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Idris Elba—Takers, Luther, The Wire—08/6/10

/content/interviews/315/1.jpgI spoke with Idris Elba both for GrouchoReviews and the Celluloid Dreams radio program. What follows is the complete transcript of our conversation at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel during Elba's press tour for Takers.

Groucho: You may know Idris Elba for his films like 28 Weeks Later and this summer's The Losers. Chances are you saw his hilariously deadpan turn as Michael Scott's boss on six episodes of The Office. Or you just may know him as entrepreneurial drug dealer Stringer Bell on HBO's The Wire, heralded by critics and viewers as one of the best TV series in the history of the medium. Elba has also distinguished himself on stage and as a DJ and musician under the name of "DJ Driis." And you can check out his EP High Class Problems, Vol. 1. He serves as an associate producer on his new BBC series Luther, which premieres on BBC America this fall and executive producer of Legacy, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. In his new film Takers, he plays Gordon Betts, leader of a daring gang of thieves. Wherever you see him or hear him at work, Elba is a commanding presence with the skills to pay the bills. Idris Elba, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.

Idris Elba: Thank you very much, and what an introduction! Wow, that's me? I should just retire now.

Groucho: (Laughs.) With Takers, in order to accept what these guys are doing to city streets with C4, we have to buy into the reality. And it seems to me largely the responsibility falls on your shoulders, in tandem with Marianne Jean-Baptiste. What did you do to make it real for yourself, in your preparation?

Idris Elba: You know, the character wasn't ever designed to be an English guy. And I think we made that choice collectively because [we] wanted to give it the element of-these are career thieves. And there are career thieves all over the world. And bringing an English guy into L.A. just seemed to have a lot more depth to it, and a lot more "Okay, if he is going to be a professional thief, this guy has traveled a long way to do it, and he's clearly successful. And, for me, that was a mechanism to sort of root my character into this world a little bit more. And then, of course, I really spearheaded the development of my sister's storyline by asking Marianne Jean-Baptiste to play the part for me and sort of bring in a real-you know, while I was watching it the other day in the movie's quite a departure from the film because not only is the storyline very-you don't really understand why we keep coming back to these very intimate scenes between these two English people, these two Afro-Caribbean people. It is quite a departure for the American audience in a film like this. But, for me, that was one of the mechanisms that roots its films. You know, it's a heist film.

G: Right.

IE: But this storyline and my character sort of-it takes it slightly deeper, perhaps.

G: Mm-hm. Another aspect of the film that's more to the crime-fantasy end of it would be that these guys are all high rollers.

IE: (Chuckles.)

G: They really enjoy their lifestyle. Are there fringe benefits to that aspect of the film? Is it really enjoyable to wear those clothes and drive those cars?

/content/interviews/315/3.jpgIE: You know, I mean,  it's—we see it in music videos all the time, you know what I mean? And here we are attempting to put a sort of spin on it in a film. You know, Ocean's Eleven has done a fantastic job of this. But in this film, there is less humor than in Ocean's Eleven. I think that Takers takes [itself] quite seriously in that sense. And so, yeah, we had a good time in putting on these costumes and being these sort of larger-than-life thieves. I did, at least, and I know-you know, Michael Ealy is a phenomenal actor. And we spoke about that a little bit. And yeah, it's quite an interesting take on it.

G: You give back as a volunteer with the Anti-Crime Federation, right?

IE: Yes, I work with the Prince's Trust in England, yeah.

G: I know it's important to you that this sort of thing not be overly glamorized. And the film—not to give anything away—but there's an ambiguous ending that leaves certainly some doubt as to whether or not crime pays.

IE: Right. (Laughs.)

G: Is that sort of a pre-requisite for you to take a role like this, that it not glamorize the criminal lifestyle?

IE: It's not a pre-requisite, no. I mean, you know, I like to separate my politics from my entertainment. But, you know, there is definitely a responsibility from us. For me, exactly: you know, if I'm going to be an ambassador towards sort of anti-crime, to not take roles that are just for the sake of it. But, you know, again, I do separate the two.

G: You know, when I watched this film, I thought, "Man, Idris Elba, he's ready for his cover shoot for Cigar Aficionado.

IE: (Laughs.) Which I was asked to do, actually. But I'm not a cigar smoker, so I...

G: But, you know, with the screen style, I think a lot of costume designers probably are chomping at the bit to put you in something. But, on the other hand, in Luther, where you play a detective, you sort of are dressed down. He's sort of rumpled, and he has slouchy posture and everything. Can you talk a little bit about—I mean, do you get involved in the aspect of developing your costume as a part of your character?

/content/interviews/315/4.jpgIE: Yeah, it's a huge part of my development as an actor is what he's wearing, you know. The meetings that you have with the costume designer are just as important as the meetings you have with the director and the writer. Because you are putting this character's aesthetics together. And it's important; it's very important to me. And in Luther, for example, we did not change—Luther doesn't change his clothes. And that was a design, specifically, so that this character had a—it's almost like a hero feel to him, you know. Or the anti-hero feel, whatever you want. But he looks the same in every single episode. That's ‘cause he has no change in clothes.

G: Yeah. Columbo had that, too.

IE: Columbo had that, too. And you know what? That came up in our meeting.

G: Yeah, yeah.

IE: It came up in our meeting.

G: Yeah. It's iconic.

IE: Yeah.

G: Is that show going to go to a second series? I heard a rumor there might be specials coming down the line.

IE: Yeah, well, you know, I mean, we are doing a second series of it, but we're going to dissect it into a different way. So we're going to sort of adhere to the trends of how people watch television now. And the weekly episodics, they're sort of fallin' away. And people are watching box sets, or one at a time. You know what I mean? Popping the DVDs in. So we might try and take that one and do some specials with Luther.

