Idris Elba in Luther: The Fallen Sun. Photograph: Steve Schofield/Netflix
Idris Elba: ‘You can make sparkling wine in Portsmouth or champagne in Champagne. My ambition was to make champagne’
The London-born actor is taking Luther’s tweed coat to the big screen in The Fallen Sun, and dreams of kicking off a franchise to rival Mission Impossible. And he’s still finding time to write, direct, DJ and work for the UN
by Steve Rose
Fri 3 Mar 2023 01.00 EST
Acouple of years ago on the BBC show Famalam, comedian Tom Moutchi did an amusing sketch called Idris Elba Can Do Anything. Wearing Elba’s trademark long Luther coat and soundtracked with a parody rap (“Bitch. I’m. Idris. Elba”), he saunters into various scenarios – a coffee shop, a cancer research lab, the Large Hadron Collider – and basically bosses the situation, despite his obvious lack of expertise. “I’ll tell you why I know I’m an excellent barista: I’m Idris Elba. I’m an actor, writer, director, DJ, influencer, producer, rapper, comedian, kickboxer.” Elba himself found the sketch so funny, he invited Moutchi to appear with him, as Elba, at an awards ceremony. In other words, Elba bossed even this situation.
Elba has only added more sidelines to his CV since then: podcaster, wellness entrepreneur, restaurateur, wine importer, fashion designer, UN goodwill ambassador. Scrolling through his Twitter feed of the past few months, he has been everywhere: in traditional robes at a festival in Ghana; wearing a sharp suit at the Gucci show in Milan; accepting a Time100 Impact award in Dubai with his wife, Sabrina Dhowre; at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He is currently working on a new album. He has hardly slacked off on acting, either: big-budget franchise movies (Thor, The Suicide Squad, Fast & Furious), playing Tilda Swinton’s djinn (in George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing), gunslinging in the wild west (The Harder They Fall), voicing wild cats (The Jungle Book), fighting wild cats (Beast), being a cat (er … Cats). He never seems to sit still or slow down or tire out. Bitch, he’s Idris Elba.
When we meet in the bar of a London hotel, Elba, immaculately groomed as ever, downplays his activity levels. “My multiverse takes a lot of planning,” he says, chewing an olive. “So contrary to belief – ‘Oh, he’s everywhere’ – actually, it takes time to do the things I’m doing. I’m very multilayered because I have very different interests in different areas.” Having said that, he can barely sit still. The barman has to bring more olives and mini crackers.
We’re here to discuss what has become one of the few constants in Elba’s career: DCI John Luther, rule-bending, risk-taking, tweed coat-wearing cop whose razor-sharp detective skills usually, but not always, catch the criminal and save the day. He debuted as the character on the BBC in 2010 and the show was an instant hit. Five series and 13 years later, he is back in the tweed coat for a Netflix feature, Luther: The Fallen Sun, that expands the scope and sets the character up on a whole new footing, more of which later.
When Luther first came along, Elba was in a strange place. He had broken through five years earlier as a result of his role as Stringer Bell, the smooth criminal at the heart of David Simon’s celebrated Baltimore drama The Wire. He was practically a household name, albeit as much for his desirability as his talent. Few actors of the era were as thirsted over as Elba. He was a fixture of “sexiest man alive” polls, and there are whole YouTube compilations of celebrities publicly declaring their lust for him. “I got a lot of attention, yeah. And still,” he jokes.
Personally and professionally, though, he felt adrift. “Most people thought I was American during The Wire and then when they realised I was not, I suddenly stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt more scrutinised,” he says. “I was enjoying success, but I don’t think I was being pushed or stretched as an actor. I don’t think I was getting roles that were like … remarkable.”
“I could feel that there was a glass ceiling coming.” He mimes being trapped underneath this ceiling, raising his hands above his head. “I could sort of see the smudges on it.” Luther was the polar opposite to Stringer Bell, he says. “Playing a detective, and offering a compelling version of that, that’s what set me free. Or at least redefined what people thought my capabilities were.”
Not that Elba particularly identifies with the character: “I’m nothing like Luther in real life, apart from perhaps being very patient.” Surely they must have something in common? “John has demons, right? And you don’t know much about his past. I don’t relate to that but I can be quite guarded. I’m in the public eye all the time, and I’m quite open. But at the same time, do you really know much about me? If you read my interviews, I’m very careful. I’m not overly sharing some of my deepest, darkest, and neither is John.”
Elba married for the third time in 2017, in Marrakech. His wife is Canadian Somali model Sabrina Dhowre (you can buy the rosé wine they drank at their wedding from his label, Porte Noire). He has two children from earlier relationships. “Contrary to popular belief, I live a quite sheltered life,” he says. “I feel as I get older – I’m 50 now – we all have fears of saying too much, oversharing and whatnot. And in this day and age, it’s really difficult to have an opinion if you’re in the public eye because it gets overly scrutinised, taken out of context, thrown into some sort of bullshit, zeitgeisty social media argument.”
As if to prove his point, Elba commented this month in an interview with Esquire that he “stopped describing myself as a Black actor when I realised it put me in a box”. The comment provoked a flurry of reaction, an example of how social media can be a “conflict incubator”, he says. “Me saying I don’t like to call myself a Black actor is my prerogative. That’s me, not you. So for you to turn around and say to me, I’m ‘denying my Blackness’. On what grounds? Did you hear that? Where am I denying it? And what for? It’s just stupid. Whatever.”
