Esquire, Nov 2013
He’s the Hackney-born actor who hit the Hollywood jackpot. The star of the forthcoming Nelson Mandela biopic reflects on his remarkable journey from London to LA via the mean streets of New York. “I’ve got my flaws,” he says. “I’ve had my ups and downs. This is who I am.”
Photos by Simon Emmett
Also read it at Esquire
We’ll get to Mandela in a minute. And Luther. And Stringer Bell. And the James Bond rumors.
But first, let the man sit back and reminisce about a more innocent time, before “Idris Elba” was the first name on the billboard; a time in the late 90s in New York, that you might call the ‘struggling actor’ portion of the memoirs. Because those are the years he treasures most, the years of hope and striving for a shot at the big time, the reason he came to America in the first place. And then of course, it happened, all on one day – 4th January 2002 – the day that changed his life.
“It was just another audition,” he says, sipping his Jack and Coke, at a discreet table off to the side of Mr Chows in Beverly Hills. “You got to remember, I was hustling back then. And I mean huss-ell-ing. I was working the door at Caroline’s comedy club. I was selling weed bags, ten spots, everything, just to make money because the acting weren’t coming in fast enough.”
Every year he’d go up for pilot season, and every year he came up short – for three years running now. But this year, there was one show that kept calling him back, for four auditions in all. A new project called The Wire.
“I remember [creator] David Simon asked me on the last one, ‘whereabouts in the States are you from?’ because this whole time I’ve been talking in an American accent. And I was like, ‘if I fucking lie right now, I’m going to lose this shit.’ So I said, ‘listen guys, I’m English.’ David Simon was like ‘get the fuck out of here!’ I thought I’d pissed him off! But he said, ‘listen you got a good accent but we can’t offer you [drug kingpin] Avon Barksdale. What do you think about Stringer?’ I said, ‘who?’” Elba flips through an invisible script at the table. “Stringer had like ten lines. I thought, ‘just give me a job, I don’t give a fuck. It’s a pilot.’ I knew I was going to get a check, as long as I was a season regular. He said, ‘you got it.’”
But he couldn’t celebrate just yet. His wife had just gone into labor. So he rushed her to the hospital, dropped her off and then headed out again to DJ at a club called Sliver. At the time DJing was how he stayed afloat.
“So I played the gig. I told everyone, ‘yo, I booked a pilot!’ And everyone was celebrating. My boss, Danny bought a bottle of champagne, and he gave me a bit of extra money on top of my usual. So I had nearly $300 when I was driving home in my Astro Van – it was a good night! But man, I was so liquored up. There was this half drunk bottle of Hennessy in the back, and I’m like this, going through the Holland Tunnel …”
He holds his hand out on an imaginary steering wheel, his eyes peering ahead, bleary drunk.
“And just as I came out, just when I saw the Christ hospital up ahead, that’s when I heard it – whup whup!” The cops were right behind him, pulling him over.
“Here’s what saved me,” he says. “As I pressed my brakes, the Henny bottle rolled off the back and under the seat. And when the guy knocked on the window and said, “licence and registration”, he saw the band on my wrist. He said, ‘you been to hospital?’ I said, ‘no sir, that’s for my wife who’s about to give birth any minute. I’m a DJ, I’m just coming back from a gig …’”
It worked. The cop let him off, and he was there when his daughter Isaan was born at 4.49am. He pulls up his sleeve and shows me the tattoo on his forearm.
“I’ve never told anyone that story before.”
He doesn’t mean “anyone”, just journalists. Elba doesn’t typically enjoy interviews, but this is different. It was meant to be just the two of us for dinner, the usual scenario, but instead, he showed up with a crew. There’s Brett, his barber, who looks a bit like Smokey Robinson, his teenage godson Riaz who doesn’t, and his genial manager Oronde. They all go back at least ten years, all of them American.
“Mate, I just got off a plane, so I didn’t want to do an ordinary thing,” Elba explained, as we sat down to eat. “Because I’m never as honest as I could be, and I get bored talking about myself. Right now I feel like I’m catching up with a mate.”
“You still need to talk about yourself, though,” I said.
“Yeah, but journalists always take what I say and do whatever with it. At least this way, I know that whatever happens, we were all here, we had a good laugh and I told the truth.
