Idris Elba: I played Luther at a very dark time in my life

The Wire star on playing a raging copper, expelling his demons, and his latest role as a murderer in new thriller No Good Deed

For his latest big-screen role, Idris Elba looked back to his greatest small-screen role. Not The Wire’s Stringer Bell, but his greatest British small-screen role. And no, this is not a reference to the 1995 episode of Absolutely Fabulous in which he played a male escort.

Advertisement

Hero of the midnight-dark BBC thriller Luther, Elba’s raging, brooding copper is a brilliant, larger-than-life creation. And that’s where the actor sought inspiration for No Good Deed, an Atlanta-set thriller in which Elba is an escaped murderer who invades the home of a wealthy suburban mother one stormy night.

“It’s an African-American film, designed to appeal to a particular market. And that’s fine,” states the 42-year-old of a movie that, for all its fondness for killer-in-the-house clichés, is an effective platform for a robustly physical, menacing performance.

But Elba’s an ambitious man, and he’s very much a bloke who likes to be in charge. So he wasn’t about to limit his new film’s demographic chances, especially when he was executive producing. “The way to make those films is to make them feel as contemporary and as challenging as any other film and for any race. So I decided to bring in an English director, who makes Luther with me.”

The actor’s relationship with Sam Miller meant they instantly clicked into familiar patterns. As in-joke making the TV series wasL “Who’s the bad guy this week?” and they reprised that banter on No Good Deed. “Sam would say, Oh, yeah it’s you!’ And that actually helped me figure out what I was trying to do.”

And what of the other elements of Elba’s burgeoning professional portfolio? He’s made an album, mir Mandela, that was inspired by his time playing Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. He took a bunch of British musicians and engineers to South Africa, where they hooked up in a Johannesburg recording studio last year with local players and singers. Elba produced the sessions and co-wrote some of the songs. Back in the film world, he confirms work on Disney’s new Jungle Book, in which he voices Shere Khan, and this month he’s filming in Paris, playing a CIA operative in Bastille Day alongside Richard Madden (Game of Thrones).

As for Luther, creator Neil Cross has previously nixed talk of a follow-up to the third series – but is there any truth to the rumours of a film? “I am desperately trying to make that happen,” he replies. “I think we’re gonna probably do one more incarnation in TV. But not a season – a one-off. There’s a story idea but no script yet. But we’re gunning to do it at the end of the year. There’s a lot of pressure from everyone to make it, so we’re gonna do it.”

He acknowledges that there’s unfinished business there, not least because he owes the character. “Luther reinvented me, massively. It came after a string of movies like The Losers and Obsessed and whatnot,” he says with a dismissive tone.  To add to his ailing movie career, his personal life was also in tatters after a short-lived marriage and an announcement of a “baby son” who turned out not to be his.

“And the BBC are like, ‘Do you want to come back and have a TV show?’ And I remember me and my agent going, ‘Wow, we’re actually being offered a f***ing lead by the BBC.’ That was a monumental moment for us – even though we took a pay cut. And I put my heart and soul into it. I love John Luther. I played John at a very dark time in my life. And I so love John because I get to exorcise; it’s so cathartic, it’s therapy. He’s got so much going on, but he lives with it. He makes decisions and he does things that Idris Elba is not allowed to do.”

But if we’ve established that playing Luther lets Idris expel his demons, does Idris still need the role? After all, things seem to be peachy for him right now. He has acting gigs aplenty, he’s expanding his music career, he’s moving into directing, and this year he and his girlfriend had a son.

Advertisement

Which begs the question: is Idris Elba now too happy to play John Luther? “Ohh…” he exhales with a low chuckle. “I mean, I’ve got a deep pool. My waters are deep, bro’, you know?