The GQ Cover Story: Idris Elba
From The Wire to Pacific Rim to this fall’s Mandela, Elba is the solitary man who always draws a crowd
Late one night, factory floor, somewhere in East London. Idris Elba is two decades younger—so not yet The Wire’s Stringer Bell, or Pacific Rim’s Stacker Pentecost, or Nelson Mandela, but still basically the guy he is now: bluntly good-looking, square-shouldered, with a charm so easy it borders on evasive. This is the factory where Elba’s father works. The son has already been a tire fitter, a shop clerk, a DJ, and a drama student, until the money to pay for school ran out. Now, in lieu of a better option, he works here, on the night shift, welding side panels onto a never-ending procession of Ford Fiestas. Often he falls asleep as car after car passes by; to this day in England people drive Fiestas that are missing their bottom welds on account of Idris Elba. He sleeps and wakes up and thinks about his father, doing this same job for thirty years and counting.
This is the night Elba decides he’s had enough. Before he comes to work, he buys a one-way plane ticket to New York. At the plant, he goes by his dad’s office to say good-bye. His dad’s a boss by now, and with that responsibility come certain privileges, which include the keys to a little sports buggy—a go-kart, really, for getting around the factory—keys that Elba, in the midst of an awkward, emotional farewell, swipes from his father’s desk.
He’d brought some beers. It was about 1 a.m. The plant, he remembers, “was huge, about the size of Disneyland.” He took the buggy, started driving it around—joy-riding, basically. “It was freezing out, just driving around that whole plant. I had a Walkman, and I had Sam Cooke on it. That’s all it was: Sam Cooke, the whole album. Sipped from that beer like, ‘Fuck this world.’ ”
He rode around for a couple of hours, returned to his station at 3 a.m. to find an enraged supervisor and, behind that supervisor, his enraged father. He turned the keys in, walked out of the plant.
“And the next day I was in New York for the first time.” He stayed at the YMCA in Union Square, started scouring the local papers for casting notices: “Open audition, black male wanted. 6’4″, can play basketball.”
He couldn’t play basketball. The rest of it seemed promising, though.
And just to give you an idea of what Idris Elba’s life is like now, twenty years later:
In a few moments, the evening air here on Ibiza’s south coast will turn burnt orange, and Elba—after threading his way carefully past a Birkenstock-clad Fatboy Slim and a willowy brunette with a pile of loose weed in her palm—will bound onto the outdoor stage at the Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel to DJ for an hour and a half. When his set is over, Elba will be hustled into a waiting car, and we’ll all caravan into the setting island sun toward the unlovely tourist town of Sant Antoni de Portmany. He’s got another gig scheduled there, the second of three this evening. The last DJ set, at Ibiza Rocks House at Pikes Hotel, where Elba’s staying, will take place in a louche warren of rooms where Freddie Mercury used to stay; there’s a little piano, a big comfy bed on which guests are encouraged to dance, and a tub that I am told more than once can hold up to four people. That last gig isn’t even supposed to start until 2 or 3 a.m., and it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, Elba already hasn’t slept in more than twenty-four hours. He’s come here straight from Los Angeles, where he was attending the premiere of Pacific Rim, the Guillermo del Toro–directed blockbuster in which he stars as a stentorian monster-apocalypse resistance leader. In the UK, the third season of the BBC’s much loved detective series Luther has just begun; Elba plays the title character, in a rumpled suit of self-loathing and rage. And at some point between yesterday and today, the Internet got hold of the first trailer for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Elba as Nelson Mandela, in a performance that does real honor to the flawed, angry, and vivid humanity of the man himself. He’s also got a decent-size role in Thor: The Dark World, out in November. And in a few days he’s flying to Madrid, where he’ll begin shooting The Gunman, with Sean Penn and Javier Bardem.
Right now you look at him backstage, busily preparing to go out and bang house remixes of Lana Del Rey and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and see a man gathering momentum the way public figures sometimes do, when certain stars align. Who knows—maybe it’s merely the sweet, syrupy scent of Red Bull drifting on the wind, or maybe it’s the legendarily nonlethal properties of Ibiza, a place where, I’m told, not a single natural thing can kill you “except drugs.” Maybe it’s all just another set of false indicators in a career filled with them. But here among the island’s silently rotating mechanical bulls and its sunburned Euro girls in white sneakers and tube tops, it feels like an overdue thing is finally happening for Elba, an actor long regarded as one of the most charismatic of his generation, even if until now he didn’t have the work to show for it.
