The idea of “getting in where you fit in,” has at times, been a silent tradition for many brown skinned thespians in the entertainment industry. But according to Idris Elba, the only barriers that exist are the ones created within our own minds.
Elba, who’s appearing in this summer’s Takers, is at a point in his career where his ascent to the top of Hollywood makes a trip up Mount Everest look like a stroll through Martha’s Vineyard; as easy as breathing.
For this 37 year old, actor and DJ, hailing from London, a 20-year career of spinning music and bringing to life screenplays as an actor, has garnered him a resume a mile long, and enough highlights to emit himself a Batman-like spotlight over the Hollywood skyline.
From roles in features like This Christmas, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, American Gangsta, Obsessed, The Losers, and now stepping into the role of a bank robber named Gordon Jennings, in the film Takers, we’re getting another taste of Elba’s unbridled talent for creating a range of different characters, rather than letting any character define his range.
In this high suspense thriller about a group of bank robbers who experience an impeding threat to the success of their final bank job, we get to see Elba, along with co-stars Tip “T.I.” Harris, Chris Brown, and Michael Ealy take a turn under the veil of action superstars.
Elba spoke with Insight News, to talk about his new role, the film, and what we can expect from this seasoned genius down the line as he continues on his path as one of films hottest commodities.
Insight News: Comment on the availability of quality work for black actors in the U.S. versus globally, given that you are British?
Idris Elba: I sort of turn my nose up at the title of black actor. I think we are all actors, black or white. We’re just actors. Obviously, in America there is a much bigger marketplace for actors and there is a bigger market for urban, cultural films that have Black people and Black culture whether it is Africaribbean or American. In England, it’s a smaller marketplace and there isn’t so much of a scope for it, but it’s a healthy marketplace. It’s a place that is definitely growing. So I hope that answers your question.
I’ve been asked this question quite often and I guess because I’m sort of a journeyman actor; I’ve been traveling as an actor since I was almost 26 years old and I’ve seen many different countries. I never walk into a room and say, “Hey, I’m a Black actor.” I just say I’m an actor.
IN: In your past films, you played the good guy or the hero, sort of types. I was just wondering if you had any challenges going over to the dark side, especially with the modern day bad boys like Chris Brown and T.I.
IE: I was really just a small part of a big picture where my character, even though he’s the leader, he’s not so much the bad guy. Yes, it’s bad to steal. Yes, what these guys are doing is illegal. But my character wasn’t so much viewed a bad guy. He was just a criminal. A professional thief. I’ve played worst characters in my past that have a real mean streak. I do that pretty easily.
IN: What brings that about?
IE: I’m just a good person at heart, but it’s more fun being the bad guy.
IN: Can you talk a little bit about your character Gordon’s background and his relationship with Ghost and his sister Naomi?
IE: I’m going to speculate—not speculate, I’m going to answer this question based on conversations the writers and I had and the director. Originally, Gordon was an American character, born and bred in L.A. and was just a small time thief turned into a big time thief. I wanted to change that a little bit and make him a little bit more international, which is why I chose to play him as a Brit or Africaribbean. Gordon was raised in the Caribbean, moved to England, moved to Europe where I suspect that even though he’s got an education, he certainly used the education to sort of do crime. Then he moved to America where, I guess, he started to really reach his life ambitions, which is to steal a lot of money from very, very hard to steal places. His sister is a big part of his storyline and Gordon’s only family. And when you meet her, you realize that she has a substance abuse problem and this is a real, real cloud over Gordon’s life, something that he would love to help his sister overcome.
This is a very complex guy. In this film, we really don’t delve into how complex he is. The Ghost character and he met in L.A. prior to this film or where we meet them in this film, and I suspect their history is just climbing up the ladder of crime.
IN: Because you were able to create the international character as opposed to what they were going to do in the beginning, how much closer did that bring you in connection with your character?
