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Idris Elba Interview: The Hustler

He's the Hackney-born actor who hit the Hollywood jackpot. But Idris Elba spent years as a small-timer – DJ, doorman, drug dealer – before the bright lights beckoned

Idris Elba Interview: The Hustler

We’ll get to Mandela in a minute. And Luther. And Stringer Bell. And the Bond rumours. 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 Nineties in New York, which 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 the US in the first place. And then of course, it happened, all on one day — 4 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 upscale Chinese restaurant Mr Chow in Beverly Hills. “You got to remember, I was hustling back then. And I mean huss-ell-ing. I was working the door at Carolines comedy club. Selling weed, 10 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. 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, ‘Where in the US are you from?’ — 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 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 [kingpin] Avon Barksdale. What about Stringer?’ I said, ‘Who?’” Elba flips through an invisible script. “Stringer had like 10 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 cheque, 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 labour. He rushed her to hospital, dropped her off and then headed out 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 Isan 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.” 


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***

 

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 10 years, all of them American.

“Mate, I just got off a plane, so I didn’t want to do an ordinary thing,” Elba explains, as we sit 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 say. 

“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 has that look we’ve seen before: the furrowed brow, the narrow eyes, quiet and thoughtful, an expression that might contain a multitude of emotions. It could be Russell “Stringer” Bell calculating who’s the traitor in the camp, or John 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 and 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, which 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,” Del Toro says. “Idris is sort of like that. He’s over-human. 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 few 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. 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 TV. Then Elba made the perfect transition from Stringer Bell to Luther, gangster to cop, the US to the UK. 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 and who can make a girl swoon. And Elba has become a go-to guy. He’s Heimdall in the Thor films (the second one is out later this month), the superhuman sentry for the realm of Asgard. Then he was Captain Janek in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), and General Stacker Pentecost in this year’s Pacific Rim — both broad-shouldered leaders of men. 

And now, Mandela, a real life 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 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and the script was even approved by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It’s that to play him now, to make this project at this particular time — especially when his health is so fragile that he might pass away with the movie still in cinemas (or by the time you read this article) — 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 I have as an actor — I just bared my soul in that movie.”

He gave it everything, knowing that his everything was nothing compared to what Mandela gave. He recognises that the honour 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 held in, your pressures look like trifles. So, like Mandela, he feels liberated now. 

“People are going to judge me for this role. I don’t look like Mandela, some say I don’t deserve it. Whatever. For me, it’s important I am who I am, as I present this piece to the world. I’m 40 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, Elba’s story might be the most remarkable. 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 US fans. Is there any better vindication of an actor? 

It makes sense though, with hindsight. As English as Elba is, he was always enamoured with American culture, especially hip-hop. The only child of a Sierra Leonean father, Winston, a shop steward at the Ford Dagenham plant in Essex, 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 helping his uncle out with weddings but soon hosting 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 for all the fashion, beats and lingo of black America. New York was a 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.” At the time his friend, Marsha, was the assistant to a VP of Bad Boy Records [Sean Combs’ seminal label], 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. “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, you could say he and Diddy find themselves 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, the US 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 £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. He would pop back to the UK 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. 

“There was an East Village DJ called Greg Paul, who was playing all this UK garage. 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 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 Levi’s, straight cut,” he says. “But when I walked into Ace of Spades, these niggers clowned the fuck out of me because of my 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 laughing. Often when English stars come to the US, they preserve their Englishness as a point of difference. But Elba is almost seamlessly transatlantic. The way he slides into US idiom, throwing the N-word around, he is clearly as comfortable in Brooklyn as he is in Hackney, playing footie on a Sunday. 

“It’s funny because New York remembers 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, however, 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 [thriller The Gunman from District 13 director Pierre Morel] 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 club here in LA in a few days, then some dates in Ibiza. 

But Britain 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, at the 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!”

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 your OBE. 

“Yeah! ‘Weren’t you ambassador to the Prince’s Trust? What happened to that?’”

This feels like a good moment to bring up another national treasure: James Bond. But as soon as I mention it, Elba gives his manager a look. 

“There’s this article on the internet, ‘Five Questions You Should Never Ask Idris Elba’,” Elba says. “And one is, ‘Don’t ask him about being the black James Bond.’”

It’s the black part that bothers him. A reporter recently asked him about Pacific Rim, how he felt as a black man at the centre 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, ‘You’d be a great Bond.’ And I 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 bit of meat on the bones, a couple of glasses of rosé in her. 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 Chow 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 so uncanny that nominations seem inevitable. He’s already talking about the importance of staying grounded:  “You can’t believe your own bullshit. 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 film’s 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 Mandela, he started writing to him 25 years ago when he was in prison. Singh used to make anti-apartheid films, he was part of the struggle, too. So once Mandela was released, and his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom came out 1994, he granted Singh the rights, and that was when the long walk to the multiplex began. 

The script went through 50-odd drafts, first focusing on his later life, then his early life, then as a whole. For years, Denzel Washington was in the frame, until he wasn’t. “He’s a friend,” Singh says. “But at a certain point he wanted us to wait and… it was a timing issue.” It wasn’t until Chadwick was on board in early 2011 that the script was finalised and Elba’s name was thrown into the mix. A casting director had suggested him to Chadwick who mentioned him to Singh. And so it was that at the very last, Elba was cast. 

“As soon as we told Winnie [Mandela] 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 Nelson 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 of the sky and pointed? That’s how it felt.” 

So, he did his actorly work. He watched interviews and speeches. He sought out 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 phone. 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. Mandela went through that every day.”

Still, it took some doing. As our 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’ [Mandela’s clan name]. Then it’s like, ‘Shit — it’s Madiba!’ It was so layered.” 

“What about when you did that speech in the town square!” Brett says. 

“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,” Brett says. “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 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?” Brett says, 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. “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.”    


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is out 3 January 2014

 

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