16 Moments With Idris Elba
1. He arrives before everyone else.
Today, Idris Elba is having his photo taken at The Shard. While the Esquire team gather in a hotel suite on the 39th floor, Elba's already on the 31st — he's been in meetings here since 8am. He's got a lot on. There's the increasingly high-profile Hollywood career — five films released in 2016, including this summer's latest Star Trek blockbuster. There's his production company, Green Door Pictures, established partly to develop ideas Elba felt were under-represented on the screen and partly to show the world something of his own personal passions, of which there are many. Channel 4's How Hip Hop Changed The World was followed by Idris Elba's How Clubbing Changed The World, our host cheerfully introducing himself as "Idris Elba: DJ, actor, lifelong raver". The 2015 series Idris Elba: No Limits saw the former Ford factory worker throwing himself into rally driving and aerobatics before breaking Malcolm Campbell's land speed record racing a Bentley Continental across the Pendine Sands. There's the aforementioned DJing which has taken him from Glastonbury to Ibiza, and seen him support Madonna at The O2. There is an ongoing series of "character albums", thus far including Murdah Loves John (The John Luther Character Album) and Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela, music inspired by his screen roles — larger-than-life TV detective John Luther and Nelson Mandela in the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. He designs a clothing line for Superdry, has rapped on a track by the grime artist Skepta, contributed a recipe to a book on comfort food by his mate Jamie Oliver, boxed for Sport Relief, read an Edgar Guest poem for Team GB, promoted Sky TV and Purdey's soft drinks, re-enacted a Swat-style assault for a commercial for the video game Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege and co-directed a music video for Mumford & Sons, who are also mates.
In 2013, he wrote and directed his own TV drama, The Pavement Psychologist, which saw a banker played by Anna Friel gaining enlightenment from a homeless man. Elba plotted out the script while enduring long hours of make-up on set for Long Walk to Freedom. In January, the House of Commons gave him a standing ovation after a 30-minute speech on the lack of diversity in film and TV — something that's subsequently become one of 2016's biggest talking points. Before that, the Queen gave him an OBE. These days even when he tries to get more than four hours sleep he can't. He says that even procrastinating about something he should be doing is better than wasting time asleep.
"I proper nodded off then, didn't I?" he says as the lift whisks us between floors. "Jeez… so this is The Shard? I did an advert for The Shard in an elevator: 'Come to The Shard'," he chuckles. "'You can bring your mother for Mother's Day…'"
If fame and fortune have brought Elba many new and unexpected opportunities, poetry reading and high-end hotel advertising among them, they have also presented some irritations. Chief on this list is the persistent rumour Elba will be the next James Bond — a rumour that, to be fair, has some authority, given it was started by Daniel Craig and endorsed by Amy Pascal, the then-boss of Sony Pictures, whose private emails were made public following 2014's WikiLeaks Sony hack (Sony make the Bond films). Since then, everyone from Kanye West to The Wire writer David Simon have offered up their thoughts on the matter.
"James Bond is a role made for British actors and you won't find a British actor who has the talent of Idris… A black James Bond would be visionary, no doubt," West said.
"That he isn't James Bond yet is a complete failure of imagination on somebody's part," said Simon. "I don't know who bollixed-up that obvious triumph."
Afterwards I leave with Elba in a car. Someone spots him and comes running over. "Be James Bond!" they shout.
The problem is there really isn't much Elba can do about any of this. And given that he seems to have been asked about being Bond in every interview since Craig first brought it up six years ago, he's become so fed up with the whole thing the subject is now deemed off-limits. "Why would I talk about Bond?" he snapped to the man from The Times last Christmas. "I'm not even in it."
More recently, the media have made their annoyances felt closer to home. Hours before our Shard meeting, the tabloids have put two stories together — Elba photographed leaving a nightclub in New York with Naomi Campbell, and his recent separation from the mother of his young son Winston — and come to their own conclusions. Consequently, Elba is in a low mood today. He's constantly being distracted by his iPhone. "Fuck's sake," he mutters. "Never-ending texts…" At one point he marches out of the room during a heated call, apparently concerning his wish to take Winston to see the boy's grandmother at the weekend. "I'm having a bit of a shit one," he tells me. "And I'm trying to keep a fucking smile on my face…"
He really is trying. While he's being photographed, he chats with Esquire's photographer, about acting. "Meryl Streep, you feel like you're watching someone new every time," Elba says. They discuss Kramer vs Kramer. "It depends on taking yourself there, to a place where, potentially she's putting herself through a fucking divorce, and all the stuff that comes with that. It's like [Elba's recent African child soldier movie Beasts of No Nation] I've got kids. Cary [Joji Fukunaga] who directed that, does not want me to appear to be acting. So you're asking me to go through some pressure, something traumatic. That's my job, that's what I love."
