September 16-22nd 2008
ON A ROLL
Fleeing England to make his name Stateside, London-born actor Idris Elba made his name in hit TV show The Wire. Now he’s back home for Guy Ritchie’s gangster caper RockNRolla and tells Leigh Singer how he balances fame and fortune on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s a little disconcerting meeting Idris Elba in the flesh. Not because the 35-year old actor is a physically dominant 6’5” with forearms like ham hocks. Or even because he’s opted to position himself in the narrow window alcove of the rundown warehouse where he’s promoting Guy Ritchie’s new film RockNRolla, his looming silhouetted frame even more imposing.
It’s more because anyone who’s admired his recent work, particularly gang lieutenant Stringer Bell on one of the all-time great TV shows, The Wire, or supporting roles in hit movies like American Gangster or 28 Weeks Later and the flawless American accents he’s deployed, isn’t used to hearing pure Cockney coming out the Hackney-born native’s mouth.
“Thank you very much,” he shrugs modestly, cradling a nice cuppa, “but I had three years to practice so it’s really not that fantastic.”
Elba, raised in the East End by parents from Sierra Leone and Ghana respectively, consciously left Britain over a decade ago to try his hand in the US. It was a big gamble but it paid off; so much so, that, far few people in his homeland will have heard of him.
“I’m an artist,” he explains in his sonorous rumble. “Most artists thrive in their most comfortable environment. The US is a comfortable environment for me but I’m a guest. At the end of the day, this is where I started and I can’t wait to get out here and do my thing.”
So here he is back on home turf in Guy Ritchie’s return to his geezers ‘n guns formula. Elba’s ‘Mumbles’, Gerard Butler’s ‘One-Two’ (yes, comedy nicknames are back too) and co try to double-cross old-school crime boss Lenny (Tom Wilkinson) as well as the capital’s new Russian contingent out of stolen swag and a £7 million painting.
Critics might suggest it’s Ritchie-by-numbers, a clone of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, but Elba is adamant there’s been progression. “Those movies were the best part of ten years [ago] weren’t they? Our generation’s seen a lot of changes, cultural, environmental, economical, and Guy’s style adapted to it. It wasn’t just fun and slapstick, there’s a point to the movie.”
Namely? “London’s chaaaanged,” Elba marvels. For someone who left over a decade ago, the contrasts are perhaps more apparent. “I was more surprised coming home than I was reading my first script of The Wire. I was thinking fuckin’ ‘ell, Guy, the Russians? You’re stretchin’ aren’t you?” He lets go a full-throated chuckle at Ritchie’s thinly veiled Roman Abramovich caricature.
If Elba may be generously stretching Ritchie’s achievements, his personal shift in current career options is marked. He headed for the US, frustrated at the limited acting roles on offer: a daytime soap here, a Crimewatch reconstruction there. “It was obvious,” he says of his exodus, “I saw it so early in my game. America, by way of its size, there’s more opportunity.”
Not that he walked into steady work off the plane. “I was unbelievable confident,” he laughs, “but it didn’t [happen] though. I did every fuckin’ thing, dude, outside the constraints of my visa, which were, be an actor or go home. I didn’t work for two years, I exhausted my savings… It was tough. But I’m a survivor.”
Elba stuck it out and eventually had the meeting with David Simon, creator of The Wire, which would change his career forever. “I was up for the main part, [gang boss] Avon Barksdale,” he recounts. “And David said, ‘You’re not quite right for Avon but his consigliere Stringer…’ I looked through the script - he had like, ten lines…” Elba chuckles. “I’m starving, eating crackers at home, so I said ‘I’ll take it.’”
The rest, as they say, is TV history, Stringer Bell, both ruthless thug and wannabe legitimate businessman, becoming one of the show’s iconic characters. “It’s the most significant role I’ve ever had in my life,” Elba admits. “It gave me such a platform to keep moving.” So what, in his view, was it that made Stringer ring so many fans’ bells?
He considers the question carefully. “It’s like, when you’re approaching a green light and it turns orange, there’s the temptation to put your foot down,” he explains, “see if you can get away with it. And if you do, it’s a sense of achievement. It’s something to do with that quality that everyone has: ‘How can I beat society a little bit?’ You see a character like Stringer and whatever your prejudices against him, there’s something about the idea that he’s beating society and getting away with it.”
He launches into an astute assessment of how hip-hop artists saw Stringer’s business aspirations echoing their efforts to control their own multi-billion dollar enterprises. It’s another world Elba has come to know intimately due to his own parallel DJ and music career that’s seen him befriend hip-hop’s elite from Diddy to Jay-Z (he performed the intro on his last album) and produce his own record.
“I hate to say it ‘cos it sounds so clichéd,” he says bashfully, “but I’ve been around music since I was four years old and I’m excited to put it out next year.” That’s not all Elba’s planning, with acting roles stacked up on his horizon (including Fatal Attraction-style thriller Obsessed opposite Beyoncé Knowles) and even plans to direct a Michael Jordan biopic.
It all sounds hugely ambitious but Elba himself refuses to believe his current hype. “I love doing what I’m doing but I’m very aware of my place in society,” he says earnestly. “I’m an entertainer. Look closely enough and you’ll see strings attached to my hands, I’m a puppet.”
“I don’t want to sound disgruntled but the film industry is a spoilt industry. You do well; you’re adored by millions. But at the end of the day we can teach each other a bit about humility.” Blimey. You leave Elba’s gentle giant company persuaded that, his performance as callous Stringer Bell is even better than you thought.
RockNRolla is out now.