Idris Elba (Sunday Times Magazine, Aug. 13, 2017)
What is it about Idris Elba? Everyone seems to be in love with him. Certainly I was hooked on his TV series Luther where he played good copy/bad cop all in one. Luther was tough and smart but also haunted. You see this haunted quality in his work and in the man himself quite a lot. You also see that he likes to deliver dichotomy to his roles. In The Wire he was a vile Baltimore drug kingpin but utterly beguiling. His Mandela was as ruthless as it was heartfelt (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2014).
His latest role as the gunslinger in The Dark Tower also shows him as haunted but extremely violent – a hero with brutality. He enjoys al this multi-dimensional stuff. He enjoys not being pinned down. It’s his art form. The Gunslinger is based on the Stephen Kings books and King himself talks about the Gunslinger as being a concentrated force, a reticent hero and that Elba was perfect for the part.
When you meet him you see that force.
He’s a thinker, onscreen and off. He’s always weighing things up, eyes rolling. I met him several years ago socially. He was a friend of a friend, we were in the Soho House Los Angeles. It was post Luther, pre Mandela, TV star, pre film star but he carried himself with a shuddering presence. We talked about being only children – probably my attempt to bond or flirt. All the obvious things like if you’re on your own it’s good for developing imaginary characters, a sense of self, a sense of independence but it also makes you selfish and not good at sharing. He remembers the next part of the story slightly differently. There was a plate of cookies which we both pounced on and both announced that we never share dessert. He says he let me have them.
Today I’m waiting for him in a chic London hotel in Soho, the waiting room has a cookie plate but only the chocolate macaroons are good so I order a plate of just the chocolate macaroons. Then I’m summoned to Elba’s suite. Guess what? He has a plate of only the chocolate macaroons. Nobody has to share. Good.
He doesn’t look like he’s been indulging in too much chocolate recently. He lost a lot of weight when he was on an extreme diet for a year of kick boxing – proper matches, the lot. He looks svelte in his stone coloured ribbed sweater and navy slacks. He’s narrow hipped. I tell him he’s much thinner than I expected and he complained that I was inferring he used to be fat in that typical I’m not going to take a compliment from you kind of way.
He’s chatty and distant all at once. Extremely tired because two days after we meet he is to start shooting on his first film in a directorial role, Yardie, based on the book by Victoria Headley set in London in the late 80s, charting the life of a boy who comes from Jamaica. Maybe he’s a little daunted.
“No not really” he shakes his head. And there’s the thing. He is available then unavailable, all in a moment. It’s completely tantalising because when he’s there he’s 100% there, present, fills the room, fills every pore of himself and he fully connects with you. His presence is so strong and so sexy you could bottle it, call it Idris and it would sell out, but the unavailable thing – he courts it, treasures it. He has over one million followers on Instagram yet follows no one. Connected and disconnected, see what I mean. Elba grew up in London, Hackney on an infamous estate called Holly Street – later on the family moved further east to Newham. His father, originally from Sierra Leone worked a variety of poorly paid jobs. His mother from Ghana also worked hard at many unrewarding jobs. They were strict and aspirational as parents. They liked rules and had hard work ethic instilled into Elba, who’s always throwing himself into something. No switch off button. Life was hard and rough. The kind of place where, “I got run over once and they just drove off. But I stayed out of trouble on the straight and narrow and my parents were very protective.”
His father wanted him to be a footballer. “Even though he didn’t think English kids were as good as African footballers.” Was he any good? “Yeah but if I hadn’t been into acting it would have been music. Although I was in all the sports teams, drama was more cool. He passed the audition to get into the National Youth Theatre but his mother said he couldn’t go because he didn’t have the money. His drama school teacher advised to him to apply for a grant from The Princes Trust. “Without that £1500 I don’t know what I would have become. It got me into drama school.”
When he prepped to become Mandela he ended up recording an album with some South African musicians which inspired the documentary Mandela, My Dad and Me. His father died just before the movie was released and he linked Mandela, international freedom fighter and his dad, the union guy, to be the inspiration for it. Mandela’s family invited Elba to the private funeral. There he was with every world leader and when it was announced that here was the man who recently portrayed Nelson Mandela, people clapped. “All I heard was Elba, my old man’s name…”
As an only child he was close to both of his parents. I don’t detect anything but love and respect when he talks about them, although he is happy on his own. “You make up your own language. You make up your own friends.”
He tells me softly, “I’ve become less selfish now. I like sharing. I like the feeling of sharing more.” Why is that because it’s a new feeling? “Yeeeah,” he laughs, a big old laugh. “It’s different!”
How different? We have our own separate plates of chocolate macaroons. “Well it would be rude of me to offer you any of those they’re just a bunch of crumbs now. You’d be ‘no thanks mate!’” On the contrary. I’d take his crumbs.
