By Charles Hallman
Idrissa Akuna “Idris” Elba recently won a Golden Globe award for his starring performance as Detective John Luther in the BBC television show Luther.
Luther “is a great character,” says Elba in a phone interview with the MSR. “It was very exciting for me to get the recognition.”
Born in Hackney, London, England, as the only child to a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Ghana, Elba shorted his given name at school and started his career in his early 20s, beginning in 1997 in a British soap opera. Since then, he has appeared in nearly 60 big and small screen roles both in Britain and America.
He’s played an egotistical mega-church preacher (The Gospel), a single father fighting for his children (Daddy’s Little Girls), a prodigal eldest son (This Christmas) and a drug lord named Stringer in HBO’s The Wire.
Asked about his trying-to-be-faithful husband performance, playing opposite Beyoncé in Obsessed (2009), “It was great working with Beyoncé. She’s amazing and a great thrill. She is a real talented person,” admits Elba.
“I had a big imagination,” he recalls when asked what initially drew him to acting. He started acting in high school after being encouraged by his drama teacher. He later left school in 1988 and won a place in the National Youth Music Theatre: “I just wanted to do it.”
Until his big break came nearly a decade later, Elba worked in nightclubs as a DJ — “Big Driis the Londoner” — and other jobs, including auto factory worker and advertising salesman. “There were some very frustrating moments” as his career crept forward.
Now it’s in top gear. Elba’s latest big-screen performance is as the leader of a group of rebel monks in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. “I try to choose roles that provide a challenge to my skills,” he says, calling his Moreau character “a silly character.” On working with co-star Nicolas Cage for the first time, Elba says it was “a great experience. He’s very serious and works hard.”
However, Elba proudly points to two lesser-known films — Sometimes in April (a 2005 TV movie) and Legacy (2010) — that he believes best exemplify his acting chops. The first film was on the Rwandan Genocide: “These are true stories and people’s lives were really affected, so I have a lot of inspiration to go off,” he recalls. His character in Legacy was filmed “in a very small room”: He played a captured and tortured black-ops solider who deals with its aftermath once he returns home.
“Both were challenging roles,” surmises Elbe.
While preparing for his Ghost Rider role, “There were no particular challenges other than learning skills on a bike,” says the award-winning actor.
Elba has appeared in several science-fiction and fantasy films besides Ghost Rider, including the upcoming movies Pacific Rim (expected to be released in 2013) and Prometheus, which is now in post-production. When asked why he’s in a genre not always known to include Blacks, “I don’t know why there aren’t any Black characters in sci-fi [films],” he concludes, “but the reason why I select these roles [is] because [these films] have great characters.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.