G: It's great stuff. It's very-the plots are wild, but again-

IE: (Laughs.)

G: You're able to ground it. You really believe in that guy.

IE: Have you seen it?

G: I have, yeah.

IE: Oh, nice one.

G: Yeah.

IE: Nice.

/content/interviews/315/2.jpgG: Only in America can you walk toward the camera in slo-mo with a helicopter exploding behind you, I suppose. What, to you, is the major difference between working in America and working in England?

IE: Major difference.

G: Is there a different—you know, on the set—kind of attitude that you feel?

IE: No. No. The language of the film crew is pretty much universal. Everyone has the same work ethic. You know, craft-y tables [Ed: "craft services," i.e. "eats"] are much more elaborate in America than they are in England. But, no, it's pretty much the same sort of universal code.

G: You've worked on the stage with Sir Peter Hall. You recently finished working with Kenneth Branagh on Thor, which is exciting. I also read that you plan on moving into directing yourself, and you might do that with the BBC2.

IE: Yeah.

G: What comes to mind as the most helpful direction you've ever gotten? What do you look for from a director?

IE: Preparation. You know, what happens is that, when you walk into-when the director walks into a production meeting, there are fifteen heads of departments: all have different parts of expertise. And then you go into the actors room, and you could be talking about pink marshmallows walking around on the moon, because that's what the character is all about, and that's-you know, when a director walks into a room, he has to be prepared; he has to be prepared to sort of, on multi-levels, be able to discuss what the actors are going to do. In the very same way, if the artistic director has some really crazy ideas, again your expertise and your preparation is going to help you. So, you know, I asked this question very recently to a director called David Twohy. And David said to me, "Just be prepared for everything to change.

(Both laugh.)

/content/interviews/315/5.jpgG: It's funny you mention that. On The Office, you got your improv skills tested. And it seems to me that improv is something that comes very easily to you or very naturally to you.

IE: Yeah.

G: But could you talk a little bit about the development of your craft. I know you've said that, when you were a kid on the playground, being tall really helped your confidence, and that carried over into your career.

IE: Yeah, yeah, It's interesting that that size, and me having that size, meant that I didn't have to say as much, or be as popular. I just was by default. And that is a sort of in-built confidence. And then as I grew up, being athletic and sort of being able to win races and kick cardio and run faster, again there's a confidence builder. It had nothing to do with personality at all. And, in fact, I always, often shied down to big personalities. Because they would outshine me all the time. And now as I'm—my physical presence is—it's not about that as much; it's more about my personality. You know, I'm still quite a shy person. But my release is certainly my art. Being able to sort of bring into these huge characters—for example, in Legacy, I play a character that has paranoid schizophrenia. And, you know, I got to exercise a part of my psyche that I had never done before, and it was: pheew! A great, big bounce for my confidence as an actor. Believe it or not.

G: Yeah, In terms of craft, do you think you're fairly intuitive, or did you learn a lot about craft when you were in the National Youth Music Theatre-where did you develop your craft?

IE: Yeah, it's more intuition. It's more intuition, and it's definitely sort of like, you know, do as I do. I've watched a lot of actors over the years. I'm really not, you know, technically trained. I think if I were to walk into a sort of classical theatre play, I'd be challenged hugely, because there's a specific way to work in that ward. And I would be out of my depths. But, with a lot of-you know, I could watch and learn.

G: You started out—I guess one of your first professional experiences was deejay-ing. And then you were also a pirate-radio show host.

IE: That's right, yeah. (Laughs.)

G: Is live performance something that still interests you? I know it's difficult when your screen career is so hot, to step away and do something that's a little more time-consuming.

IE: It is. It is very much an interest for me to sort of delve into stage work. I'm sort of trying to work on something now that could possibly see me on the stage for four months in the new year. But it is time-consuming. It's, you know-I'm a career actor. I've been doing it for a long time, and I don't want to just be known for doing film and television. I'd like very much to do some theatre. But it does take time. And it takes strategy. Especially when you're sort of an emerging "star," as they say. You know, the timing is everything.

G: Yeah. I do have to ask about The Wire, because that was my first experience of you as an actor. And it's such a wonderful show. I'm curious: once you landed the role, how did the producers and how did you on your own—because it is so much the story of that city—how did you take in the city? You know, how did you get ready to play that part?

/content/interviews/315/6.jpgIE: Well, you know, I was a sort of New York resident and New Jersey resident for a long time. And, you know, I didn't really...much get outside of that world. The tri-state was where I knew, you know? And then when I had gotten the job, and I had gotten on that train that leaves Penn Station and takes you down to Baltimore, I remember sitting on this train and watching the world go by and going past Pennsylvania and goin' past Philly and going, "Hmm. Interesting." And then getting to Baltimore, which, you know-the train station is quite a small, old building. I was like, "Wow. Okay. Okay, and this is about drug crime?" I just couldn't work it out. I was like, "What am I doing here?" Baltimore's quite an interesting city, in terms of-it's like Disneyland., you know, you've got the Inner Harbor, which is sort of beautiful and gorgeous, and just behind in the harbor is where people are actually working. (Chuckles.) Or not working. And dying. Or very poor, or just a real existence, and I was like taken back by that. There's no doubt. But Baltimore, you know, accepted me, and I accepted it. And I lived there for pretty much the good part of three years.

G: Well, we have to wrap it up. It's gone all too quickly. Thanks for being on the show.

IE: Thanks, man. Great, great questions. Good talking to you.


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