“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.”
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