“Playing Mandela was without a doubt the hardest work I’ve ever done": FHM speaks to Idris Elba
In the early ’90s,a 20-something struggling actor from a council estate in Tottenham named Idris Akuna Elba was paid to chop a woman into pieces and store her parts in a freezer.
The event was televised to an audience of millions. But there was no trial, no tabloid headlines, no repercussions. “I used to do reconstructions for Crimewatch at the beginning of my career,” recalls the now-40-year-old from a sun-dappled five-star hotel suite in the epicentre of Hollywood. “It was nice to get a fucking job, you know what I mean? But it was grim. I played the geezer who committed the murder, and we shot it in the flat it happened in. It was a bit harrowing.”
Playing killers in crime reconstruction scenes should be, in acting terms, a life sentence. The role of “freezer murderer #1” isn’t exactly top of anyone’s CV. But two decades on from his slash-and-stash cameo, Idris Elba is arguably the most in-demand British actor on the planet. When A-list directors like Guillermo del Toro need a huge name for a huge movie, they put in a call to the man who goes by the nickname Big Driis.
COMING TO AMERICA
Today, Idris is at peace, in his new-found part-time home town of Los Angeles. “I used to love my council flat in Hackney,” he says through a north London accent that has yet to be even remotely Americanised, “but I couldn’t live there now, it would be too congested. I’m in the States at the minute with work and I love that, and I’m in London quite a bit as well. I love it here in LA though, it’s a really great city.”
With giant acting projects taking place in three different continents, and the public recognition to match (he can no longer go out without being spotted), there’s no doubt now that Idris Elba is officially a global superstar. But had it not been for one show, life could have been very different. After the Crimewatch reconstruction stint, Idris spent the best part of a decade taking on small-to-middling roles in mediocre British ’90s TV staples (The Bill, London’s Burning, 2point 4Children) before he finally got the break that would transform him from bit-part UK telly actor to Hollywood big cheese.
That break was, of course, landing the part of Stringer Bell in The Wire, a show which – in the eyes of most sane people – competes only with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad for the title of Greatest TV Drama Of All Time. “When I got the job as Stringer back in 2002, it was the one moment in my life when I felt like I had arrived,” says Elba. “Four or five years prior to that, I had just moved to America, thinking, ‘I’ll just get straight on screen.’ But of course that didn’t happen.”
Part of the reason it didn’t happen was down to Idris’s American accent, which was, in his own words, “a bit shit. It took years to perfect, man. Years”. But by the time he auditioned for The Wire, it was so flawless that he didn’t even tell the producers he was British until he’d been given the nod. “My casting agent and I decided not to tell them at all. Because The Wire is so authentic, they don’t want some Brit coming in. So I just said nothing about not being American. They were pretty surprised when I told them I was from London!”
THE GAME CHANGER
At that point, Idris’s life changed forever. Season after season, The Wire notched up more fans and more awards, and people finally started to take notice of an actor who, only months before, was toiling away as a minor character in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. “The Wire changed everything, man. It’s an association I can never walk away from because it’s a landmark piece of TV.” Even though the show finished five years ago, it remains a central part of his DNA. “It stays with you. It sticks to your ribs. But I’m so proud of it. I mean I’m proud of Luther too, but The Wire, that changed everything. I still get jobs from it.”
Those jobs include Pacific Rim, Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, the biopic of the former South African leader, out in January. For the first time, Idris isn't just part of a big ensemble cast – he’s the sole lead, taking on the role of Mandela himself. “Playing someone like him was without a doubt the hardest work I’ve ever done. I mean, look at him. Look at me. How are we going to pull that off? And I don’t know if I did. But we didn’t go for the whole lookalikey thing. I mean, the man’s story is big enough.” So high is Idris’s stock that he was given the part after the Nelson Mandela Foundation explicitly asked for him. Not Denzel Washington or Will Smith or Morgan Freeman or any of the other usual US A-list suspects, but Idris Elba, a boy-done-good from Hackney.
The Foundation aren’t his only fans, either. Among his admirers and mates, he can now count Jay Z, with who he recorded a track for his latest album, and P Diddy. “Yeah, I’m friends with Puffy now,” he says, as if “Puffy” is a builder from down the road, not one of the most famous rappers on the planet. “But when I first met him, I was a big Puff fan and he was an idol for me. It’s a bit of a mind-fuck becoming friends with guys you’ve been fans of, because you’re not entirely sure what to say half the time. Or what to call them. But I tend to keep the distance and stay cool, because I don’t want to fan-geek out.”
Also available from FHM
We have teamed up with 888games to offer you FHM Casino. New members will receive £12 totally free (no deposit needed) to try the site. There really is nothing to lose…join here
Girlfriends! Flirting! Sex!
If what you want is to meet your next girlfriend - or just a nice-looking lady to have some undercovers fun with - then look no further than FHM Single Girls.