Afterwards I leave with Elba in a car. Someone spots him and comes running over. "Be James Bond!" they shout.
"Alright then," says Elba and closes the door.
2. It has perhaps been easy to underappreciate quite how great an actor Idris Elba is. Prior to meeting him, I sat down and watched as much of his work as I could get my hands on.
"Really?" he says, as though he could hardly imagine a bigger waste of anyone's time. "Must be sick of me, man."
It's true there's a lot of it.
"I've been in, like, 40 films now," he says. "There's American films, English films… I can't imagine how I've done 40 films. That's a lot. Been about, man! I've been that guy. Been about!"
When you've done so much it's inevitable that among the hits there will also be misses. But even in the roles that might have passed you by — no-nonsense accountant Charles Miner in the American version of The Office, an escaped psychopath called Colin in popcorn thriller No Good Deed, the straight-peg VP married to Beyoncé in the Fatal Attraction-indebted Obsessed, Elba is mesmerising. He vanishes into each character he plays. As ridiculous as it sounds, despite knowing the set-up for Obsessed, I spent the first few minutes watching a male actor with Beyoncé without realising it was Elba.
"Yeah?" he offers. "It got panned… Rotten Tomatoes, 40 per cent or something." (Sadly, the film review website was even less kind: 19 per cent.)
"What Idris does is very rare," says Neil Cross, writer and creator of Luther. "I could name you maybe half-a-dozen other examples in the history of Hollywood. He's intensely masculine but he doesn't have a macho bone in his body, and that's why women and men respond to him with equal devotion. I was talking to an actor about sharing the screen with him recently and she said his appeal is fundamentally gravitational — he pulls you to him. He's been historically underrated. He's one of the outstanding screen presences of his generation."
"He's up there with Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender and Daniel Craig," says James Watkins, director of this year's Elba action movie Bastille Day. "He has the physicality and the presence but also the acting chops. You can hold the camera on him and understand what he's thinking."
Idris Elba's next film is The Jungle Book. A live-action/CGI remake of the Disney classic, it features the voices of Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken. Elba plays Shere Khan. Part of Elba's virtuosity is down to his voice, and his ability to mould it into new and unrecognisable shapes. In The Wire, he played "Stringer" Bell, the mass-murdering heroin profiteer who still elicited our sympathy. Famously, Elba completed all his auditions without anyone twigging he was English, let alone from Hackney.
"How was that possible, I still don't know," says Oona King, the former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow who invited Elba to Parliament to give his diversity speech. "My family is African-American so I really know those types of black men. I was blown away when I found out he wasn't from Baltimore, but from here. It's as unlikely as you or I doing that role."
"Well, my favourite actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, manage to do it," Elba says. "Change their voice so convincingly you're, like, 'Fuck!' I wanted to be in that sector."
In 2013's sci-fi action film Pacific Rim and last year's Beasts of No Nation, he played leaders of men, albeit with opposing moral compasses. For those characters he studied speeches by real-life world leaders, Barack Obama and David Cameron included.
"I'd study people power," Elba explains. "I was really observing Obama being a powerful charismatic world leader, how he got people on his side. Even when he [Beasts of No Nation's merciless Commandant] was asking his troops to do something terrible he made them feel good. He did it with warmth: that power to remind people what's good about them. That's a pretty powerful tool, if you've got it."
But for the man-hating Bengal tiger Shere Khan, he took a different tack.
"You've got a malevolent character that has a history and is very disgruntled," he considers. "But it's animation. You just show up and do it."
3. Idris Elba would like a drink. "I know where to go, man," he says. He tells the driver to head to the East End and The Star Of Bethnal Green — Elba DJed there last year (he shows me photos). "The Grown Up Raver's Boozer Of Choice", as its website has it, is not far from 7 Wallace Road, the Georgian terraced house where Elba lived during the early series of Luther. It's since lent its name to Elba's music business, 7 Wallace. "It was the birthplace of Luther. I did a lot of character work and rehearsals and whatnot," he grins. "Among other things."