He had that look we’ve seen so often before – the furrowed brow, the narrow eyes, quiet and thoughtful, an expression that might contain multitudes. It could be Stringer Bell calculating who’s the traitor in the camp, or Luther pondering a killer’s next move. Or maybe it’s just jet lag. Part of Elba’s gift as an actor is that he communicates such depth in his stillness – there always seems to be so much going on behind those eyes. The great Mexican director, Guillermo Del Toro likens him to a Rodin sculpture – it was why he cast him as the lead in his robot war extravaganza Pacific Rim.
“Rodin sculptures have these oversized hands and they seem incredibly weighted by their own humanity,” says Del Toro. “Idris is sort of like that. He’s overhuman. And he has the most amazing eyes. Some actors have the gift of empathy with the audience. And it is a gift – it’s not technique or training. There are just actors you care for.”
And to be fair, there is a lot going on with Elba right now. It has all come rather quickly, too. Over this last couple of years, the game has changed for the big man from Hackney. He’s been propelled from one peak to the next, as he crosses from one side of 40 to the other. And now, it’s possible – he’s not sure – but maybe this is as high as it gets.
First The Wire became one of the most acclaimed shows on television. Then Elba made the perfect transition from Stringer Bell to Luther, gangster to cop, America to England. The Golden Globe was well deserved. Meanwhile the movies kept knocking, looking to harness his brand of sympathetic machismo. They need heroes in Hollywood – men rather than boys, the kind you can follow into battle, who can make a girl swoon. And Elba has become a go-to guy. First he’s Heimdall in Thor (the sequel’s imminent), the superhuman sentry for the mythical city of Asgard. Then he’s Captain Janeck in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, and General Stacker Pentecost in Pacific Rim – both broad shouldered leaders of men.
And now, Mandela – an actual leader and hero, the biggest deal of all. It’s not just that he’s a venerated, global figure, nor that this movie is based on his autobiography, A Long Walk To Freedom, and the script was even approved by the Mandela foundation. It’s that to play him now, especially when his health is so fragile that he might pass away with the movie still in the theaters, to make this particular project at this particular time isn’t just to portray history, but to become a part of it. And Elba can sense it. The air’s different up there.
“That’s why I’m telling you these stories,” he says. “I don’t have to protect some image that I have as an actor because I just bared my soul in that movie.”
He gave it everything, knowing that his everything was nothing compared to what Mandela gave. He recognizes that the honor of playing Mandela is matched by the pressure to pull it off, but when you’ve filmed in the very prison cell that Mandela was kept in, your pressures look like trifles. So like Mandela, he feels liberated now.
“People are going to judge me for this role,” he says. “I don’t look like Mandela, some say I don’t deserve it. Whatever. For me, it’s important that I am who I am, as I present this piece to the world. I’m 40 years old and I’ve had a great career. I’m alright to be myself at this point.” He shrugs. “Look, if I never work again, I don’t care – I did my bit, you know?”
Brett chimes in. “You put your hand in!”
“Yeah, I was all right! ‘What was your last album?’ Mandela. ‘Oh I loved that album!’ It’s like if Nas never made another album outside God’s Son. This film, for me, how can I top it? So yeah, I can tell you the truth about me. It’s easy to be honest now. I’ve got my flaws, I’ve had my ups and my downs. This is who I am.”
He catches the eye of the waiter. “Can I get another Jack and Coke? Plenty of lime.”
Of all the British actors doing big things in Hollywood these days – and the list is long, from Damien Lewis to Benedict Cumberbatch to Stephen Moyer and the Hughs, Dancy and Laurie – Elba’s story might be the most remarkable of all. Because he didn’t make it there as an Englishman, he made it as an American. David Simon wasn’t the only one to fall off his chair at the news that Elba was English. Del Toro did too. As did most of Elba’s American fans. Is there any better vindication of an actor?
It makes sense though, with hindsight. As English as Elba is, he was always enamored with American culture, hip hop especially. The only child of a Sierra Leonean father Winston, a shop steward for Dagenham Ford, and a Ghanaian mother Eve, he grew up in Hackney and Canning Town, where he was a teenager during hip hop’s golden age, the era of Snoop, Pac, Biggie and Dre. He started DJ-ing at 14 – at first just helping his uncle out with weddings, but soon playing his own show on Climax FM, a local pirate station, as Mr Kipling, “because of my exceedingly good tunes!” And he devoured every issue of Vibe magazine – all the fashion, beats and lingo of black America. New York was a cultural Mecca for young Idris, where his heroes lived. It was a place he craved.