My multiverse takes a lot of planning. Contrary to belief, actually, it takes time to do the things I’m doing. I’m very multi-layered
If anyone has earned the right not to talk about their career in terms of race, it is Elba. But race has undoubtedly shaped Elba’s career, for better and worse. The only child of African parents (his father from Sierra Leone, his mother from Ghana) who moved to Britain as adults, he grew up in east London: first Hackney, then predominantly white, working-class Canning Town. He started getting small parts in television shows such as The Bill and the Channel 5 soap Family Affairs, but again felt he was approaching a glass ceiling. Opportunities for Black actors were extremely limited in the UK at the time, so, like many others, he moved to New York.
Elba does not explain the decision in terms of race. “I wanted to play in an arena that had a much more diverse array of actors and cultures in film-making. And I wanted to be, quote, unquote, a movie star,” he says. “You can make sparkling wine in Portsmouth or you can make champagne in Champagne, and my ambition was to make champagne.”
It very nearly fell flat, though. For the first four years in New York, Elba had hardly any work, save for the occasional gig back in the UK. “That was a very, very tough time. I was in a competitive market of actors that were born and raised there. But I never contemplated giving up. When my daughter, who’s 21 now, was conceived, that was when I was like, ‘OK, if this doesn’t happen I’m gonna go home’. And the day before she was born I got The Wire.”
It helped that Elba had been living almost undercover. The whole time he lived there he spoke in an American accent. “All the time,” he nods, sipping his tonic water. “David Simon had no clue until the last audition.” Simon even had a bet going with his producer. “At the last audition, the producer asked me: ‘Where are you really from?’ I said: ‘East London’ and the room erupted. David lost the bet. And he said: ‘OK, I’m gonna give you the job because you had me fooled’.”
There’s a strange symmetry in the fact that Elba had to go to the US and play American to find success, then when he came home and played British in Luther, it became a big hit in the US. Luther really did smash through that glass ceiling: it was the first primetime BBC drama led by a Black actor. The part was not even written for Elba originally (rumour has it David Tennant was an early candidate), but when he auditioned for it, he made it his own, to the extent that the character was allegedly rewritten to play to his strengths.
One word that often comes up with Elba is “presence”. As well as looks and physique, and that rich voice, he is blessed, it seems, with natural grace and authority. He can be charming with a hint of menace, or he can be menacing with a hint of charm. One insider who worked on Luther in the early days recalls how Elba was quite a handful on set: “He could be quite chaotic off-camera but was always incredible on camera.”
The Fallen Sun takes Luther to some pretty far-fetched places, it must be said – out of his customary London beat and into the territory of a certain other long-running British action franchise, let’s say – one with which Elba’s name has been regularly associated. The climax, at a secret lair in the middle of the Arctic, is particularly reminiscent of a Bond movie; the ending sets Luther up for more adventures, in a more secret agent-ish capacity.
Bond? There weren’t even discussions. There’s never been any truth to any of it.
Were the “Elba as the next James Bond” rumours ever true? “I love the Bond franchise, I’m very close to the producers,” he says. “We were all kind of laughing about the rumours because they are just that.”
How close did anything ever come to happening? “No, nowhere.” There weren’t even discussions? “Not that I’m going to tell you.” So there were discussions? He laughs and shakes his head. “I can’t speak for them, but from my perspective, there’s never been any sort of truth to any of it.” He appreciates the irony, at least, that his name has been more associated with James Bond than anyone apart from Daniel Craig. “ It’s a compliment and it’s an honour, but it’s not a truth.”
He doesn’t need Bond now; he’s got his own action franchise. He describes his ambitions for Luther in terms of Bond, Mission Impossible and Bourne. “These are solitary figures that go off and have conviction and style and grace, take out the bad guy. But I think with John there’s a sort of grounded relatability. That’s the space where I think I can take this franchise further and deeper.”
And what’s to stop him? Bitch, he’s Idris Elba. Having conquered the UK and US, Elba’s “relatability” is now global, especially working with Netflix. He has a huge African fanbase, having regularly worked there, from the Nelson Mandela biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to the acclaimed child-soldier drama Beasts of No Nation to the psycho-lion thriller Beast.
Meanwhile, he and his wife are increasingly active in Africa in their role as UN ambassadors for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, highlighting issues of food security and climate breakdown. Plus a million other projects.
“People think I’m like a jack of all trades; it’s not that,” he says. “It’s just that I get to learn everything because of my career. Like, I’ve learned to fucking fly a plane! I’m thankful to be able to have all these different tentacles to my life.”
But Elba downplays the notion that he is somehow special, preferring to take a more motivational outlook: “I’m 50 years old, and I am exhausted sometimes. But at the same time, I’ve pushed what I was expected to do as a Black person in the UK, having grown up in a certain socioeconomic dynamic. So for those that are sitting there going: ‘Oh my God he’s fucking exhausting’, it’s because you are sitting there. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it. My biology and your biology are no different. We are the same species. Our intellect, IQs, cultural backgrounds may be different, but our capabilities as human beings are the same.”
Luther: The Fallen Sun is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 10 March