Name another actor of his size and physical presence—six feet three inches, 200 pounds, linebacker broad—so singularly gifted at bringing inner life to such a majestic outer frame. “He exudes power” is how del Toro describes Elba. “But he doesn’t exude the power of The Man, of the establishment. He doesn’t have the authority that belongs to a group. It’s an authority that belongs exclusively to him.” Del Toro says he figured there were about four actors on the planet who could sell Pacific Rim’s gloriously preposterous “WE ARE CANCELING THE APOCALYPSE” speech; even among those four, he chose Elba.
Del Toro is also the first to mention something that I will come to notice as well, which is that Elba’s charisma is largely the product of a basic discomfort with the job: that his wattage goes up in front of cameras and crowds, even as he seems to experience a certain unease around both. “Idris, when he’s acting,” del Toro says, “I don’t think he is content.”
Perhaps that’s why Elba is here, taking a long-weekend break from his day job to open for the guy who wrote “The Rockafeller Skank”—because here on Ibiza, where everything is weird and infused with talk of magnetic rocks (people on Ibiza really love to talk about magnetic rocks), Elba is less acting or performing than just diving in with the rest of us. Perhaps this is why he introduces himself to the crowd the way he does when he finally takes the stage, in Nantucket-reddish pants and a blue crewneck T-shirt, briefly turning down the music and picking up a microphone in order to playfully disown the growing public expectations that come along with the name Idris Elba:
“How you feeling? Make some noise! Fatboy Slim up later. And me…”
Long, perplexed silence.
“I’m just joking. Grab a drink, let’s have some fun.”
As a kid, Elba says, “I sort of blended into the background quite a bit. I wasn’t the guy that was a big personality. I was the tall, silent, quiet type.” Even now—I can attest to this—he gets lost in crowds. Walk into a room with him and watch him disappear. “I call it the invisible factor,” he says. “On any ordinary street, walking down in London Soho in a cap, I’m just a fucking tall black man walking along.”
He grew up in Hackney, East London, an only child. His mother worked as a clerical assistant for the government; his dad worked at the factory. Dinners were in front of the TV—Dallas, Starsky & Hutch. “What was the show with the car with the Confederate flag on it? Dukes of Hazzard.” Elba didn’t exactly see himself in that; he was not the kid watching television, imagining being part of it one day.
But in school he signed up for a drama class and immediately took to it. I point out the incongruity—the quiet kid at an all-boys school, getting up to do Shakespeare in front of the entire class.
“Even with people looking at you, when you’re playing a character, you’re so hidden,” Elba says immediately. “There’s a weird little thing there, where you just feel most comfortable being someone else, because then they’re not really looking at you. Know what I mean?”
Elba spent his twenties going back and forth between New York and London, looking for work. In New York he would stay in Brooklyn, where he’d work on his American accent at a Fort Greene barbershop called Ace of Spades. He had an on-and-off relationship with a woman who lived in London, and when he was 26, they decided to get married. “I liked the idea of being married,” Elba says. “I was focused in on what I was trying to do in my life. And my girl supported me.”
But whatever roles there were in America, Elba wasn’t finding them. He DJ’d at New York dives to help make rent, worked for a while as a bouncer at Carolines, a comedy club. He and his wife moved around a bunch. “I had to keep going back and forth to New York, to London, to try and make a bit of money real quick.” Back in the States, Elba’s wife “didn’t adjust to the culture as quickly as I did.” And he was gone a lot. “We just had a hard time. The next thing you know, we broke up.”
The timing was bad; she was pregnant. Elba began sleeping in his Astro van. “The apartment we had lived in together was in Jersey City. So when I left, I was sofa-hopping here and there and got to a place where I was parking it in Jersey somewhere and just camping down for the night.”
What did you think when you were laying your head down at night to go to sleep in a van?
“I mean, it was like, ‘Fuck, where did I go wrong?’ I had a lot of promise in England, you know? ‘What the fuck are you doing here? Your visa’s going to run out soon. You’re going to have a baby. What the fuck are you doing?’ That’s what’s going through my head.”
He got a call about a show HBO was putting together called The Wire. At first he was trying out for the part of Avon Barksdale, Stringer’s boss, the lethally impulsive crew leader. “I was studying in my van for the auditions,” he says.
What did you know about Baltimore drug dealers? Was that an intelligible thing to you?
“Yeah, it was, because I was running with cats. I mean, I was DJ’ing, but I was also pushing bags of weed; I was doing my work. I had to. I know that sounds corny, but this is the truth.” He says he’d sell drugs at Carolines, and meanwhile all these successful guys would come through: D. L. Hughley, Dave Chappelle. “All those black comedians, they knew me as a doorman.”
