Monday, March 14, 2016

Wire star Idris Elba: 'I'd rather impress Mum and Auntie than earn millions as a Hollywood star!'

Luther (Pic:BBC)
One of the biggest British stars on American TV is an East End boy who started work in a car factory.
Now Idris Elba is back in London and starring role in the most eagerly anticipated police drama in years.
Fans of The Wire, the highly-acclaimed US cop show which ran for five seasons from 2002 to 2008, will know Hackney-born Elba as the charismatic gangster Stringer Bell.
From a cast of hundreds his was arguably the stand-out performance, one which surely guarantees that for the rest of his life Elba will turn down more jobs than he accepts.
But, he says, all the money in the world couldn't have lured him away from the lead role in a new BBC police drama.
"I could have played Stringer Bell-type characters forever," says Elba, 37. "I could be on the telly right now, in my own show, earning 150 grand an episode."
But, he says, the parts offered by US TV networks were all variations on the cool, business-brained drug baron.
"Let's imagine Stringer Bell opens a real estate agency. He's a real estate agent - but he's got an edge about him!" he jokes.
After The Wire, Elba has landed roles in Hollywood films such as Obsessed (with Beyoncé Knowles), heist drama Takers and action film The Losers.
"But the truth is, the films coming my way do not bear any resemblance to the writing I've been accustomed and privileged to do - The Wire being obviously the flagship of that."
A decade after he moved to the US to advance his acting career, Elba wanted to star in a quality drama series, a show that would as mean as much to his parents in the East End and his Auntie Mae in Peckham - as those he remembered from his youth.
To leave his girlfriend and infant son in Miami to film in London for six months, it had to be a project that meant something.
Luther, a new primetime BBC police drama starting tomorrow in which he has the lead role, was just the job. "Here I am, a boy that grew up with the BBC and ITV, then Channel 4," Elba says over a Guinness in a North London pub. "If you had a show on BBC1 where you were the lead man you had made it.
"And here I am - all the movie offers in the world couldn't top being offered Luther. How could you not take that?"
Luther, created by Neil Cross, previously a writer on Spooks, is a brilliant, gripping drama, and Elba, 6ft 4in and with a brooding intensity, fills the screen.
John Luther is a cop with shadows. He's smart and will stop at nothing to bring criminals - paedophiles, cop-killers - to justice. If rules are broken along the way, so be it.
"He's a slightly fantastic character based on the fact that coppers these days are not built that way," says Elba.
"Coppers follow procedure or the media has a feeding frenzy. So Luther is sort of like a superman cos he gets away with stuff."
One aspect of the role that appealed to Elba was that the character's race was never mentioned in the script.
"We haven't seen a Luther before," says Elba. "Not in England. Even in America, black men in leading roles are few and far between. But it's great it's never ever mentioned in our show. I love that.
"And that, I tell you, that is an achievement. But it will be drawn upon, of course it will. In England we're a little more modern in the sense integration is no big news for us, know what I mean? Been there, done that.
"My generation, we're all integrated, musically, culturally. We all went to the same schools, we all got the same education, we all had the same leaders."
Bell's father came to the UK from Sierra Leone, his mother from Ghana. His paternal grandfather, Moses Elba, was a sailor and a policeman, and Idris's dad told him many a tale of "fearless" Moses' travels.
Though Idris never met the man he is his hero - Moses Elba's name is tattooed on his grandson's arm. For the last two years of his primary schooling, Idris, an only child, attended Stormont House, a school for kids with "special needs". What were his? "Asthma! Yeah, that was a weird two years of my life. Very weird. I was asthmatic but I was fine as long as I wasn't running around.
"And here I was at this amazing school that was full of kids with very severe disabilities and kids who were just straight up bad - and I was chucked in the middle of that." This big, imposing man still carries an inhaler. He has to be careful when he exerts himself.
When he lived in LA, "smog was a big factor - I had to use my inhaler a lot". In "mixed" Hackney, he had never experienced racism.
But when his parents moved a few miles away to Canning Town, "that was a culture shock on many levels. Everyone's like, 'What you doing here, you black b******?'
Woah, who you calling a black b******?" He laughs about this - not least, one suspects, because he could look after himself.
After secondary school, young Idris followed his father's lead and took a job at Ford's Dagenham plant. It wasn't a happy time and the crunch came after a year on the assembly line. He was on the night shift, and he was bored.
After an argument with his super-visor he aban-doned his station.
"A n d about four or five in the morning I got back to my station and my supervisor is going, 'Where the f*** have you been? Who'd you think you are? You're supposed to be working. You're gonna get disciplinary action... '"
But Elba had been thinking as he roamed the factory. He already had some acting experience, in the National Youth Music Theatre.
"I said to my supervisor, 'Bruv, don't worry about it, I'm going. I'm gonna act. I'll see you later.'" That morning in late summer 1991, Elba went to a branch of STA Travel. Using an out-of-date student card he bought a discounted return ticket to New York for £179. He withdrew his last £300 from the bank and two days later was on his way. Inspired by the sights and sounds, he returned to the UK after a week.
"My dad said, 'You want to be an actor, that's fantastic, but while you live under this roof you need to pay some bills.'" Elba hit the audition circuit. TV parts soon came his way. A memorable early role came in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, playing a male escort hired by Patsy and Edina.
"I was working all the time. Silent Witness, Family Affairs, Insiders, Dangerfield - I'd done loads of work in a short space of time.
"I'm 24 years old, I got a Range Rover and a three-bedroom house and I'm married. Nothing was bad for me.
"I couldn't say that I had a horrible time as an actor, a black actor, here. But what I will say is that it just wasn't fulfilling my ambition. I was like, 'What next?'." America beckoned."I had a love affair with New York from the time I was 19, from when I decided that acting was gonna be it for me."
Aged 27, Elba moved to New York. Three years later, he landed the part of Stringer Bell. His career was on the up, but his home life fell apart. He and his wife split, and she now lives in Atlanta with their eightyear-old daughter.
Elba's parents, who live in East Ham, help him keep his feet on the ground. When he tells them he's been working with Will Smith, or that Steven Spielberg has called him about a possible job, they either don't know who he's talking about, or are just concerned their son is being paid properly.
Luther aside, they'll be more impressed with his other current role. Elba is an anti-knife crime ambassador for the Prince's Trust. He wants to help kids get off the streets and away from gang culture to find their talents.
"And I'm a recipient of Prince's Trust generosity - I got £1,500 to help me get into the National Youth Music Theatre, which was a lot of money back then. I probably wouldn't have gone if they hadn't given me that. That was a lifechanging experience for me."
Idris Elba is a busy man. After shooting Luther's six one-hour episodes he flew to Los Angeles to star in Thor, Kenneth Branagh's big-budget adaptation of the Marvel comic.
"I'm really happy to be in it," he says, draining his Guinness. "I get to work with Anthony Hopkins. I love that.
"My ambition is what took me out to the States. I wanted to achieve something that hadn't been achieved. I wanted to avoid stereotypes. But that meant this was gonna be a slow-burn career.
"And hey, man. I wanna be around for a little while."

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