“I thought he was mental”: Warren Brown on Idris Elba’s quest to become a professional kickboxer

In a brand-new series on Discovery, the Golden Globe-winning actor is taking on one of the toughest challenges of his career

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When Idris Elba told Warren Brown that he wanted to become a professional kickboxer in just 12 months, his friend and former co-star had only one thought.

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“That it was a f***ing ridiculous idea,” laughs the 38-year-old actor from Warrington.

“We’d always talked about fighting,” he explains in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com ahead of new Discovery series Idris Elba: Fighter.

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“We would often go and watch fights and I knew he had an interest and we’d trained a little bit – not to any serious extent. So when he first mentioned that he wanted to have a fight, I thought he was mental. After that initial shock subsided and we saw he was serious about this it was like ‘OK, brilliant’.”

Brown certainly knows what he’s talking about. Before he landed his big break in acting playing Andy Holt in Hollyoaks, he was a two-time World Champion Thai kickboxer.

“I trained and fought for 10 years, won two world titles and then stumbled into acting a little bit by accident,” Brown explains. “But I knew how much work I had to put in to get to the top in Thai boxing, and then when I kind of changed path and decided I’d like to give acting a go I knew it was never going to be easy and I didn’t know if it was going to be possible, but in order to give myself the best chance I had to put everything into that.”

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The hard work paid off and roles in Shameless, Dead Set and Grownups shortly followed. But his career really took off in 2010 when he landed the role of DS Justin Ripley alongside The Wire star Elba for a new BBC detective series, Luther.

The pair’s on-screen bond was undeniable in the hit series, which ran for four seasons and could possibly move to the big screen. Off-screen, the pair are just as close. “We became great pals working on that show,” Brown confirms.

This combined with Brown’s kickboxing expertise made him the man for the job to try and help Elba achieve his dream and add another string to his bow. Actor, musician, DJ (he performs under the moniker DJ Big Driis) and now fighter.

“We were like ‘OK, let’s do this. How do we go about this?’. I used to train, but again with Idris’s schedule and my filming schedule and us both being away, we had to have a constant,” says Brown. “So that’s when I brought in my friend and Thai kickboxing K1 trainer Kieran Keddle.

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“He came in because no matter where Idris was, that would be the constant and he was going to be for the most part his trainer and teach him the skills of Thai boxing. Idris had some basic skills and we did a very first session. We had basics – we weren’t starting from absolute nothing. It was very rough and very raw and there was a lot of work to do, but he had some basic skills. That was a long process of getting him fitter, getting his technique better, getting him prepared mentally.”

This wasn’t a challenge to be undertaken lightly. Brown describes Thai boxing as one of the most dangerous sports out there (“without hesitation”) and especially given the Star Trek Beyond actor’s profession, any severe injuries to the face could be career-changing.

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“We were fighting K1 glory rules so there were no elbows to the face, which I think is a wise decision given his job,” explains Brown, who also describes Elba as “super-dedicated” to the challenge.

Even while he was filming The Dark Tower in Cape Town, the 44-year-old would still have to do a few hours of training in the evening – even if it was after a 15 or 16-hour shoot. “It was a brutal schedule in the most part,” says Brown, explaining that there are more similarities between the disciplines of acting and fighting than you’d imagine.

“I suppose I was a good bridge having done both,” explains Brown. “I know the schedules of an actor and just how difficult that can be. That commitment, dedication and the will to do anything you can to get where you want to be.

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“The biggest challenge for us was making it a legitimate fight,” he continues. “We didn’t want to hand him a win, nor did we want to put him in a fight where he was going to get badly hurt – which could happen.”

Taking on Elba in the ring is surely something that even the most experienced fighters would be intimidated by. “I’d actually argue against that,” says Brown. “He’s a global superstar but when it comes to fighting he’s not had a fight, so all that means s**t. I think the reputation means nothing when he gets into the ring.

“This isn’t scripted, this isn’t for the cameras, it’s not made up. Anything could have happened.”

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Idris Elba: Fighter airs Tuesday January 17th at 10pm on Discovery Channel