It was a party place: Elba's turntables were set up in the main room. "We called it the Christopher Wallace Suite," he explains — after "Christopher Wallace-type activities. In honour of Biggie."
Soon Elba will be moving back to the East End: after 16 years in America, he's just bought a house here. "I miss it," he explains. "It feels good to be back, actually."
The pub's owner, who Elba knows, and whose background is in promoting dance music events, comes over. Tonight he's throwing a party at his other pub, up in King's Cross. Is Elba around?
"Play some tunes?" Elba says. "I wouldn't mind, after today, man. I wouldn't mind it."
Music's always been a big deal to Elba. Aged 10, he'd make turntables out of cereal boxes. For his mi Mandela "character album", he travelled around South Africa courting and recording a disparate bunch of musicians. In typical Elba style, that album spawned its own project, the documentary Mandela, My Dad and Me. The link being the loose inspiration his "freedom fighter, union guy" dad gave him for the role, and that his father died suddenly before the main movie was released. It's entertaining viewing: not least to see Elba trying to extract a tune from a feckless trombone player who's drunk himself stupid. But also because Elba is self-aware enough to know that the history of actor-turned-musician hasn't always produced glorious results. At the end of the documentary, he's back in London playing his album in the boardroom of The Beatles' and Pink Floyd's record company, hoping that they'll agree to release it (they do).
"Those people did not know what to expect," he tells the camera. "I could see it dawn on them that, 'He is absolutely serious'."
"That's the story of my life in music," he tells me. "People listening with their eyebrows first."
So now he's added guitar, bass and keyboard lessons to his already stacked schedule. "I'm learning to play so I can express myself a lot better in subsequent albums with musicians," he explains. "Without having to chat so much shit."
I wonder if he's considering any more singing. "Any more singing?" He perhaps knows where this is going. "Er, ha ha! Yeah! Definitely, man! I like to sing! I'm no singer. But why not?"
There exists on YouTube some great examples of Elba's singing. Not just the vocalising — promo videos, too. In "Private Garden", a song from 2011, Elba gyrates in front of palm trees before writing messages on a would-be lover in fluorescent paint. Then there is "Sex in Your Dreams".
"That — yeah, OK, alright, yeah," Elba says. "Go on then…"
A perfectly serviceable r'n'b number, the highlight comes in the first verse. 'I'm in that zone, bone hard diamond-cutter,' he sings. 'Dick thick, like homemade butter'.
It's an interesting analogy.
"I guess you haven't had the homemade stuff," Elba says.
4. Idris Elba was born in London, the only child of African immigrants. I ask him if he thinks being an only child has served him well.
"Yes and no," he says. "It's made my imagination super-sharp, 'cos I had no kids to play with, so I made up my own. I was always aware of big families. In other ways, being an only child hasn't helped. It makes you quite selfish in the way you think about life. You look after yourself and you don't mind being on your own. That doesn't really build up strong connections in people. Especially people who are used to sharing and have big brothers and sisters."
He considers his point.
"You know, one of the big advantages is that going to bed meant turning off the light and having no cousins or brothers to cuddle up to and make you comfortable about the dark. None of that. So you're just in that headspace of, 'It's dark, so what? I'm not afraid.' African parents have a strict way of raising children that is not always warm and fuzzy. I had a tough skin. So when someone was warm and fuzzy I was, like, 'Woaaaah: this is nice'. Definitely."
5. He gets a text message that makes him laugh.
"Chris Evans has asked me to come on Top Gear," he says.
A good fit, no?
"Dunno," he says.
What about your land speed record, and all that?
He laughs. "I might want to make me own Top Gear show."
6. Idris Elba did not go to the Oscars this year. But unlike Will Smith or Spike Lee's public boycott in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite he had more prosaic reasons. "I wasn't invited," he explains. "Obviously, if I'd have been asked: absolutely, why not? The Oscars is like Christmas."
Beasts of No Nation was one of the films singled out in the debate. According to The Hollywood Reporter: "Elba was generally considered the most egregious snub on the Oscars ballot." (Both Elba and Beasts… won many other prizes during awards season.) I ask Elba if he felt snubbed. The topic seems to annoy him.
