Idris Elba: “Luther saved my life”

After US show The Wire, he was in danger of losing his roots — but coming back to Britain to play BBC1's unstable copper changed everything for Idris Elba

All things considered, I judge it’s best, shortly before sitting down to meet Idris Elba in the designated interview space in a central London hotel, to get the Bond business out of the way first.

Despite the fact that only two minutes earlier I was informed by Elba’s publicist that the Luther star is fed up being asked about whether he’ll be the next 007, given that Daniel Craig, four films to the good, appeared to be retiring. Rumours of Elba’s possible casting have created a certain amount of controversy.

To recap: former 007 Sir Roger Moore said that Elba would not be an appropriate choice because Bond needed to be played by someone who was, “English-English”. Following that, Anthony Horowitz, author of one of the ongoing series of James Bond “continuation novels”, opined that Elba was “too street” for the part.

Both comments were taken to be making oblique reference to Elba’s ethnicity. Moore and Horowitz, to their credit, swiftly apologised for any offence their remarks may have caused. Elba, to his greater credit, maintained a dignified silence on the matter.

Which, I discover, he continues to do. “I’m guessing,” I say, once we have both made ourselves comfortable, “that you don’t want to talk about Bond?”

“Why would I talk about Bond?” he asks. “I’m not even in it.”

Which, by way of an inadequate response, has the merit of being uninformative, yet true as far as it goes, and above all, classy. 

Tittle-tattle thus dealt with, I can report that Elba is nothing much like either of the two characters he is thus far in his career best known for portraying. He is, in other words, a proper actor, capable of convincingly pretending to be someone else as opposed to just looking good as himself on camera.

The first of those characters, from the cult US drama The Wire, was called Stringer Bell [below], an ambitious, doomed drug dealer in Baltimore, USA. The second, a lot closer to home, is DCI John Luther, a London detective who’s borderline bonkers, burdened with guilt, grief and the woes of the world.

Both men are brooding, laconic, physically intimidating. Elba, however, while thoughtful and reflective, comes across as a man who, at 43, has conquered any demons of aggression or self-hatred. You wouldn’t much want to hang out with John Luther for long – and you certainly wouldn’t want to hang out with Stringer Bell for any time at all. Hanging out with Idris Elba, though? I reckon that could be rewarding, fun, exciting – and not even a little bit injurious to personal health, psychological or physical.

Not that his journey has always been easy. “I overindulged in things at times,” he says, cockney accent still very pronounced after many years of living mostly in the US. “There were moments when if I’d gone too far I would not be here.”

But he didn’t go too far? “No. I stopped. A lot of it was understanding yourself, your value. And that’s hard because ‘I value myself ’ feels like an egotistical thing. But when I realised ‘I’m good at that, I’m decent at that, I’m not a horrible person’, I got on with it.”

By getting on with it, he means his career, as opposed to any behaviour that might have sidetracked his progress. A Londoner, growing up first in Hackney’s ill-famed Holly Street estate, and then later further east in Newham, his parents working a variety of hard, poorly paid jobs, Elba’s start in life was not auspicious. Not economically or socially, at any rate.

“Holly Street had a great vibe, but yeah, it was rough. I got run over once and they drove off.” Culturally and morally, however, his childhood was excellent preparation for making his way.

“I stayed out of trouble, on the straight and narrow. My parents were really protective. They wouldn’t let me out too much, didn’t let me into that space.” His father was originally from Sierra Leone, his mother from Ghana, and both shared a typically strict, aspirational West African attitude to parenthood.

“They were rules upon rules – ‘Big people are talking, you shouldn’t be speaking’. Or, ‘You can’t do that, you don’t wanna be like them boys.’”

It has served him well, though? “Oh yeah,” Elba agrees. “People go, ‘Oh you really work hard!’ I say my mum and dad both had a couple of jobs. The work ethic was big. You work hard and pay your bills and all that.”

Elba imbibed the discipline, but then found himself applying it in a field his mum and dad didn’t really understand. “My reports from school came back saying, ‘He’s doing well in drama’ and they were, ‘What about maths?’” He chuckles at the memory. His mum is still alive. His dad died a few years ago. 

An only child, the teenage Elba found that acting was the natural outlet for a vivid imagination. “As an only child, you make up your own toys, make up your own language, make up your own friends. It just felt incredible to be able to do it in a control-free, liberating environment: drama. Everyone at our school loved drama anyway because of Miss McPhee. She was lovely.” Although it was a tough, all-boys school in what he calls “a concrete jungle”,he never got any hassle for his passion. “I was a big lad. In all the sports teams. So it was, ‘Yeah, drama’s cool’.”

And for Elba, it was. “I was working straight out of college. By the time I was 23 I’d clocked up a few good credits, telly, a bit of theatre, but I was still aiming for something bigger, and New York beckoned.

I didn’t have a real plan of how I was gonna smash into New York, but I just knew I wanted to. I had a love affair with New York. I kept going out there, every six weeks if I could make it.” And did what? “Shop mainly,” he laughs. “So I could come back to London looking cool. I loved it there. I felt it was super-liberated, very different to London.”