So he went. “I used to go and pick up vinyl at Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn,” he says. “Fresh records, ones you couldn’t get in London”. His friend, Marsha, was the assistant to the VP of Bad Boy Records at the time, so Elba would work there as a wide-eyed intern, more than a little star struck by the experience. When Puff Daddy came to speak at a music seminar in Islington, Elba waited for three hours to get a good seat. “This was when Bad Boy was like BAD BOY,” he says. “I’m talking Total, Craig Mack. This guy was killing the game. And when he finished his speech, he walked straight down the middle of the aisle, dapping people. I remember I put my hand out and he dapped me. I was like ‘yo! Puffy Combs dapped me!’”
Now of course, he and Diddy are peers in the top tier of global celebrity. It tickles him that Diddy remembers him from back then as “Marsha’s English friend, tall cat”.
He was acting then too, but progress was slow. He’d gone from doing Crimewatch re-enactments to guest spots on The Bill and Ruth Rendell Mysteries. And even then, America looked like the future. “I wanted to be on a bigger stage,” he says. “In England there’s only so much work for actors period, never mind if you’re black. So I was like, nah man, I want to be with Denz and them. Wesley and them. Those were my idols. Denz, Wesley and Taye Diggs.”
When he finally made the move to New York in 1998, it wasn’t a whim but a mission. He and his then wife sold their house, making a clean UKP 60,000, and they headed west to Brooklyn. But within a year or so, that money was gone. Elba’s acting career was floundering. What would later be his greatest asset was now his Achilles heel – he just couldn’t do a convincing American accent.
So he hustled. He had no choice – his visa didn’t let him do any other work besides acting. So he would pop back to England periodically for small parts, and when he returned, he’d hit the streets again, looking for cash work. The pivotal moment came in a club called the Ludlow bar in the East Village.
“There was an East Village DJ called Greg Paul, who he was playing all this UK garage. So I was like, ‘what do you know about all that?’ And he’s like, ‘man, I love So Solid Crew…’ I’m talking back then. So I said, ‘you got a mic back there?’”
He holds his fork like a mic and starts nodding his head, doing a pastiche of a garage MC. “I’m like, ‘bidda bidda bop to the ones and the twos…’ I’m not saying anything, but this guy thinks I’m spitting off the top like Jay Z! So he goes, ‘hey, do you DJ?’ And boom – I was in. That’s how I survived in New York.”
It wasn’t easy. His wife was on his case, and as far as the auditions went, he couldn’t catch a cold. But Elba’s confidence is fireproof, his optimism American. He knew that he’d get there in the end. After all, his accent was improving. And not because he’d hired some fancy dialect coach either. All Elba did was go to the barbers.
“I was living in Flatbush – remember the Ace of Spades barbershop? They used to call me English. ‘Yo waddup English!’ I was like ‘I’m trying to get this accent down, do you mind if I just sit in the barbershop and talk?’ And that was it man. When you got niggers snapping on you and shit, you can’t come back with the rebuttals in an English accent. It’s not quick enough. They’d be like, ‘what you say nigger? The queen ain’t up in here. Ain’t nobody can understand you.’ So you know, I’d just have to get into it.”
There was one time when he’d bought his new AV – his black Avirex jacket from Mister Joes on 33rd – “everyone was wearing them, back then.” It wasn’t cheap – a good $700. But looking sharp has always been important for Elba.
“I had a proper black on black AV, a fresh pair of Tims and because I’m from London, I had the Levis, straight cuts,” he says. “But when I walked into Ace of Spades, these niggers clowned the fuck out of me because of my straight jeans. Avirex jackets make you look really big, that’s the thing. So they were like, nigger what the fuck? We got Avirex on toothpicks in this motherfucker!’”
The table roars with laughter. Often when English stars come to America, they preserve their Englishness as a point of difference. But Elba has become almost seamlessly transatlantic. The way he slides into American idiom, throwing the N-word around and saying “arks” instead of “ask”, he is clearly as comfortable in Brooklyn as he is in Hackney, playing footie on a Sunday afternoon.
“It’s funny because New York remember me, before I do what I do now,” he says. “It’s like going back to East London. I meet people all the time who say, ‘yo man, weren’t you that DJ though?’”
