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Idris Elba: ‘I used work to exorcise my demons’

·16 min read

“I appreciate my quiet time, I really do,” Idris Elba tells me, “but I didn’t choose a career in quiet time.” At 48, his life seems relentlessly full of activity, projects, causes, releases. He’s the star of an imminent summer blockbuster, The Suicide Squad. He’s a rapper who releases music online at a rate of about a track a month. He hosts a podcast. He’s just released a new line of T-shirts. Earlier in 2021, Elba signed a deal with HarperCollins to write children’s books. He and his wife, the Canadian model Sabrina Dhowre Elba, have recently been petitioning world leaders (France’s, Belgium’s) on behalf of rural farmers in Africa. The couple have also co- designed a Louboutin sandal. When Elba sits down to chat to me over Zoom, it’s during a break between night shoots on a new movie he’s making, and I’m tempted to tell him to forget about it; shut the laptop; sleep.

Is he someone who hates sitting still?

“I definitely enjoy fulfilling my creative ego,” Elba answers, after some thought. He’s roll-necked in beige today. He tilts or bows his head while listening to questions, answering in that low, controlled, famously splendid voice that has been well harvested, over time, for use in animated movies and advert voiceovers. “Wearing hats,” is how Elba describes his commitment to switching between creative lanes, from acting to music to campaigning to whatever else. “I like figuring out how to apply my personality best,” he says. “Dialling-up and dialling-in. That’s an absolute happy place for me. Turns out, it’s also quite labour-intensive, y’know? I can sit still. I can enjoy sitting still. I just have a drive that, though I can’t explain exactly where it comes from, is always there.”

Ever since he first broke through as one of the stars of HBO’s The Wire, back in the mid-00s, Elba has averaged about three movies a year. He got in profitably early on the superhero boom (Thor, 2011) and over time has secured footholds in a handful of other Hollywood franchises, contributing bit parts to an excellent Alien instalment, a so-so Star Trek, a real stinker of a Fast & Furious. Elba put in a decade as a police detective on the BBC (Luther, 2010-19), and more recently produced and starred in a pair of family-friendly TV shows, one for Sky (In The Long Run) and one for Netflix (Turn Up Charlie), that were, to different degrees, autobiographical, the former nodding to his youth in 80s London and the latter to a life spent moonlighting as a part-time DJ.

Throughout much of this he has drip-released music online, launched those various businesses and side projects, and sold us Sky boxes in charming TV ads. Is he at risk of spreading himself too thin?

“People have criticised me for doing a lot of things. For doing this, that and the other, for doing too much. But creativity’s a real balancer for me.” He calls working in the arts “the best suspension system I have for keeping me even”, and says he sees creativity as a form of therapy. I ask him which of his acting gigs have served as a de facto therapist’s couch.

“No doubt about it,” Elba says; the characters he likes best “tend to deal with emotional battles, a lot of suppression, a lot of dualities. The roles I take tend to have that complexity, and I enjoy diving into them, because, yeah, this is therapy time. A lot of times I read something in a script and I think, ‘I’m secretly dealing with that.’” Actually, Elba continues, he sometimes wonders if his approach amounts to a form of professional cheating. “If you’re only dealing with certain facets of your own personality, is that really acting? People sometimes tell me, ‘You were good in this or that role’, and I think, ‘You don’t realise. I was dealing with that shit for real’.”

In his name-making portrayal of The Wire’s Stringer Bell, for instance, he approached the character not only as a bright, ambitious drug dealer (the way the writers had conceived Bell on the page), but also as a young man who, like Elba himself, felt as though his back was constantly pressed against a wall. Some years later, he signed on to play John Luther during a period when he was feeling disillusioned as an actor, trusting it would be helpful to inhabit a character who was also entering a troubled midlife. “I definitely used work to exorcise demons, there’s no doubt about that,” Elba says.

Even the current job in a splashy, cartoony, very violent summer blockbuster has had elements of therapy to it, Elba insists. In The Suicide Squad he plays a greying and jaded convict called DuBois who is brought out of prison and blackmailed into leading a band of mercenaries on a government-sponsored mission. As the movie progresses, and as his new teammates begin to look to him for direction and example, DuBois squirms. He hadn’t sought to be a role model; he’s a loner at heart. For many years, Elba has squirmed in roughly the same ways, he suggests. “The higher you climb in the public eye, the more people see you, and the more, perceptually, you can fall. There’s a fear of exposure. Maybe fear’s the wrong word. But there’s a responsibility not to let people down. And the higher you climb, the more apparent that responsibility becomes.”

As a teenager I was popular with the ladies. Mum kept me grounded, she was like, ‘Na-na-na, sit your arse down’

His mother and father “came from west Africa to England”, Elba explains, “and wanted to make their mark in a new country”. They were strict with him growing up, challenging him to think through his actions. “They made me really examine everything. ‘What’re you saying? What’re you doing? How are you approaching this or that? Why?’” His mum, Eve, worked as a clerical assistant. His dad, Winston, had a job at the Ford car factory in Dagenham, east London. Elba was their only child. The family lived in Hackney and then in Canning Town. He sometimes went to pick up his own child-support money while his mum was busy at work, skimming off 50p for a packet of tutti frutti chewing gum on the way home.