"I have no clue, bruv," he says. "I don't know. I don't have an opinion on that one way or another."
Since Elba's Commons speech there seems to have been a different diversity report every week. They've all said the same thing.
"I'm not surprised," he says. "It's a very fertile time for people to speak up about diversity. The power of film and television is bigger than it ever has been and people have questions, rightly so, about who makes it."
"He turned me down at first," says Oona King. "He said, 'The thing is, I don't want to give a speech about black people'. But I was asking him to give a speech about everyone. His whole mentality is that everyone on the planet is a unique individual. The response to it was extraordinary. This was a 30-minute speech — in Parliament. And within 24 hours on social media it had more than 10m hits."
But we should not be casting films based on colour. We should be casting films based on story. That's really it.
Elba went to America for work in the Nineties because he felt limited by the roles he was being offered here. It's something he's typically made light of — saying there were only so many "gang leaders" or "athletic characters" he could play. (It's actually worse than that: early Elba roles include a man who kept a woman's head in his fridge on Crimewatch and a gigolo on Absolutely Fabulous.)
But surely it was more frustrating than that? The implications are inherently racist.
"It wasn't frustrating," Elba says. "I was working, I was working quite a bit. But it was ambition that couldn't be held. You just get on with it in my experience, which is what I did. But we should not be casting films based on colour. We should be casting films based on story. That's really it."
Perhaps someone should tell The Hollywood Reporter. Recently, it announced Elba was in talks to star in The Mountain Between Us, based on Charles Martin's novel about a couple who fall in love after surviving a plane crash. "The casting would be notable given the furore surrounding #OscarsSoWhite," it declared, pointing to the film's Oscar-friendly storyline and noting that the character in the book is white.
"These questions are all diversity questions," Elba says. "It's an ongoing debate. It's nothing new, years and years. I think it's at a fever pitch at the moment and that's great. But change happens a lot slower than that. It will take time to unravel certain institutional ways of thinking and reset it. Period."
7. We order more drinks. We seem to be getting along well enough. At one point Elba asks me what the reaction was in the Esquire office when it was decided to put him on the cover. Great, I say — otherwise we wouldn't be doing it. But this isn't quite what he means. "But was there a, 'Right: we'll get this from him?' Or…"
This seems to be about as close to a green light as I'm likely to get. Well: there was one thing, I say. And I'm sure he can guess.
"I have no clue…"
"Oh God! Nah! Ha ha!" he says. "What could you possibly write differently about that? It's the most covered rumour in the world. Put it in Google: Idris Elba — Bond; Idris Elba — Bond…"
That's because people want you to do it.
"Do they really?"
Yes. For sure.
"OK, let me ask you this: do you think the amount of people that want Idris to play Bond correlates with the amount of people that are watching Bond?"
I'm not sure what you mean.
"Well, I mean: do you think Bond is as popular as it was?"
Yes! The last film was massive.
"It was massive… in what country? In this country it was massive. But in this country the idea of me being Bond is split."
"Yeah, it's like some are for and some are definitely against."
Earlier today, a man ran across a hotel forecourt to shout one thing at you: "Be James Bond!"
"Historically, has public opinion ever swayed Bond?"
I've got no idea.
"That's the question you should be asking!"
But, of course, it hasn't — Bond's not chosen by a talent contest.
"Exactly! In other words, it doesn't matter how many people want me to do it. It doesn't mean I'm going to get it. Every single Bond has never been chosen by that and, in fact, the ones that I think are most obvious are probably less likely to get chosen."
"And, I suspect, all those people who say 'he's a great actor'… The idea of having a man that is Bond played by a black man is the contributing intrigue to the discussion. And that, for me, is an off-put."
I can see why that would be.
"So, there's no more conversation I can have about it. Unless I'm sitting down with the head of whatever…"
He means Barbara Broccoli, the producer in charge of Bond. Who I happen to know he has sat down with.
"Who told you that? Who told you that?"
The internet told me.
"Fucking hell! The internet!"
It's where the information is kept nowadays. Is it true?
"Unbelievable! I have met Barbara Broccoli a bunch of times and she's lovely. We didn't talk about Bond…"
What else would you talk to Barbara Broccoli about?
"Well, Barbara's actually a really lovely person. Philanthropy…"
Hang on: you met Barbara Broccoli and you sat down to talk about philanthropy?