Finally getting cast on The Wire as a criminal the likes of which television audiences had never quite seen—a Wealth of Nations–reading drug lieutenant with ambitions to take over not just Baltimore’s drug trade but also its undervalued waterfront real estate and pliable local politicians—put an end to that. By this time, Elba had an apartment in Jersey again, and the character had become a local hero. “I remember when Stringer Bell died, man, the neighborhood knew I was there. They fucking camped outside my house.” Eight, ten, twenty dudes outside his apartment, yelling up at the window: You kidding me, man? Yo, why you ain’t tell us, String?
After The Wire, Elba got work, but not great work. He played soldiers, criminals, mechanics, explosives experts. He had a part as a motorcycle-riding warrior priest opposite Nic Cage in a Ghost Rider sequel. He played the lead in a Tyler Perry movie, acted opposite Beyoncé in Obsessed. Discreetly he began recording music under the name Big Driis—quiet storm jams, rap bangers, deconstructed covers of Michael Jackson songs. It was a way of marking time, of sharing certain feelings for which he had no other outlet. “I was getting a lot of offers to play more gangsters,” Elba remembers. “Didn’t want that.” But not much else came.
It’s early July as we talk; James Gandolfini has just been found dead in Italy, and amid all the tributes to Tony Soprano, I ask Elba if he’s okay with a life where no matter what he does, no matter how many more movies he’s in, The Wire is in the first line of his obituary.
“That really is more about the writing of The Wire than it is the performance. You know, Stringer Bell is a great character that was written. I happened to play him, but it could’ve been anybody playing that role.”
You really feel like anybody could’ve played Stringer?
“Listen, I think I brought Stringer to life my way, but The Wire isn’t a classic because of Stringer Bell. The Sopranos was a classic because of Tony Soprano.”
This is undoubtedly true. But it’s worth remembering, too, why Elba might want some distance from Stringer Bell.
“He had a peculiar mixture of fantastic luck and terrible luck in that he found what every actor dreams of and fears, which is the life-defining role,” says Luther creator Neil Cross. But Stringer wasn’t iconic back then, in The Wire’s third season, when the rest of us were still catching up. “Stringer was already dead when the rest of the world fell in love with him,” Cross points out. On the phone, he asks me to imagine what it must’ve been like to be Elba in that moment, leaving The Wire before it became The Wire, Best Television Show in Human History. “To have what seemed at the time to be a career-defining role—and it was already over by the time it became career-defining.”
The sun has set in Ibiza. Elba is now onstage at club number two, a vast outdoor space surrounded by neon orange hotel rooms. As the night goes on, he’s getting looser, DJ-wise, and the hits begin to come: Madonna’s “Holiday,” Prince’s “Kiss.” Toward the end of his set, Elba again grabs the microphone.
“Can I play one more before I get the fuck out of here?”
And then he throws on “Wonderwall,” by Oasis, which is curious, because even though the mostly British crowd is howling the song back at him, Elba has been in the tabloids recently for an altercation with Liam Gallagher after this year’s NME Awards; the younger Gallagher brother removed Elba’s wool cap in an apparently disrespectful manner. Elba took issue; the two men got into it. So it seems suspicious, Elba playing Gallagher’s song, and the next day, when we meet up again, I ask him about it.
“Wonderwall” last night—were you taking a shot?
“No! Fuck that idiot. No.”
Basically, Elba says, he just gave Liam a hug and an affectionate rub on the head.
“Didn’t like that. Don’t touch his hair, apparently. Fuck off. Next time walk with a fucking hairdresser, then.”
“Well, ‘I’m a popular rock singer, so I’m going to be mean and fucking horrible to people just because they messed up my look.’ Fuck off. I played his song because his song’s a classic. I couldn’t—I don’t even know what his songs are about now or what band he’s in now. No one gives a fuck, yeah? He was popular when he was in Oasis.”
Today, Elba and I are meeting in a recording studio his hotel keeps on the property. In the blacked-out room it’s cool and dark, and Elba’s barefoot and shirtless, in a pair of camouflage shorts, as at home as a man can be in a place that is not his home.
He says he doesn’t live anywhere in particular, hasn’t for the better part of four or five years. “I’m like a Gypsy, man.” Elba’s daughter is 11 and lives in Atlanta now—his ex-wife moved there after they split up—and he and his daughter mostly see each other in places like this: hotel rooms, temporary spaces in New York, Los Angeles, or London. “We’ve had this relationship since she was 1. She’s always on the road.”