He looked in splendid form as the gunslinger Roland Deschain in the Dark Tower. In the movie he says things like “I shoot with my mind and I don’t kill with a gun. I kill with my heart.” He is a gunslinger with depth and troubles. A similar kind of vibe to his character in Luther which he’s about to start making another four part series. Even though we all thought Luther had ended, The BBC tagline to the new series is “The face at the window. The hand under the bed. The shadow at the end of the street. Who’s going to stop them, if not John Luther?”
“Interesting you saw them both that way and you’re right. Luther is a haunted man, character and Roland Deschain is a haunted man. It’s true. He’s also a loner and he’s a very good gunslinger. He’s haunted because he’s the last of his kind which makes him responsible for the salvation of Dark Tower. “Everything has been taken away from him and he is on a quest for vengeance – it’s become part of him and his consciousness. I do like the action and I really get into that. I’m really into the fight sequences. I love the choreography of it. Being able to work out these really complicated moves and then learning it and doing it again and again. I really love that! It was a tough film to make but after all is said and done, I’m very glad that I made it.”
Do you know the Stephen King books at all? Not that the movie’s anything like the books. The books are very cerebral, very descriptive, very deep. You can really get into the wormholes. It’s based on eight books, each one of them 700 pages.”
Elba is undaunted by this. He’s very much a reader. Our conversation wanders to discussing Netflix. We think we’ve seen everything on Netflix as well. Elba is a man with an appetite. At one stage of his life he read the book The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo twice a year because he found it transformative. Every time? He nods.
“It’s a story that reminds me to pay attention to being present. There are things to remember in your own life, sort of counting your blessings. Seeing something that you might deem as a bad thing at the time actually propels you forward. It’s clever and I think it can touch people. I first read it when I was 22/23.”
Was that the living in a van period? He spent a while homeless in New York looking for acting work. He did this because he thought the Big Apple had more diversity, more parts.
Back then in the early nineties, British black actors seemed to struggle to land leading roles. They were always the drug dealer or the gigolo.
He recollects. “My van period in New York was later.” Early in my acting career was when the book was really good to read.” Was that because it was hard starting out and he had to see disappointments as opportunity to survive? “That’s right.” He pulls at his beard. It’s an unconscious twiddle. And then he suddenly looks nostalgic, sad even and I wonder the haunted gunslinger, the haunted Luther – how much of this is haunted Idris?. Is it just because he loves identifying with other people’s hauntedness? Or perhaps because he seems not to prefer not to answer questions in full sentences
“I’m not sure. If I think honestly about my characters…” his voice trails. He’s thinking. “Luther is haunted and now this character, but I don’t think I am haunted so it’s not a trait, but I like to think that characters who have something of a past they suppress are interesting to play because there are a lot of different dynamics.”
He even made the sea lion in Finding Dory seem like an angry outsider. He laughs and does his cockney sea lion performance where he played up against his Wire co-star Dominic West. “No I’m not haunted. I feel I’m an open spirit. I’m not really afraid of anything.”
He certainly likes to test his fear muscles. In 2015 he not only entered the arena of kickboxing, he learnt how to drag race and broke a land speed driving record. As well as this he writes, he directs, he DJ’s, he raps, he sings, he lives dangerously.
“I feel like fear is a really boring waste of time.” Logically of course it is but fear is illogical. How does he rationalise, diminish it? “It’s a muscle. It’s an exercise. It’s pushing the uncomfortable zone, going past the comfort zone. I think being an actor you get asked to do lots of things that are outside your comfort zone. Trepidation happens when you’re in your trailer and you go onset and do it. That’s the process and I’ve gone through it a few times.” And you’re saying it served you well? “Yes, I suppose so.” But isn’t the risk too much? Kickboxing is very dangerous. I read that his mother could scarcely watch the hits and he could have been a gunslinger with broken legs.
“And I could have got run over on my way here today. You can’t live a life thinking it could go bad. You go into things thinking what’s going to be great about this?
I’m directing a film at the moment. That’s what I’m really doing so I’m sort of low energy today. My brain is a little fried.” You can expect first time directors to be a little haunted but Elba doesn’t come over as quite that, just simply tired from learning how to work the new demands of the film director.
But there again Elba has a kind of super brain. He once read that we only use about 12% of our brains so he began working on how to access the rest of his brain and become superhuman in the process.
“Well yes. I’m not sure whether doctors think it’s possible to expand your brain capacity, but there are certain exercises – rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time that extends capacity.”
I had a friend recently who did brain training. It’s all the rage in LA. My friend showed me some exercises that were crossing one arm and using the other to tap his ear. Elba nods enthusiastically. “If you push that even further and do more, do everything that you can, all the different things that you can do, I feel you can push capacity. So putting the same amount of detail into DJ’ing as you do acting means that you can push the capacity of the brain a little bit more. I’ve got a theory that the answer is yes. People think I’m good at this and that’s all I can do and I’m saying if you did something else you’d be good at that as well. Listen I’m going to be 45 this year. Life expectancy is about 80. I’m over half way there so I just wanna live – live more. I just wanna do everything.”
