Interview: Idris Elba

BY James Mottram

3rd Nov 2022 Celebrities

Interview: Idris Elba

James Mottram catches up with Idris Elba, the Hackney-born mega-star and Renaissance man, at the Cannes Film Festival ahead of his new film Beast

Like all the best artists, Idris Elba can surprise you when you least expect it. The British actor-director-DJ is sitting in front of me, espousing on his love of all things literary over his morning coffee. “I love poetry,” he insists when we meet in a suite in Cannes’ Majestic Hotel. “I wouldn’t say I’m an anorak for poets. I couldn’t tell you, ‘Oh, this one said that.’ But I love the art of words and forming sentences and beautifying language.” 

A career marked by versatility

To look at—6ft 2in tall, six-pack, tattoos—you’d think this 50-year-old spends more time in the gym than the library. He’s frequently played the tough guy, in shows like The Wire, “a massive changing point in my life”, when he excelled as drug kingpin Russell “Stringer” Bell. Or movies like American Gangster or The Suicide Squad. But look further and you’ll also find him giving a soulful turn as anti-Apartheid freedom fighter Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom.

Long Walk to Freedom

Elba starring in Long Walk to Freedom © AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

When we meet, it’s the day after the Cannes Film Festival premiere of his recent new movie, Three Thousand Years of Longing. In this swooning modern-day fable, another left field choice, he plays a Djinn who arrives in the hotel room of Tilda Swinton’s solitary academic, offering her three wishes. “It’s really for me poetic in the sense that you cannot buy love, you cannot wish for love,” he says. “It’s either there or it isn’t there…which is a cautionary tale for all of us, isn’t it? Maybe that’s romantic!” 

"I can close my eyes and find myself somewhere else when I listen to music"

Last night, accompanied by his wife-of-three-years Sabrina, Elba was playing genial host at one of the festival’s most glamorous after-parties. Porte Noire, his very own wine label, sponsored the event, while he got up on stage to introduce Matteo Bocelli—son to the great Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli—who sang new composition “Cautionary Tale” from the film. “Oh, yeah, Matteo, what a treat,” he reflects. “That was a beautiful treat. I think that song should be recognised. Because it’s very beautiful.” 

Idris Elba and his wife

Idris Elba and Sabrina Dhowre © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Again, there’s that ingrained sensitivity. “Music is therapy for me,” he explains. “It’s nourishing. And I can close my eyes and find myself somewhere else when I listen to music.” Over the summer, he released “Walk of Shame”, the latest track on his own label 7Wallace, which he founded in 2015 to bring new hip-hop and dance acts to the fore. Every Friday, he’d jet off to Ibiza to DJ, sweating hard behind those turntables. “I prefer to actually work,” he says. “I try not to take gigs where it’s more about a personal appearance.” 

Where it all started

Born and raised in Hackney, Elba started DJing for his uncle at weddings when he was a teenager. Shortly afterwards, he began to act. “I had a very good drama teacher—who I also had a crush on!” he chuckles. “But she was so instrumental in helping me structure a plan. At 14, she recognised I was good at drama. By 16, she had already helped me figure out what the next stages were for taking it seriously. She gave me a lot.” 

Idris Elba behind the decks

Idris Elba behind the decks © TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

He was also advanced for his years. “I’m a good student. I’m just not very good with authority, so it’s a bit of a strange one there. I was like ‘I know it all!’ I’ve always looked older than I actually am. Always. So that was an issue for me. When kids were riding their bikes into school, I had a little Mini Cooper and a goatee beard—so I never got stopped by the police! I was a man! That was an issue for me, being at school. I was like, ‘I don’t need to do this. I can get into clubs if I want.’” 

"While other kids were riding their bikes into school, I had a Mini Cooper and a goatee"

For all this youthful bravado, Elba had an industrious intent about him, even in his teens. His late father Winston, from Sierra Leone, was a shop steward at the Ford Dagenham plant, while Ghanian mother Eve worked in housing for the council. When he told them he wanted to be an actor, they came in with some very practical advice. “They were like ‘Why don’t you go and work with your dad at Ford’s for a year and then you can save up some money?’ And that was exactly what happened.” 

After he left the plant, he started auditioning, gradually getting regular paid work on British television. But he did it the hard way. “Listen, man…I never got a silver spoon. I didn’t come from a drama school background. I came from the open audition background—‘OK, show us what you got then.’ That’s where I started my career.”

Elba's very first job came in a government infomercial, encouraging people to lock their bikes. “I didn’t have to do much acting. I just had to run after a bike that had been stolen.” Crimewatch recreations soon followed. 

The Wire and success in the USA

It wasn’t until he moved to New York that his career accelerated. Though not an overnight smash, The Wire gradually became recognised as one of the great shows of the 2000s, just as television went into its golden age, with Elba’s Stringer Bell a key character. He based him “on dudes that I knew when I was growing up in Hackney”, streetwise guys selling weed in the local pubs that his father would take him to. “They weren’t gangsters, they were the nicest fellas in the world.” 

The Wire

Idris Elba in The Wire © LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

Elba’s career built steadily thereafter—from playing the titular detective in BBC show Luther to directing 2018 Jamaican gangster tale Yardie. He also featured in Marvel movie Thor as the gatekeeper of Asgard, a role he’s returned to several times since. “Those Marvel movies are actually a little more difficult to make,” he says, “because they live in a realism that isn’t something that we can all relate to: I’m in the realm, I’ve got a sword that does this and that! To try and make that sort of somewhat believable actually does require a bit of acting.” 

The same can be said for Elba’s other new movie Beast, a thriller set on a South African game reserve, in which he plays a father-of-two who has to protect his two daughters when a lion goes rogue. The incredibly realistic creature was computer-generated entirely—a remarkable sight when Elba’s Dr Nate Samuels is being pawed at underneath his jeep. “This was a physical being, an animal that was literally ripping me apart, that wasn’t there. That was a skillset that I had to learn. I haven’t done that before.” 


Idris Elba in Beast © 2022 Universal Studios

He didn’t have to try too hard when it came to acting out the adrenaline-fueled fears of being a parent. He has two kids of his own from past relationships—daughter Isan, 20, with ex-wife Hanne Nørgaard and son Winston, 8, with former girlfriend Naiyana Gart. Isan even auditioned for the part of one of Samuels’ kids but didn’t get the role—which did not make Elba the most popular father on the block. “She’s great, but the relationship in the film and the relationship between my daughter was...the chemistry wasn’t right for the film.” 

A B-movie with A-List visual effects, where Elba gets to show his more vulnerable side—it’s another slick trick from him. “This is a man that doesn’t fight, he can’t fight, let alone fight a lion.” Even the trailer shows Elba punching the beast in retaliation, a scene he questioned. “I was thinking, I’m not sure how this guy’s going to punch a lion. No-one punches a lion! These are the things that we had to really dissect and understand. I was conscious that this isn’t an action hero guy. This is a normal guy that just can’t fight.” 

"When I got to a stage where I didn’t have to audition so much, it blew my mind"

That’s Elba all over: a man that walks the tightrope of what audiences crave. He recently ruled himself out of the running as the next James Bond (“It is not a goal for my career,” he told The Shop podcast), instead completing the long-awaited movie version of Luther. It’s another “pinnacle” in a career full of them. “I remember I got to a stage where I didn’t have to audition so much and that blew my mind,” he muses. “Even now, if I get a phone call from a director who wants to work with me, it still feels the same: ‘Can I get this job? Can I do it?’”

The answer is yes. Idris Elba can do it all.  

Beast is available to download and keep on November 14, 2022 

Cover image © 2022 Universal Studios

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