In his early years, Elba has said in the past, he was squeamish about his full Sierra Leonean name, Idrissa. Secretly, he’d rather have been a Jason. Later, he came to embrace the differences that set him apart from his peers, including a burgeoning flair for acting at school. In drama classes, Elba was that confident boy who’d volunteer to do something the rest of his peers found shameful, like pretend to be a fried egg in an improv game. When he got top marks in a drama exam, his mum said: “I suppose you’re going to be an actor, then?” Her son said: “Yep.”

He remembers feeling mature at a young age, both in temperament (his parents worked long hours and he spent a lot of time looking after himself) and appearance. “I had a moustache at 14 years old,” he tells me. “One of those pencil-thin bad boys. No hair on my chin, at that age, but my testosterone kicked in real early. I felt ready to go. Mum kept me grounded. I was popular with the ladies and she was like, ‘Na-na-na, sit your arse down.’”

He describes the proud, private culture of his immigrant parents, something that remains a powerful influence now. “I remember my mum, she’d be at home, talking one way, and as soon as the phone rang she would change her accent to say, ‘Hello-o-o-o?’ in this whole other way. That was the mentality. You’ve got your home shoes, which you don’t wear anywhere but the house. And you’ve got these other shoes, your outdoor shoes.”

This image of the two types of shoes explains a lot about his present-day approach to publicity. In past interviews and on social media, Elba has often mentioned experiencing lows throughout his life. In the same breath, he’ll add that he’s quite a private guy; he doesn’t want to discuss specifics. He has his home shoes. He has his outdoor shoes.

After he left school, Elba went to work with his dad at the car factory. Though the job didn’t last long, he learned an important lesson on his first day when his manager asked him if he knew how to drive. Elba lied. Tossed a set of keys, he was told to move one of the cars. Unless he could figure out how to drive, on the fly, he would almost certainly have been fired. So he figured it out. The same approach got him through his early acting career. “One of my first gigs was in this kid’s show called The Boot Street Band on CBBC,” Elba recalls. “I was 19 playing 16. Everyone else was younger. Even though I was essentially the most experienced person on set, I was one of the least experienced as an actor. And, wow, I learned quickly.”

Stringer Bell came along at a junction in my life when I was, like, ‘This guy is trying to do better, too.’ I could relate

By now he was DJing around London, playing for moderate-sized crowds under his stage name, Big Driis. This was the job his friends assumed he’d pursue. In 1997, when he signed on to be in Family Affairs, a daily soap opera that broadcast on the newly launched Channel 5, his friends asked: “You really doing this, then?” Elba was a part of the soap for more than a year, playing a heart-throb called Tim. He loved it. “It was great. I had this ghetto celebrity status, doing my DJ thing at night, doing TV all day. My friends were loyal. Still are. At the time Channel 5 didn’t have lots of viewers. Few thousand, probably? But because they were a new channel they were courageous, they put lots of new young actors on screen, and I hold the experience close to my heart. It was a time that exploded my confidence.”

By his late 20s he was married, he was DJing, he was regularly employed on British TV. It had the makings of a decent and stable career. But Elba idolised Denzel Washington, Taye Diggs and Wesley Snipes. He wanted to take a shot at a career in the US. With his then wife, makeup artist Hanne Norgaard, he moved to Manhattan. They rented a flat on 34th Street. Elba later joked that it was like moving to London and choosing to live in Leicester Square.

Idris Elba with Robert F Chew in the The Wire.
With Robert F Chew in The Wire. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

In America, he barely worked as an actor. There was a guest appearance on Law & Order. Peter Hall cast him in Troilus And Cressida, off-Broadway. Otherwise Elba was on the shelf for several years. He earned money as a bouncer, sometimes travelling back to London for the sort of piecemeal TV parts he’d wanted to leave behind. Troilus And Cressida got him noticed by a casting director, at least, and in the early 00s that casting director put Elba forward for a small part in a new show called The Wire.

A mixture of circumstances persuaded The Wire’s creator, David Simon, to enhance Elba’s role in the show over time. From the start he was a fiercely charismatic screen presence. His character, Bell, lived in a fascinating limbo between criminality and legitimate enterprise, which gave the writers lots of loose material to play with. It probably didn’t hurt his cult popularity that he was (and remains) extraordinarily handsome. I remember being in the audience at a Wire Q&A with Simon. It had already broadcast to a conclusion on TV, but not everybody in the audience had caught up. When Simon casually mentioned that Elba’s character died before the end, there was an audible intake of breath and a moan of dismay. (According to Simon, his wife called him an idiot for removing Elba from the show.)

For Elba, looking back over this period, The Wire was a triumph brought about by his identification with the character of Bell. “I’d moved to America. I’d been through all sorts of life stuff there. I was trying to do things better, do things right. Stringer came along at a junction in my life when I was, like, ‘This guy is trying to do better, too, this guy’s trying to be smarter, too.’ I could relate. Re-late.”