For now, though, he lives somewhere in between. No fixed abode, but plenty of air miles. He once lived in Atlanta with his ex-wife and daughter, but now he just keeps an office there. So he dashes between London and New York and LA, a life of suitcases and hotel robes.
“I have no base. I go from one job to another. I’m going to Barcelona next to do a film [The Gunman] with Sean Penn,” he says. “As an actor, you have to sell out where you’re from because you’re playing other people. That’s why I DJ – because at least for one night, I’m me.” Hence the house set at the Flying Lotus here in LA in a couple of days, followed by some dates in Ibiza.
But England doesn’t see Elba as this semi-American hybrid. We think of him as ours. I suggest to him, that when he was selected to read the Edgar Guest poem, “It Couldn’t Be Done” for Team Great Britain, on BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2012, that he is becoming something of a national treasure.
And he cracks up laughing. “Me! The way I live my life, I’m two drinks from being in the tabloids every day. I’m no national treasure. I’m a fucking dutty rude boy, that happens to be liked!”
But still, he feels his Englishness like a conscience sometimes. His interview on Jimmy Kimmel the other week is a case in point. “I was saying about Prince Charles that he’s smooth, you know, he’s got the ring, the suit, the slick back hair… he’s a gangster! But as soon as I said it, in my head I’m thinking, ‘aaargh!’”
Bang goes my OBE.
“Yeah! Weren’t you ambassador to the Prince’s Trust? What happened to that?”
This feels like an opportune moment to bring up the James Bond rumors – another national treasure. But as soon as I mention it, Elba gives his manager a look.
“There’s this article on the internet – Five Things Not to Ask Idris Elba,” he says. “And number one is, ‘don’t ask him about being the black James Bond.’”
It’s the black part that bothers him. A reporter asked him recently, regarding Pacific Rim, how he felt as a black man at the center of a sci-fi, and he bristled: “If you’re thinking in the middle of the movie, oh he’s black and in a sci-fi, you’re not watching the same movie as me.” It’s the same with Luther – yes, he’s a black lead, and yes, it’s a first. But still. “If Luther is refreshing because he’s a nigger that don’t give a fuck, then OK! But he’s still a detective. Who cares if he’s black?”
So for the record, no, he’s had no official conversations about James Bond. And no, he didn’t pay Daniel Craig a tenner to say he thinks Elba would be a good candidate. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
“If it fucking happens, it’s the will of the nation,” he says. “It’s not because of me. Everywhere I go people are saying, ‘oh, you’d be a great Bond.’ And I almost want to ask them, ‘are you saying that because it’s trendy or because you mean it?’ But you can tell by looking in their eyes. They mean it!”
He looks up for a moment, distracted by a table across the way. Some fans, it looks like. “Look at this naughty girl here,” Elba says. “I’m going to wave at her. Hi baby! How are you? Brett, tell her to say hi. She’s trying to take my picture, but she can’t see that I can see her.”
She’s not your standard LA stunner – more your Friday night MILF with a couple of glasses of rose in her, a bit of meat on the bones. But Elba’s alive to the possibilities. As she gets up to leave and walks past the table, he grins. “Woah, that mami got a nice piece at the back there. I’d smash it down.”
“I see what you mean about not being a national treasure,” I tell him. You wouldn’t hear that kind of thing from Stephen Fry. But women rather like Elba. Ask your girlfriend.
“Look, you probably think that I’m shagging bitches all the time,” he laughs. “But there’s no way! They’re all fans. I miss the days when me and my boys could go to a barbecue, and go ‘who’s that shorty over there?’ Now I’m that shorty! If I see someone who’s like, damn!, she’s already on me and she wants an autograph.”
What impact Mandela will have on his Friday night game at Mr Chows is hard to tell. But it certainly won’t hurt. As biopics go, it’s one of the better ones – authentically African, surging with drama and conflict, a reminder of what was in every sense an epic life. We’re familiar with the elder Mandela since his release, but the younger ladies man and revolutionary feels new. And Elba’s performance is strong and masculine, his accent uncanny – nominations seem inevitable. He’s already talking about the importance of staying grounded – “you can’t believe your own bullshit. And the key to that is surrounding yourself with people that don’t gas you up.”
But the gassing, if that’s the word, is already underway. The director Justin Chadwick describes Elba as “brave, instinctive… he’s got great truth.” And producer Anant Singh speaks of Elba’s resemblance to Mandela, in spirit as well as in person: “you go into a room with Idris and it’s the same presence that I felt with Mandela in different ways.”
