Idris Elba is every bit the movie star, yet off screen he’s gracious, funny and gregarious.
Valued for his versatility and the intensity of his performances, Elba, who gained notoriety as Russell 'Stringer' Bell, the leader of a Baltimore drug empire in HBO’s acclaimed original series “The Wire,” has come a long way from his childhood in London’s East End.
One of the few Hollywood movie stars who upholds the art of performance, Elba, an only child, was born Idrissa Elba in Hackney, East London and shortened his first name at school when he first became involved in acting.
“[The name] Idrissa is like a leader. A first born leader. I shortened it at school because it was confusing to a lot of people,” he affirms.
The 37-year-old actor who hails from Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean descent, but was born and raised in the UK made his acting debut in a medical drama set in 1890s England. Small parts in other television dramas soon followed as he went on to appear in “Dangerfield” as a forensic scientist, the British soap opera “Family Affair” and the notoriously funny comedy series “Absolutely Fabulous.”
In 1998, Elba left the city of London for New York in search of greener pastures and as he worked to perfect the American twang, he spent his nights in the city’s night scene spinning records on the DJ circuit under the DJ name Driis which drew a modest source of income.
“I've been a DJ’ing since I was 14 and it was my main source of income for a little while,” claims the actor who owns Hevlar Records, a music label in England and has written and recorded songs for numerous artists including Jay-Z and Angie Stone.
“I met Angie on the set of her video shoot and reached out to her and she gave me a break. I also wrote a reduced intro to JayZ’s album and was honored to be able to open his album,” says the actor. “I love DJ'ing. It keeps my feet on the ground. There's nothing like having a live audience respond,” he adds. “Everyone is multitasking these days in order to get on. Not only do you just act and try to be as great as you can, you have to really try to diversify.”
After a supporting turn on “Law and Order” in 2001, Elba's break in American television came when he landed a starring role on the HBO drama, “The Wire.” Since then, the actor has had a very lucrative career with roles in “Sometimes in April”, “The Reaping” with Hilary Swank, “28 Weeks Later” Tyler Perry’s “Daddy’s Little Girls”, “The Gospel,” “Obsessed” and “American Gangster” with Denzel Washington, an actor who Elba is often compared to.
“English actors who come to America have to be prepared to go in and work hard because it’s very, very tough and very competitive,” says Elba. “I have been very lucky. I didn’t broadcast the fact that I was English whilst I was on “The Wire.” The people that hired me didn’t know that I was English either. I think it’s such a compliment to be compared to Denzel Washington, but at the same time I am very different from him. There are other people that remind you more of him. I think I am doing something that fills my own lane. I would love to be as successful as Denzel, who has had a great, great career as an actor,” he continues.
For the interview, Elba is in crutches - the result of an injury sustained during the filming of his latest action flick titled “The Losers” in which he plays an explosive expert called Roque and it’s an injury which the actor says is in the healing stages.
“I hurt myself whilst shooting the airplane scene, but as you can see I am still standing,” he states.
Directed by Sylvain White (“Stomp the Yard”) “The Losers,” which is based on the comic book series published by DC Comics/Vertigo is about an elite special-operations team that is dispatched to the jungles of Bolivia for a mission that turns out to be much more than what the team members bargained for.
“It was a wicked opportunity to play such an interesting arch and we bonded together as a team,” continues Elba, who effortlessly switches between an east London cockney accent to an east coast American twang. “Roque’s a no-nonsense type of character who’s a straight talker and very to the point. He’s an experienced soldier who’s not very emotional about the job; he just gets it done and I liked the character because I had enough room to make him my own,” he adds.
With producer Joel Silver at the helm, star wattage doesn't get much bigger than the cast which includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Columbus Short, Jason Patric and Zoe Saldana, the only female cast in this predominately male ensemble.
Silver, who has worked with Elba on previous projects such as “The Reaping” and more recently “RocknRolla” has produced more than 60 films, including “The Matrix” trilogy, the “Lethal Weapon” franchise and the seminal action film “Die Hard” and he was part of the appeal for Elba, a self described perfectionist, to get onboard.
“I didn’t have too much information on “The Losers” initially,” he admits. “I read the original version of the script when it had different directors attached to it and wasn’t aware it was a graphic novel. Then Sylvain and Joel approached me and I started doing my research and just got into it that way. The script was great and funny with a lot of larger-than-life action and I’ve worked with Joel before and I am a fan of his movies so that was another draw.”
From the jungles of Bolivia to New Mexico, Mumbai to Dubai, “The Losers” is an action tale of betrayal and revenge which is well-crafted and fast paced and despite what they are called, “The Losers” are far from that and are a highly skilled and proficient team. Morgan, as Clay plays the man in command, Evans as Jensen is the team’s computer wizard whilst Short as Pooch is the group’s transportation expert who can rig, wire, fly, drive or commandeer any vehicle of choice. Saldana plays Aisha, a mysterious operative with a hidden agenda.
“It’s a great movie.” Elba claims. “The stunts and characters were larger than life and everyone had a good time. It’s a popcorn film and you will enjoy it.”
Elba, who is also quite comfortable to be part of an ensemble, rather than taking focus in every scene, trained excessively for his role with Former Navy SEAL expert Harry Humphries who has served as a military advisor on a wide range of films.
“Harry was a great instructor,” says Elba. “He taught us quite a few tactical maneuvers and made sure we looked realistic, especially handling the gear and the weapons,” he adds.
With several films in the pipeline including the lead in a new BBC cop series called “Luther,” set to debut in May, Kenneth Branagh's action adventure “Thor,” the crime drama “Takers”, as well as a UK film called “Legacy”, for which he combines acting with executive producing, Elba has a full slate of upcoming projects.
“There are things that I want to strive for in my life but I’II get there,” he says. “I am happy that I get the opportunity to do what I love and I am very thankful to be where I am.”