"Barbara Broccoli and I have met a few times, but we've not spoken about that. She's got a Bond. She doesn't talk about others while she's got a Bond."
Yeah, but he's off now, isn't he?
"Speculation. It's all speculative… Well done: you've got five minutes out of me that no one ever gets."
Just do Bond, then everyone can shut up about it.
"Ha ha! Yeah, and then the numbers come back and they're not very good and everyone goes: 'Oh God'."
That's what they said would happen with the current one.
Maybe you should do the Luther movie instead.
"There you go! There's the man! A man of vision! I'm loving that."
8. It's been said if you want to see how fine an actor Idris Elba is, watch episode 11 of series three of The Wire. The one where "Stringer" Bell dies. The Wire was a long time ago, especially so for Elba, since it took ages to become a hit. He started filming it back in 2000 — 16 years ago. What comes to mind first when he thinks about the show now?
"That I wish I could speak to the cast a lot more, and I don't."
Is he still friendly with them?
"Yes. One or two, via social media, of course. But I haven't seen anyone. I haven't seen Andre Royo [who played heroin addict "Bubbles"]. I've not seen Hussan Johnson, who played "Wee-Bey". I see Michael B Jordan [drug dealer Wallace] a lot. There have been one or two get-togethers but I haven't been able to make them which I'm sure everybody hates me for, thinking I'm bigger than I am," he says. "But it's been circumstantial."
9. I ask Elba why he thinks he acts.
"Er, therapy. If I'm honest, therapy is a good way to cleanse my… When I'm not acting is when my life falls to shit. It's really interesting. Really interesting. I'm going through this bollocks right now 'cos I'm not on a film set. Had I been on a film set, I wouldn't even have noticed. Probably. And not only that. If I did, it would have been all invested in my character. Like now, you see me: as soon as I pick up my phone I sort of unravel, right? Don't pick up the phone! You get to work, you don't look at the phone ever. Do you understand the difference?"
I ask him if he finds acting hard.
"It's easier now. But it's not an easy thing to do. Especially Luther when we shoot it on the streets of London and people show up to watch. Ignoring that and remaining in character — that's quite difficult. But distractions can come in many forms: other actors, your personal life, you might be working with a director that doesn't get what you're trying to do. That's massively difficult. Especially if they've cast you! But as I've grown older, I describe it as a well-oiled engine. Bit of an old Mercedes-Benz of an engine. Been going for about 30 years now. Just fire it up, and it gets you there. And every now and again it has a race — and wins."
10. In the American version of The Office, Elba's character Charles Miner is fawned over by his staff. In one of the show's trademark cutaways to camera, Miner says: "I am aware of the effect I have on women". It might have been written for Elba. His early DJ name was Mr Kipling. Apparently for his exceedingly good tunes. Though there is another version of the story: "The real version?" Elba asks."'He's got more tarts than Mr Kipling! Rude boy, what's going on?'"
When President Obama put on a White House screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with Elba and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein among the audience, he introduced the movie by saying that the last time Elba came to the White House, the ladies wouldn't leave him alone: "So ladies, leave him alone." Not long ago, an Instagram user called @Nova_Isig got so tired of his partner talking about Elba, he posted a 21-line poem: I'm Sorry I'm not Idris Elba. The actor replied with a signed selfie. "I'm Not Sorry I'm Idris Elba".
You're going to make me sound like a right twat now.
When did Elba become aware of the effect he has on women?
"Probably [when I was] about 14. My mate had a house and his sister and all her girlfriends used to come and they were all older than us. All them girls fancied me — and I knew it. I knew it!"
Now, he admits, being a famous actor helps. "Girls are all the time [girl's voice], 'Oh my God, you're so beautiful'. Thanks. You're only saying that 'cos I'm on TV".
What is it they particularly single out about you?
"I don't know. 'Man's man' — I've had that quite a bit."
Recently, he's noticed a curious new development in this department.
"It used to be one demographic. And now it's a lot of demographics."
How would he characterise these different demographics?
"Older women. Younger women…"
Basically women, then?
"I sound like a twat saying that! But there's definitely a thing where you walk into a group where there are two different types of women, and there's a real awkwardness starts to come in. And I'm not even qualified to say that, but I can feel there's a definite broadening of the type of women that find me attractive."
Congratulations, I say.
