Idris Elba Discusses His Return to "Visceral" 'Luther': "Being a Murder Detective Is a Deep, Dark Place to Go To"

DCI John Luther -IDRIS ELBA-Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of BBC

The 43-year-old BBC star describes the show, now entering its fourth season, as "the little train that was" and says of his murder detective character, "He has a lot of demons. You do end up taking some of that home with you."

Never mind James Bond. Idris Elba, long rumored as a contender to slip on the iconic 007 agent's tuxedo, already has a sharp-dressed hero of his own: DCI (that's Detective Chief Inspector) John Luther, the tough-as-nails detective at the heart of the BBC's dark procedural Luther.

Elba, 43, views the London-based character as a superhero of sorts (especially when donning his trademark trench coat), matching wits with a vile array of serial killers and saving lives but sacrificing his own in the process. But whereas Luther rarely sees light at the end of the tunnel, Elba's ride with the role has earned him numerous accolades, including a Golden Globe in 2012, a SAG Award in 2016 (the same year he won for Netflix's Beasts of No Nation) and a slew of other nominations.

What happens next for the limited series, following the events of 2015's two-episode fourth season? Elba, tight-lipped as ever, spoke with THR from the South Africa set of The Dark Tower, the Stephen King feature adaptation he's filming.

About two years passed between filming the third and fourth seasons of Luther. Was it difficult to slip back into the character's skin?

There's always a little wiggle room when you come back to a character. You have to remember where he's coming from and try to bring it all alive again. It's never difficult, because all I have to do is put on the coat, and I'm him.

Is it intense to live with this character?

Definitely, yeah. Just the process of being a murder detective is a deep, dark place to go to. Luther is such a visceral show, and we really take the audience there. I end up living through some of this stuff that Luther ends up seeing, and that isn't necessarily fun. The character is dark. He has a lot of demons. You do end up taking some of that home with you.

Elba won two SAG awards this year for his roles in Luther and Beasts of No Nation. 

You've talked about Luther's coat as his superhero suit. How much does a character's aesthetic fuel your performance?

Some actors come from within. Others are exterior. I work in both. I do a lot of work on movement, personality and the inner workings of the character. Once you put the costume on, it starts to come together. For me, it's a massive component.

Luther's exterior undergoes a shift in season four; he begins in civilian garb before eventually reverting to his detective uniform.

It was a bit weird. But given that he was on the edge of a cliff and living a secluded life, it felt pretty good and natural. It definitely felt good to put the coat back on. That's when you're reimprinting the DNA of the show.

You've earned three Emmy nominations, you won a Golden Globe and you won at the SAG Awards this year — for two roles. What does it mean to have your work on Luther recognized in this way?

I always describe Luther as "the little train that was" because it was a step into familiar territory for me, in terms of going back to television [after The Wire], but this time as a leading character. I didn't know what the outcome was going to be. It was good writing, but I wasn't sure whether the audience would go with it. To see it still going four seasons on, and with such a worldwide audience, it makes me so proud. It reminds me that sometimes, when you find the little gems, and you put work into them, they become beautiful diamonds. Take patience and have the balls to step back and say, "I'm going to work on something smaller."

The future is unknown for Luther, both as a character and a franchise. Now that some time has passed since the last season wrapped, have you thought about the next step?

All I can tell you is that there has been some thought. (Laughs.) The great thing about Luther is that you never know what may or may not happen next. I think that's part of its appeal. Each season feels like a capsule, but then you feel like, "Oh, it's got to come back." I will say that there has certainly been some thought about what to do next … if anything. 

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.