people would just come running at him, screaming.” Not long after, Elba was formally named the “Sexiest Man Alive” by People, an honor previously bestowed on Hollywood heartthrobs from George Clooney to Brad Pitt. “It’s a little awkward,” he says now with the kind of sheepish grin that confirms he’s loved every minute of it.
We linger a little longer on the subject of sex appeal, now a bit more complicated in the #MeToo era. Unlike many of his peers, who’ve seen their careers dinged, if not outright destroyed, by indefensible statements or actions, Elba earned favor with his pithy response to a journalist’s question about “the challenges” of being a man in the current climate: “It’s only difficult,” he said, “if you’re a man with something to hide.”
But influential figures like Elba are now often asked to account for more than just their own actions. When I try to ask about an early February report of him being in talks to star in Deeper, a sci-fi thriller written by Max Landis, who’s been accused of sexual misconduct, Elba stops me before I can articulate the full question. “I wasn’t signed on,” he says. “It was a rumor.” Still, my question holds: How does he draw the line between who to work with and who not to?
It is the first and only time since Elba sat down that he isn’t entirely at ease. “If any individual that’s involved in a [story] that you want to tell is [also] involved in something that personally dismantles the value of the project, that’s just common sense, you do what’s right,” he says, without explicitly stating what that entails. “But I don’t approach a story thinking about whether someone has been this or that. If it arises in the scenario, then that’s something you deal with.”
And with that, he breathes a heavy sigh, and we move on.
The remainder of our time is spent with Elba in freewheeling mode. He shares a story about the “surreal” experience of DJing the royal wedding, though he stops short of revealing pal Harry’s song requests; and another about the mix of pride and nerves he felt this year when his daughter was the Golden Globe ambassador. Once my tape recorder is off, he wants to know what I really thought of his new show (unforgiving reviews will unspool the next week) and how I think he’ll do on SNL. “I’m definitely nervous,” he says of his March 9 debut.
By now, his hovering assistant can’t be held off any longer. Before dashing off to his next event, Elba tells me how much he’s enjoyed our conversation — “I found myself really wanting to impress you,” he says, sounding surprised — and I tell him I’ve enjoyed it, too. As for what I’ll turn it into, he has no way of knowing, but he flashes his movie star smile: “The likelihood is that I’ll read this one,” he says, and then he’s off.
This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.