He puts his head into his hands. "You're going to make me sound like a right twat now."
11. When Elba speaks to acting students, he tends to give them the same tips. One is to watch what Meryl Streep does in Doubt. Another is to take whatever small amount of money they have earned that week, and rather than becoming discouraged, invest it in seeing a play that will inspire them. Also: read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. It reminds us that we have choices and that it's important to make them. Elba has read it twice a year since he was 26.
He's big on self-sufficiency. At 14, he was already earning money to buy the things he wanted; Troops trainers, for example, from Walthamstow Market. He Googles an example on his phone. "They might have been knock-off Nike design but everyone was, like: 'Where did you get them? Props!' That is the start-up mentality." (He spots me thinking about this. "Before you mention Troops I'm going to have to buy the company, so I can benefit a bit," he says.)
Then there's his theories about the brain. The way Elba sees it, all his extracurricular activities are life experiences to help boost his mental performance. He read somewhere that we only ever use 12 per cent of our brain and it's bothered him ever since.
"I'm expanding my brain capacity," he explains. "Not using more of my brain, I'm just using more of that 12 per cent. I'm at that edge."
What happens after that?
"What happens after that is undetermined. Because you either go into what you might call a genius, or bonkers. I suspect the next stage for me will be pushing even further. I'm not Martin Scorsese: but I could be. I'm not Brad Pitt: but I could be. You know what I mean? To get there, I think I've got to step into the realm of absolutely bonkers. That means there are certain things that you put on hold. Normal life just won't be happening."
You've really thought about this as a game plan.
"Yeah," he says. "'Cos my production company is buoyant, my acting is buoyant, my DJing is buoyant, my celebrity is buoyant, fatherhood is buoyant. OK! I'm, like, [he makes a crackling noise, like electricity] SKRRRRTT! — on all edges! And it's all working! But [for] the next stage forward, something is going to have to give. I either push through the barrier and go another 100mph, or I stop where I am. I don't see that happening."
He mentions his personal assistant. She's famous in his circles, he says, for her ability to work at capacity.
"We talk about it all the time. She'll say, 'I think we're pushing 13 per cent!' 'Shut up! You reckon?' That sort of learning on the capacity of your brain and what you can push is an ever-evolving thing. If you find an experiment to tell me what points of the day I am using 12 per cent of the matter up there, I'll be fascinated. And I bet you any money the 12 per cent I'm using, I'm only using eight of it. Bet you any money! But that leads me to think, 'Well, what the fuck could I do with the other four?' I could probably levitate out of here! Do you know what I mean?"
12. The Pavement Psychologist is a beguiling and unusual film. It features Anna Friel repeatedly changing her shoes in a room filled to the ceiling with shoeboxes. (This is never acknowledged.) What's the deal with that?
"Feet. I like feet," Elba explains.
Feet or shoes?
"I've got a foot fetish. Women's feet."
I ask him how that manifests itself.
"It doesn't manifest itself. In that film… we spoke about feet, but it manifested itself as shoes, because the character loved shoes."
Shoes are a subtext for feet.
"In the director's notes, yeah. Bit bizarre."
Feet are important.
"Er, I just love feet! I'm not getting into this…"
So, if someone you dated turned out to have really gnarly toes…
"I'm not getting into it! No! 'Cos if I get quoted for that, it's the end of my life. You see what drama I'm in right now for being in a nightclub? Oh my God.
"It's a shame, you know," he says. "Because I used to speak very candidly."
13. When Luther came out, the BBC did some analytics on it. They already knew Elba's John Luther, the splenetic cop who presides over a Gotham-style London in a red-tie-and-big-coat equivalent of a superhero uniform, was a huge mainstream hit. But with its serial killer storylines and bold violence (hands nailed to tables, tongues yanked out) it was an unlikely one. What did people like about it? The responses from men were particularly interesting.
Fear is a fucking cancer. It's something that, chemically, human beings can smell on the next man.
"It turned out they were just happy to see a man fucking tell someone to fuck off and punch him in the face," Elba says.
Sometimes male Luther fans stop Elba and tell him as much: it's good to see a geezer on TV. He sees it as being part of a bigger crisis of masculinity.