And Singh would know. A friend of Mandelas, he started writing to him maybe 25 years ago, when he was still in prison. Singh used to make anti-apartheid films, he was part of the struggle himself. So once Mandela was released, and A Long Walk to Freedom came out 1995, he granted Singh the rights, and that was when the long walk to the multiplex began.
The script went through 50 drafts or so – first focussing on his later life, then his early life, then all of it together. For years Denzel Washington was in the frame, until he wasn’t. “He’s a friend,” says Singh tentatively. “But at a certain point he wanted us to wait and… it was a timing issue.” It wasn’t until Chadwick was brought on board in early 2011 that the script was finalized, and Elba’s name was thrown into the mix. The casting director Shaheen Baig had suggested him to Chadwick who suggested him to Singh. And so it was that at the very last, Elba was cast.
“As soon as we told Winnie and the daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, they all said, ‘that’s perfect,’” says Singh. “They knew the Wire. Zindzi even knew he was a DJ.”
This is partly why the experience is so strange for Elba – the way it just landed in his lap, out of the clear blue sky, complete with the blessing of the Mandela foundation. “My agent Roger’s a white south African,” he says. “And he was in tears on the phone when he called me. Do you remember when they did the lottery commercials, and the clouds opened and this hand came out the sky and pointed? That’s how it felt.”
He did his actorly work. He watched interviews and speeches. He sought out similarities, things he could work with. “I might not look like Mandela, but look,” he says, and shows me a picture of his father on his iPhone. And it’s true, they have a passing resemblance. “Your first reference of him is with grey hair but before that, he was a fucking young rock star – girls everywhere, boom boom boom! He was one of the first black educated lawyers. That’s like Idris Elba walking into Harlem Apollo when I was Stringer Bell. Standing ovation, wouldn’t have to say nothing. That was what Mandela went through every day.”
Still, it took some doing. As the plates get cleared away, Elba recalls one scene in particular, in which he had to march into a movie theatre in Soweto and call the crowd to arms. It was a real crowd, a real theatre, full of 600 real Sowetans, most of whom had seen Mandela speak in person many times. Chadwick had them all fired up. “We’re going to shoot this scene now…” he told them. “Mandela’s coming soon. Be ready.”
Meanwhile, Idris waited outside the doors for the green light. “We did our final checks, and then me and my troops walked in. ANC – boom! I had the haircut. Pa-pow! Young Mandela at his prime! I was fucking nervous, because this was Soweto – that’s like someone playing Jay Z going into Brooklyn, and he’s not even from Brooklyn! But I’m telling you man – people were crying. First take, I’m not even joking. First they were like, ‘it’s Idris Elba’. Then, ‘it’s Idris Elba playing Madiba’. Then it’s like, ‘shit – it’s Madiba!’ It was so layered.”
“What about when you did that speech in the big town square!” says Brett.
“Yeah, I had to fucking prepare those speeches, man,” says Elba. “These weren’t just lines. This man did this shit!”
“For some people, that was their Constitution, man,” says Brett. “Remember the South African actors were all like this.” He puts his hands together in a gesture of prayer. Brett’s like Drew “Bundini” Brown, in Muhammad Ali’s camp, the guy who came up with “floats like a butterfly” – a classic cheerleader.
The waiter’s whispering to Oronde – there are some paparazzi outside, so they’d best leave through the back. But wait, Elba’s not finished.
“I got to tell you something man, as arrogant as this might sound, I actually don’t care what the press think. Because as a memoir to Mr Mandela, this film is one of the greatest gifts I think we can give to the Mandela family.”
“Has he seen it?” I ask.
“He’s seen parts. One of the scenes is a long shot of me walking up this hill and giving a speech. Anant showed him on an iPad. And he thought it was him walking up the hill.”
“Are you serious dude?” says Brett, open-mouthed.
“Yeah, he’s hearing the speech and he’s like…” And for a glimmer, Elba does the accent, the gravelly South African brogue. “Is that me?”
Brett’s clapping his hands now, addressing the table. “Woooah! Man, this dude channels him. This cat, I don’t know if I want to be arrround this motherfucker when this movie drops!”
Idris is beaming. “For me, that’s it. Game over. Take your potshots. I’m happy, no matter what.”