In 2010, when Elba was doing press for a forgettable movie called The Losers, he began excitedly telling reporters that he’d had a son. In The New York Times, he spoke of the child by name. Soon afterward, though, Elba stopped mentioning him. When Essence asked Elba a year later how his daughter enjoyed being an older sister, he answered point-blank: “I only have a daughter.”
Elba doesn’t like to talk about what happened—has never talked about it, in fact, understandably so—but today, for whatever reason, he does.
The story is this:
He was dating a woman in Florida, had been for a couple of years. They were living together and in love. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy. For a brief moment, it was among the happiest times of Elba’s life. “The celebration of having a son—from a man’s perspective, it’s massive.” He told friends about it. He told reporters about it. Then came the suggestion—not from the child’s mother, but from elsewhere—that not everything was what it appeared to be. “It wasn’t immediately obvious—well, it was, because he didn’t look like me,” Elba says. “But it wasn’t immediately obvious what had gone down.”
Eventually, Elba decided to take a paternity test, which showed the child wasn’t his. “To be given that and then have it taken away so harshly,” he says, “was like taking a full-on punch in the face: POW.”
And then there was the fact that he’d mentioned the kid in public, the knowledge, even then, that at some point he’d be sitting in a room like this one, being asked about the worst, most humiliating thing that ever happened to him. “You know, the truth is—like, even admitting it, I’ll probably get laughed at for the rest of my life. But it is just tragic, and it happened.” He looks directly at me when he says this. “But I wasn’t knocked out. I stood right the fuck back up, and I ain’t aiming to take another punch in the face ever again. Do you understand what I’m saying? It happened to me. I moved on.”
In a paradoxical way, he says, it was freeing. “I’ve not been an angel in my life, either—do you know what I’m saying? So to a certain extent, what goes around comes around. But for me in the future, I’m about being comfortable. That’s it.”
What does that mean?
“Now that I’ve achieved some of the things that I’ve wanted to achieve, I’m not going to be a slave to it all of a sudden. I respect the artist that lives that way. The people that just go, ‘You’re going to hate me for what I just did, or you’re not going to understand why I made that film or that record or whatever, but what you are watching is someone that’s living their life.’ You know: I’m not watching you; you’re watching me.”
In the first week of September, Elba turned 41; he has been a working actor since his late teens. His directors and co-stars talk about him and his ability to connect with other actors in quasi-mystical terms. Elba “has this amazing ability to look at you and make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world,” says his Mandela co-star Naomie Harris. Justin Chadwick says that on the Mandela set, he would routinely put Elba in front of 2,000, 4,000, even 6,000 extras—most of them native South Africans, people who know and revere the real Mandela—and Elba would have the crowd cheering, genuinely cheering, by the end of the take.
But watch enough of his films and you begin to wonder if that power comes from an essentially lonely place—that his ability to move others stems from the way Elba is by nature a solitary man, someone whose substantial charisma is less an innate quality than a makeshift bridge between a fundamentally walled-off self and the rest of the world. “He’s very social, but he has boundaries,” del Toro says. It’s no accident that Elba’s most iconic roles, and his favorite ones—Stringer, Pacific Rim’s Pentecost, Mandela, the crazed Special Forces vet Elba plays in the tiny indie Legacy, Luther’s Luther—are men apart.
Nor does it seem like a coincidence that Elba prefers to keep even those characters at arm’s length. Luther, Stringer—those men were on the page, not inside him. Different guys entirely. There’s only one instance, really, where he can think of it happening otherwise, of Idris Elba and a character he was playing getting their wires crossed. He was filming the Luther pilot. This was 2010. And there was this scene in the script: Luther’s married but separated from his wife, played by the actress Indira Varma. He hopes to reconcile, only to find out that she’s moved on and is dating another man. The script called for a furious Luther to, among other things, slam a door.
“And you have to understand, I had just gone through the worst thing in my life with, you know…”
The Florida thing.
“Yeah. So Luther came at a time where, you know, it was gaga therapy for me, man. Stupid. I was like, ‘I’m going in…’ And that is what I fucking did. I’ll tell you: I did that take, and I remember the room…Indira Varma, the beautiful Indian actress—beautiful girl… The crew were at this end of the room, all packed in. Indira was over there. And I fucking let go. Like, all kinds of shit happened in my head. I mean—blitz. Fucked up this door, I mean fucked this fucking door up. The emotion was going so long after the fucking actual scene was ended that everyone sat in silence. Indira was in fucking tears; I was in tears.”
The camera was still rolling. No one knew what to do. The silence just kept going. And then, finally, someone called, “Cut.”
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