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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the fourth series of Luther.]
DCI John Luther has not had it easy. In the first series of the Neil Cross crime thriller, the towering detective lost his wife in a brutal blink of an eye. In the third series, he lost his partner, Justin Ripley, in an equally horrific burst of gunfire. And now he’s lost someone again — or has he?
The thrust of Luther series four, which played as a compact televised movie, stems from the death of Alice Morgan, the sociopathic killer played throughout the show by Ruth Wilson (The Affair). At the end of series three, John and Alice were about to leave London behind to start a new life together. Those plans were firmly in place even at the beginning of series four, with John living in the countryside, far away from the dark life he once knew.
But the darkness comes roaring back into his life when DCI Theo Bloom and DS Emma Lane come knocking on Luther’s door with the news that Alice has died under mysterious circumstances. The viewer never sees Alice’s death, and even Luther laughs at the notion that someone as forceful and elemental as Alice could die — and yet, Alice’s death is played straight on the show, propelling Luther toward solving her murder, while simultaneously returning to the Bullpen to hunt down a new killer with cannibalistic tendencies.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Idris Elba about the action-packed return of Luther, the death and potential rebirth of Alice Morgan, his thoughts on how Luther played in the tighter two-hour format, and why that only bolsters his desire to turn the franchise into a big-screen movie.
John is up against so much in the return of Luther. He’s looking into Alice’s death, investigating the cannibal killer, getting embroiled with a gangster, fighting off assassins with trash cans … is there such a thing as too much to throw at this character?
It’s a good point! And we really wanted to pay attention to that, because when you meet Luther in this season, he isn’t crime-busting at all. He’s living the life of a recluse. That was meant to represent that nobody’s superhuman. Even someone like John Luther has to sit down and sit back and say, “Hold on a minute.” But because by nature of what we wanted to do was make an impactful return, we tried to bring the [heightened] aspects right back to its original seed, but start Luther off in a very different place — a more reflective place. I don’t think it’s too much, in a world like Luther‘s. When you have a superhero character in a sort of Gotham-esque city, bad shit is going to happen.
The Luther special centers on loss for so many characters, especially John. He’s already lost a lot throughout the series: Zoe, his wife; Justin, his partner; and now he’s lost Alice. How early on in the genesis of the special was it decided that you would explore Luther’s loss through the loss of Alice?
I think it was inevitable, you know? The deterioration of someone like John Luther is inevitably going to raise its head at some point. I think it was also Neil’s clever way of putting the Alice story to a close, some way, some how, and have Luther carry that burden.
Alice has been a wild card throughout the show. If John’s in a time of crisis, she might emerge and help see him through it. Now that she’s out of the picture, how do you think the loss of Alice changes the world of Luther, and the character of Luther specifically?
I think the world of the show exists and continues. Alice is certainly a component that will be missed. But that said … and I’m not being deceptive or anything, but the truth is, John Luther isn’t quite sure that she’s dead! (Laughs.) You know?
Well, when he’s approached with the news about Alice’s death, he’s immediately skeptical, and says something to the effect of, “No. Alice can’t be dead.”
Yeah! Yeah. And I don’t think viewers are going to be satisfied that she is dead, or that Luther thinks she’s dead, either. So that’s something to play upon, perhaps. But the truth is, the show is called Luther. It’s not called Alice, or The Bad Guys. It’s about Luther and the people he comes across and the people he tries to bring down. I think that world still remains intact, but it takes on a slightly different spin.
It’s an interesting point, the uncertainty about Alice’s fate. It strikes me that since she’s such an iconic character in this story, an onscreen death might not have been as satisfying as allowing some mystery to still surround her.
She’s a myth, you know? She’s always been a myth. And who knows what happens, man. There are hopes to make a Luther movie, and it would depend on where we need to drop in Luther’s story to make a movie. In a world like that, you could definitely bring Alice back somehow.
You have long championed the Luther movie, and this special is a version of that — the two-hour, done-in-one story. What are your takeaways from telling a Luther story in such a tight format?
It works. It has all the trimmings and fat of the old-school thrillers that we love — Se7en and that type of thing. Films with really epic moments, with storylines that are layered, and so on and so forth. The only difference is that this was on the small screen. But we proved to ourselves that we can certainly digest a Luther that is smaller and doesn’t have a serial element. Now it’s just a matter of going for it and trying to bring this to the big screen.
When series four begins, Luther is away from the Bullpen, and gets sucked back into that world by the end of it. Do you feel the movie needs to exist in that universe — or do you think that with Alice gone, Ripley gone, the story is a bit freer for Luther to step outside of London?
I think anywhere we set it, and at what point … it could be an origin story, or it could be after everything that’s happened yet. I think we have the artistic license to do both. And also, now we have a really educated audience which is like, “We know what’s going to happen next!” In my head, the big version of this film is that Luther goes wherever Luther goes, and so does the story. I can imagine some very wonderful versions of Luther in New York, or Luther in Japan — the cityscape being what it is, and utilizing it in the same way as the show, but taking it into another culture and depth of imagination.
I’m going to Japan in two days, and now all I will be thinking about is Luther Goes to Japan.
Yeah, man! (Laughs.) Lots of rain.
Outside of Alice, one of the biggest stories in the new Luther involves John tracking down Steven Rose, a cannibal killer dealing with his own sense of loss, if not in the healthiest way. How do you feel the Rose story connected with Luther’s own struggle?
John inherited that story and that fight. I think John, again, after taking a little break and having to go into something like that, it sort of strengthens his belief in that he needs to come to work. He needs to stay awake while everyone sleeps. That’s very important for him. He realizes that as soon as he comes back into work.
Rose Leslie plays Emma, John’s new partner. She presents a different dynamic than what existed between John and Justin, obviously …
First of all, Rose is amazing. She was amazing to work with. I was a fan of hers, and she was a fan of the show, so it was just really, really beautiful to have her come in and work with us. The dynamic is definitely very interesting, and very different from Ripley. I think Luther feels a certain amount of protection for her. Not that he didn’t with Ripley, but she’s gung-ho and excited and emotionally damaged, and he doesn’t want to see her fall in the way his last soldier did. I think there’s a sense of responsibility there, and also, you can tell that Luther wants to tell her, “Don’t follow my path. Do your own thing.”
There’s a great scene where Luther tells Emma that they need to walk this case down the light, on the straight and narrow. We’ve known Luther for years now, and he does not always walk the line perfectly. It felt a bit like, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Yeah, absolutely. He definitely has that slightly older cop thing going: “Right, listen to me. Be guided by me — but do not be me.”
There’s another great moment, about forty minutes into the episode, where John trades in his green coat and civilian garb for the iconic coat, suit and tie we associate with DCI Luther. How much do the clothes make the man with Luther as a character, and you when you’re embodying the character?
I think both we and the audience have embraced that as Luther’s superhero coat, his superhero look, even though we know he’s a detective and he’s very much grounded in the police force. When he puts that on … even the sequence, by design, directed by Sam Miller, it’s definitely superhero-esque. It’s Batman going into the cave and pulling out his tricks. It’s designed that way. Someone told me earlier today, that Luther is almost like a graphic novel. We encourage that tone. We encourage the idea of the graphic novel, because it allows us to be slightly bigger-than-life, to celebrate those moments we love in the hero, or even the anti-hero.
No matter how it takes shape, be it as a movie or another series, it sounds like you’re far from finished telling stories about John Luther.
I’m far from done. He’s one of the characters that I love and have some say in where he goes. That’s enjoyable as a producer. I don’t see myself turning my back on it. I think there are various ways of dissecting Luther, from theater to film. I don’t see why not.
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