Elba – who says several times he’s a “pretty private” person – won’t elaborate on the “life stuff”. In 2002, he had a daughter with his first wife; they divorced in 2003. In 2006, Elba was briefly married to an American lawyer, Sonya Hamlin. There were some fun acting jobs in this period (my favourite was his memorable run of appearances as a temporary boss of Dunder Mifflin in NBC’s The Office) but nothing especially weighty, certainly nothing to rival or eclipse his work on The Wire. By the end of the 00s, as Elba remembers it now, “I was at a really dark, weird junction in my life. Lots of things were going wrong. Things were undoing, including my career.”

Wisely, long after leaving London for the US, he’d been at pains to keep alive his professional links in the UK. Luther, written by Neil Cross and co-starring Ruth Wilson, broadcast on BBC One in spring 2010. It went out on BBC America a few months later. It was a hit, and jump-started a second phase in Elba’s career, including a run of Thor-adjacent Marvel roles and the Alien prequel Prometheus. Somewhere in the middle of that there were strong rumours that Elba had been picked out as the Broccoli family’s choice to play 007 after Daniel Craig. Those rumours have long since quieted; though Elba tells me his mates still greet him in the pub by saying, “Oh, here he is, James Bond…”

He did get a coveted part, as Nelson Mandela in Justin Chadwick’s 2013 biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, playing Mandela with quiet, controlled force and winding up with a Golden Globe nomination. There was another nomination for Netflix’s Beasts Of No Nation, a war drama from 2015 that he co-produced. Afterwards, Elba lent his voice to a succession of animated Disney films. He worked with Aaron Sorkin on Molly’s Game in 2017. He was the villain, Macavity, in Tom Hooper’s widely maligned Cats in 2019. That year he made a fifth, final, season of Luther, restoring enough industry clout along the way to fund his directorial debut, a gangster film called Yardie (2018).

In Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), a role that earned Elba a Golden Globe nomination.
In Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2013), a role that earned Elba a Golden Globe nomination. Photograph: Keith Bernstein/AP

Reviews were only so-so, but Yardie’s cinematic release wound up being an occasion for personal celebration. Before a screening at the Hackney Rio in London, Elba invited Dhowre, then his girlfriend, on to the stage where he proposed. There was a standing ovation from the stalls; a yes from Dhowre. Not a bad way to end a decade that had begun for Elba in a muddle. He started to become more involved in activism, often campaigning side by side with his wife on behalf of the International Fund for Agricultural Development – “Forcing some change, amplifying some messages,” as Elba describes it.

I found it impressive, last year, when he pushed back against some of the conspiracy theories that were proliferating around Covid-19. There are never any real winners when rational people enter into debate with internet clowns, but Elba had a good go, tweeting to one scaremonger: “Bro, don’t spread that nonsense to people. If that’s what you believe keep it to yourself.” He was diagnosed with Covid himself, fairly early in the 2020 outbreak, while shooting a film in the US. It led to some blunt online criticism. Why did this actor have access to testing when others in society did not? “Challenging,” Elba says now, “but I can’t complain. The Covid was mild, compared with how others have gone. I’m very fortunate to be alive, and every day I’m thankful.”

Old enough to remember when actors were judged on their performing chops more than their online banter, he speaks intelligently about the jumbled personal and professional values in this changed, Insta-charged era. “I’ve watched celebrity culture make this monumental shift towards a culture of openness,” Elba says. “I find it fascinating. No longer can you hide behind dark glasses and be shifty. You can’t be Clark Gable, living in the mountains. Movie stars of old, who they were as people – that was always coveted, that was always mysterious. Fast-forward to this day and age and it’s: ‘Yeah, you’re a good actor. But who are you?’”

We talk about his most personal project, a TV show he co-created and has starred in since 2017, called In The Long Run. Broadcast on Sky One over three series (there may be more), the show is a fictional recreation of Elba’s young life in east London, played for laughs. He portrays his own father, Winston, on screen. “That show was a joy to make, a joy to share,” Elba says. “It brought back memories that blew my mind. It was a rollercoaster.”

Winston Elba died from lung cancer in 2013, long before the show was conceived. “He would have loved the show,” Elba says. “He had a wicked sense of humour, really at ease at taking the piss out of you, and taking the piss out of himself, all in the same breath… Man, talk about work as therapy,. I have to say, there were some tough moments for me on set. I would break down.”

What he found toughest and most emotional, Elba says, was the shaping of complicated life events into tidy, telly-friendly forms. “We’d chosen to make a comedy. It could quite easily have been a drama, though, about what life was really like in the early 70s for African families in London. But we made it a comedy. And that was the rollercoaster, changing storylines to be more ideal than the reality. You make something a comedy. But life’s not like that. Life’s not a comedy.”

Elba shrugs. Life’s way more complicated. His mum got a kick out of it, he says, and that made it all worthwhile. “Being able to watch her life as a young woman, depicted on a TV show – she was so proud,” he says. “And that made it OK for me to wear my ‘house shoes’ outside for once.”

• The Suicide Squad is in UK cinemas from 30 July

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