So that’s one reason he’s directing. “Yeah… It’s a human story about a kid from Jamaica who comes here. I play a small part in it as well. It’s being shot here and in Jamaica. I’ve written parts of it. Well I’m not really a writer. I’ve rewritten parts of it. The writers have written it but there are things that I’ve jigged about. I’ve also got The Mountain Between us (with Kate Winslet) and Molly’s Game (with Jessica Chastain) and Thor (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett) coming out this year. It sounds a lot but they were shot over the last 2 years and with the exception of Thor they’re all leading roles.”
So how was being stuck on a mountain with Kate Winslet? He laughs very naughtily. I’m not sure why. “You’ll have to wait and see,” he says.
The kickboxing overlapped the movies. They weren’t all planned to come out at the same time. It just happened that this is the summer of Elba.
“The end of my fighting was the end of last year but I’ve been doing a lot of DJ’ing. It’s a reset button. I love it. I’m falling in love with it more and more and I’ve been making music as well.” Yes, there’s one track called Sex in your Dreams where the lyric talks about ‘a dick thick like homemade butter’. I ask him to explain.
“Homemade butter,” he says deadpan, very serious. “You won’t get me going on that one. “Homemade butter is what is says it is on the can.” But butter is soft. He says, “Homemade butter?” I’m slightly confused. I tell him I don’t’ get it. I don’t get it at all. If he made it would it be runny or thick? “Thick because that’s the way you like your butter.” He pauses then laughs. I’ve really no idea what we’ve been talking about but it feels like it was very filthy. He tell me that when he went on James Corden’s show Corden asked him about his homemade butter lyrics so when I met Corden I asked if he could shed any light. He didn’t know either. Maybe that’s an only child thing. The need to have thick butter? “That’s right that’s right. You need that butter.”
I wonder if being an only child influenced him as a father. He has two children – a daughter Isan now 14 (born 2002) and a son Winston aged 3 with different mothers. “I don’t want to talk about my kids today. I can’t talk about being a father without talking about my kids. I love being a father. It’s my favourite thing.” But then we would talk about how busy he is and how he’s away a lot of the time and how he probably doesn’t see much of them and he wouldn’t want to talk about that that. “But I DO see my children. I see a lot of them. I live a busy life. But I love being a dad. It’s very fulfilling.”
There’s a pause of non-flowing conversation and to make it even more awkward I ask him to clarify details of his wives and girlfriends. He was married to make-up artist Hanne Norgaar in 1999 and they split up shortly after she gave birth to Isan after 3 years. He was going through a very transitional phase and then he had a very brief marriage of only 6 weeks to real estate attorney Sonya Nicole Hamlin and his current girlfriend Naiyana Garth is described as being on/off. Is that correct?
“On an off with who? I’ve been married yes, married again, yes and I’ve had a girlfriend for a long time. That’s right.” Long pause. “But I’m also human. That’s normal I think.”
I’m not sure exactly what’s normal, all the details about his being human but one certainly sees or hears of him linked to various beauties like Jourdan Dunn (actress and model) and he’s also got about 35 years left and lots of women want him. He said recently that suddenly his demographic of women who fancied him had increased. That it used to be one demographic, now it’s older women, younger women. Basically all women.
He laughs, not bashfully though. “A lot of people find actors attractive. They find a certain man attractive and he’s an actor. He’s very attractive. It’s amplified because of what we do for a living. The point I was making is it’s not just the girls in my neighbourhood but everyone. Well not everyone but a lot of women.”
We’re staring at each other. It’s one of those very connected and not connected at all moments and the PR pops her head round the door. “Last couple of minutes.” OK, the moment, if there was one, was gone, so I change the subject completely. Apparently President Obama is a fan. “Oh yes Mr Obama. What a lovely man. What a kind human being. What a good leader and he was a fan of The Wire, or he liked the character called Omar, not my character. But he had the grace to tell me I like you too and I’m just getting into Luther. His wife Michelle was well into Luther.”
I can imagine. Why do you think Michelle liked Luther? Because he’s complicated. Because she likes complicated?
“OK, yes, yes, you’re right.” So where did you hang out with the Obamas? “We had dinner at an event he threw.” Did he share dessert with him?
“No I didn’t have dessert. I was on my regime where I had to lose a lot of weight. I had to cut out certain food groups like sugar and gluten, very low carb and I had to eat fish and chicken.”
Was he forced to have it steamed? “No, baked and every now and again I had it…” long pause, eyes roll, “I had fried chicken.” I’m not sure why but the way he says fried chicken is as if he’s saying fried sex, he makes it sound really, really naughty. “I’ve lost a few pounds. Are you saying that you remember me really chubby?”
No, I’m saying. that he is now looking very fit. “I’m only teasing you. I do remember the whole plate of cookies that we demolished. I think if you remember, it was you who ate the cookies. And I was like I don’t share desserts, you have all of them……. I like your bag,” he says. My Bag has a cat on it and says Meow. He sits on his couch, still looking a little tired, purses his lips and says “Meow”.
The Dark Tower is out Aug 18