More collections in Entertainment
The five biggest console releases of 2009
Brace your thumbs. It’s another killer year for gaming
Ten gadgets we (and the world) forgot
A goodbye was what these gadgets deserved long ago
Ten remakes that beat the originals
Not just better – much better
Ten movies not to be missed in 2009
Reschedule weddings. Cancel bar mitzvahs. Fuck funerals
The Specials! Franz! Dre! Your soundtrack to ‘09
We’ve weeded out the tripe so you don’t have to
The 20 best adverts of 2008
Every genuinely funny ad from the past 12 months
The London Astoria’s ten best gigs
They’ve shut it down, but they can’t destroy the good times
Ten cinematic Nazis who brim with pure evil
Tom Cruise not included. Because he's rubbish
The FHM Top 10 celebrity meltdowns
Those high-fliers have so far to fall
Remember these? The 25 ad jingles you NEVER forgot
See the ad, buy the product and sing the jingle forever...
The 10 scariest games of all time
Be afraid. Be very afraid
The 10 coolest movie speeches ever uttered
If only all these actors were in one mega-movie...
FHM’s festival preview: better than all the others
There are fields everywhere to get bollocksed in
Ten films that only make real sense after the pub
When you’ve had a skinful, only certain films will do
FHM’s 100 Greatest Games of All Time
We salute the best games ever made...
10 films that should've been good. But weren't
The ones which let us down in a big way
The 10 best movie heists of all time
Stealing: officially big and clever
Twelve golden TV sex moments
They shaped our young lives. And the contours of our pants
Double acts: FHM's top 10 famous duos
Double acts: we take a look back at the 10 best famous duos in film, television, and pretty much everything in pop...
The 10 best British TV shows of 2009
Sod The Wire, British TV is the real deal
FHM’s guide to your soundtrack of 2010
One year, 12 artists, an infinite number of good times
Ten of the best… comedians
Spurious claim alert: comedians are the new rock stars. Justification of spurious claim: in the absence of anyone in...
FHM checks out Wall Street
When most people notice a film is coming out their reaction is something like “That looks good, I definitely want to...
Classic lip smackers
There’s great food and then there’s the kind of food that makes you sad inside. When you are full, but your...
FHM (and Ian Woosnam) take on America at golf
At 3.23pm on Monday the 4th of October 2010, FHM was sitting in this very office, nervously watching the small flat...
FHM’s Top Ten iTunes Festival gigs
Even if you’re not lucky enough to bag tickets, you can stream most of the gigs live on iTunes. Or just read our irreverent...
How FHM became a Hollywood star (kind of)
It’s 4am, it’s pitch black, and a half-asleep FHM is squeezing his car between a Sherman tank and a palm tree. This...
See behind the scenes at FHM in ITV2 show The Exclusives
We're appearing on ace new ITV2 show, The Exclusives, where you can have a gander at what goes on in FHM towers...
FHM and Jägermeister hit the road
FHM are teaming up with legendary drinks people Jägermeister for the road trip of a lifetime and we need your...
How to win at life with the best of FHMManFood
Our American steak-searing, bacon-loving, chicken-stuffing food pro DJ BBQ gives you the meaty intel that will take...
22 comics that should be given the Sin City movie treatment
As exclusive character pictures of the next Sin City instalment are released, FHM looks at 22 other mindblowing comics...
What happened when FHM spent 48 hours with former EDL Leader Tommy Robinson
Controversial EDL Leader Tommy Robinson has today announced he's leaving the political group. Here's what happened...
Guns, brothels and football: If Snoop Dogg was president...
Snoop Dogg/Lion has changed his name again, to Snoopzilla. Here's what happened when we met the man to talk "painting...
The 10 scariest movies of all time as voted by an audience hooked up to heart monitors
The top 10 scariest movies of all time, as voted by the users of Play.com....
Jay Z's Run This Town and 10 other songs that aren't quite as original as they sound
Everyone's favourite Beyonce lovin' rap star, Jay Z, has sparked the wrath of a record label who reckon he's sampled...
“Playing Mandela was without a doubt the hardest work I’ve ever done": FHM speaks to Idris Elba
FHM met Mandela star and Britain's most important actor, Idris Elba...
The sexiest pop starlets to be nominated at this year's Brits
The Brits are nearly here again, meaning a solid round-up of homegrown talent getting drunk and showing why we're awesome...
10 actors who would be amazing in the next series of True Detective
As HBO's True Detective comes to an end stateside (and for the legions of people watching it on the internet) we look...
Relive the FA Cup Final with the top five greatest ever cup-winning goals
Five FA Cup goals that were better than Aaron Ramsey's screamer for Arsenal on Saturday...
OK Go’s new video will make your eyes feel drunk on awesome juice
OK Go have gone done another music video and, as expected, it’s smashed the internet to pieces like a (non-Miley-ridden)...