"I'm not saying we've been castrated, but people do say, 'I didn't go and do that for fear of this…' Fuck that! Do that, go through it, let it be shit and come out of it a stronger man, regardless. That's what I want to teach my son. Fear is a fucking cancer. It's something that, chemically, human beings can smell on the next man. When you are up against someone, it doesn't matter how tall or big or whatever, the advantages of size… If you meet a geezer and he's got a little bit of fear and you've got none, the likelihood is you're going to tear his head off. Fear is a disabler. I've got a war on fear! Fuck that! I fear nothing! I tell my daughter: fear no one. It's a waste of an emotion."
In truth, he says, fear rather than speed was what Idris Elba: No Limits was all about.
"Mate, when you've got five cameras on you and you're fucking shitting your pants and you've got a helicopter bearing down on you and downforce winds blowing your already hydroplaning car down a beach, you don't show it on camera."
So perhaps we could all learn something from Luther.
"Luther came in and punched someone in the face: 'You're a cunt — you're going to jail'. Oh! Did he just say that? Yes he did. It may not be correct in terms of police strategy or whatever, but for Christ's sake…"
14. A true story about Nelson Mandela. The premiere for Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was held in Leicester Square. Elba was seated next to the Duchess of Cambridge. Three-quarters of the way though the film there's a scene where Mandela finally leaves prison: "Just open the gate and let me be free," Elba as Mandela says. It was at that moment that Elba became aware of some consternation along the front row. The Duchess started crying. She handed Elba her phone: "NELSON MANDELA DIES, AGED 95". When the film finished it was down to Elba to step on stage and break the news. Now loads of people were crying. One woman shouted, "How could you go, Daddy?" — Mandela being called "Tata", or "Father" in South Africa.
"We couldn't have written the fact that he died at the premiere, [while I was] sitting next to the Duchess," he says. "That's bonkers."
Later, Mandela's family invited Elba to the state funeral and private burial in the Eastern Cape.
"It sounds so vain but it wasn't that — it was just, 'I can't believe I'm here'. Everybody was there. Every world leader. And they said, 'The man that recently portrayed Nelson Mandela is here, Idris Elba…' And people clapped." He mimes choking up. The emotion of being singled out… but something else as well.
"All I heard was 'Elba' — that's my old man's name… My dad's name was recognised."
15. Some questions have no definitive answers. I ask Elba how he introduces himself to someone he's never met.
"'I'm Idris Elba, nice to meet you,'" he laughs. "Actually, I get this a lot. 'Sorry: I don't know the name…' 'Oh, I'm an actor.' 'Oh nice. I don't recognise you. Done any movies?' At that point I go, 'Yeah, done a few — but I DJ as well. I've been doing quite a bit. I done Glastonbury last year.' [He mimes an intake of breath.] "Fucking amazing! You're that good at DJing?' And it's, like, God… But no: I describe myself as an actor and a DJ and a musician. And more recently, I describe myself as a businessman."
I ask what keeps him awake at night.
"My children. Thinking about them," he says. Then adds: "I don't want to get into it… It's all part and parcel of what's going on in my life."
What do people get wrong about him?
"That I'm the lifeblood of the party. I'm not. Don't like ra-ra-ra. 'Oh, Idris is coming — fucking amazing'. No. I just want to sit in the corner and enjoy everyone else having a good time. This is why DJing is so appealing to me."
Idris Elba can't say what his earliest memory is. It isn't that he can't remember.
"It's private," he says. "It happens to be that bizarre. It's super-personal."
He can't actually make sense of it, he says. "'Cos I was too young to understand what exactly was happening and now that I'm older I know what my memory is. I can see it. But what was I doing there?"
I ask if it was something rude.
"Yeah. It's bizarre. Really bizarre."
He can offer this up instead: going to see his uncle DJ on a boat at Tilbury Docks. He was six or seven. He and his cousins got dressed up in their nicest clothes and everyone went along on the long drive down there. He'd never been on a boat before, but even 30-odd years later he can still remember the size of the boat and the starkness of the dock and another thing, too. The way his uncle could make everyone dance. Just by playing the tunes they played at home. Showbiz.
16. Tonight, Idris Elba won't be DJing in King's Cross.
"I'm scared that I'm going to go out and have too much of a good time," he says. "Which will only make more trouble."
So he gets his iPhone out again. Perhaps the source of today's torment can now do something by way of offering up a reprieve.
"Siri," he asks it, "Who are Arsenal playing tonight?"
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