Idris Elba
Photo by Kurt Krieger

Idris Elba: “The process is like a jigsaw puzzle”

Short Profile

Name: Idrissa Akuna Elba
DOB: 6 September 1972
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

Idris Elba stars in 3000 Years of Longing, and Beast , in theaters now.

Mr. Elba, you’ve played a diverse range of characters throughout your career, from The Wire’s Stringer Bell to Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. How have you ensured such a broad range of roles?

Playing Stringer Bell put me on the map as an actor in America. I had worked in England and I had done decent work, but getting a role on The Wire expanded me into the US in a way that I couldn’t have hoped for! And after that, I continued to get better, bigger roles; I got to work with some really good people. So The Wire really shifted my career massively. But I should be adapting and trying different things, and I think throughout my career, I’ve dodged the bullet of, “Oh, you were great as this role, we would love to see you play that role again.” I have been offered roles that feel very similar to other work I’ve done, and I have definitely tried to avoid those. It can be difficult for my fanbase, they are always surprised! (Laughs) And whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m not sure.

I am pretty sure that’s a good thing…

At the moment, for me, it’s more about who is making the film, who is the storyteller, is it something that I have done before or not? Those are the decisions I make. I am really open, there’s no role that I wouldn’t consider, but at the same time, if I am working with a filmmaker, that is a long time to spend with someone, so I have to think about what I’m going to learn from that process.

Who is a filmmaker you’ve learned a lot from recently?

I feel like Three Thousand Years of Longing was a masterclass for me. George Miller sat down with us and articulated every single layer page by page: the special effects, how the electromagnetic field will feel to the audience. There was artist’s drawings, and some really beautiful reference images which he put in the script and said, “This is what I am aiming for.” That script, which I still have, is a work of art. Stepping into George’s world is very beautiful. (Laughs) He has a very vivid imagination!

“Different mediums, different energies, landscapes, scale, but definitely still all part of the same skill set.”

That much is clear from the film!

You had to have a lot of trust in George, just put your seatbelt on and let him drive. The return to the cinema as a shared experience was always in our minds as well. This is a film about storytellers and someone’s passion for stories, so to have that play on the big screen at the Cannes Film Festival, to me, is just great. It is an absolute postcard to the art of storytelling.

A large part of the film are scenes between just you and Tilda Swinton — how important is the right dynamic with your co-star in such a  scenario?

It was incredibly important to get that chemistry with Tilda! Working with George Miller in the hotel room where we shot the film, and playing with someone like Tilda Swinton, it is definitely a different type of acting. Fortunately, Tilda and I know each other a little bit and we had maybe three weeks of really intense rehearsals, pulling apart the script, talking about every detail of it. In that process, we shared stories and got to know each other, so by the time we got to set, there was a chemistry that we could rely on to bring the drama between the two characters alive.

How does that experience differ from shooting, let’s say, a Marvel movie?

Those Marvel movies are a little more difficult to make because they live in a realism that isn’t something we can all relate to. I mean, I have a sword that does this and that and to try and make that somewhat believable, also requires acting. They’re different mediums, different energies, landscapes, scale, but definitely still all part of the same skill set.

The actor Jamie Bell says that with each role, he’s looking for something he can hang on to so that he can remove his “ordinary self” and really get into the character’s mindset. Is that process familiar to you?

With my film Beast, for example, it was important that I was not playing a guy that is good at everything, because that’s the reality. If you or I were put in a situation where we’re being stalked by a lion, we wouldn’t know how to hold a gun either. I think if I was in that situation, I would be just like my character, he is no action hero! I wanted to take that audience on that journey, because there is a version of this film which could have a cool guy, a Rambo guy out hunting and fighting the lion — but that’s not this.

“You come, you say your lines, you feel it... The process is like a jigsaw puzzle, you are putting in the pieces together slowly.”

All the films we’ve talked about have been action-packed, immersive, thrilling experiences — does it feel that way when you’re on set?

Acting is actually very much a controlled environment: you come, you say your lines, you feel it, but it’s controlled. The process is like a jigsaw puzzle, you are putting in the pieces together slowly.

So where do you get your thrills from these days?

DJing invigorates me. When you are DJing, you don’t have that control, you have a thousand pieces of energy coming at you and you have to entertain every single one of them. And that is about harmony and synergy, that happens live, it happens right there in the instant.

Where do you even find the time for DJing in the midst of a busy shooting and promoting schedule?

Yeah, I am filming a project at the moment and I am also promoting this movie. My Ibiza residency happens on Fridays, so those days have been cleared so that I can be there. I’ve been DJing since before I started acting, but for a long time it was only a hobby. It was fun and I loved it, but now it’s a second career! It’s a nice balance for me. I love my businesses and I love my work as an actor, I live for that, but DJing is a very special zone. It’s creativity! I am addicted to that feeling of playing a song and people really enjoy it and you feel such gratification, a real connection.