IE: I guess because I’m using my own accent, that’s the closest point. Also, I get an opportunity to sort of show what it is like to be an international in America. Between myself and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, we show a moment of British culture --Africaribbean culture in a mainstream American film, which is quite rare. So for Idris, that was quite an achievement. I’m excited about that and I’m eager to find out what my European audience thinks about that storyline.
IN: Can you tell me which character complimented Gordon’s character the most in the movie?
IE: Honestly, I think it’s Michael Ealy’s character, Michael, who plays the sort of businessman …. Although it seems that Gordon and Michael’s character don’t get on, I think those two are the ones that actually really think hard about these jobs. Paul Walker is sort of like my right hand man in the film, but Michael Ealy is the one guy that can stand up to Gordon and say, “I don’t think that’s right” because he’s a business man and he’s a thinker. Gordon is also a thinker. So you see a couple of scenes where Gordon and—I’ve forgotten his character’s name now—they sort of challenge each other. Oh, his name is Jake. They challenge each other a little bit. So I think Michael’s character is the one that compliments my character the most.
IN: Do you have a memorable moment from doing the filming?
IE: Yes, walking away from that helicopter. I don’t know if you’ve seen the trailers, but most of you have seen the film.
IN: I’ve seen the movie, yes.
IE: We did that in one take and I’m the only one that gets slightly shifted when the explosion happens. Everyone else stands still. But my body and my arms are like a little … that gets blown away. I remember thinking, “I want to do that again so I can toughen up my walk a little bit.” But no one said anything so we kept it moving.
IN: So you’ve worked with some pretty big names. I mean, T.I., Denzel, you’re working with T.I. again. Can you tell me about that and about your feelings on the film, and also what is the toughest part about nailing an American accent, even though you don’t do one in this film?
IE: Okay, yes. It’s nice to work with big names. Tip is a great guy to work with, very charismatic and very focused. I didn’t really get to know Denzel when working with him on the set, but again, it was a good experience.
IN: What do you want the audience to get from your portrayal in this film and the overall message of the film?
IE: It’s a heist film and it’s an entertaining film and I want people to be entertained. I want people to enjoy it. I want people to hold on to their seats and get really engaged with the characters. Hopefully we not only gave the audience something spectacular just to look at, but we want something for them to feel. So each one of our characters has a storyline that takes you in a certain direction and I hope that works for the audience.
As far as American accents are concerned, the most challenging part for me as an actor is understanding the culture from where the accent comes from. So if I was to play a character that was from Mississippi, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it very good off the cuff without being in Mississippi, understanding that cadence, understanding the culture and sort of emerging myself in it. Without doing that, it just becomes a sort of imitation, it becomes a mimic.
IN: I remember listening to Jamie Foxx on the radio station and he was asked a question who would he want to most work with in a film, side by side. Jamie flipped the question and said, “I’ll tell you who I won’t work with.” That individual he named was you. His reason for not wanting to work with you is, he said you are the truth and you’re going to take away any scene from anybody. He felt that you did the strongest acting in the movie American Gangster and I believe that is high praise.
A lot of people, when they see hip hop artists—Chris Brown, T.I.—in the movies, they feel like they haven’t paid their dues. They feel like they didn’t go to acting school and that these things were given to them and they’re not true actors and they kind of shun away from the movie. What can you tell [readers] about the acting inside of this movie that they are able to go see acting of quality and not just you outshining everyone with that presence that you are so well known for.
IE: The short answer to that question is it is definitely an ensemble piece. Inevitably, if there are two people in a scene, we’re typically as an audience going to say, “He killed it” or “He killed it.” Or hopefully, the scene is fantastic and we both brought the drama. In Takers, that is the case. There were seven or eight actors, all of which for various reasons have über amounts of screen presence and charisma. T.I. and Chris Brown, although they may not have any experience, have über amounts of what we like to call star quality, which makes them stand out in their industry. I beg to ask the question, if you’re playing basketball but you’re good at baseball, are you not allowed to play in another major league? We know at the end of the day, if you’re a good sportsman, you’re a good sportsman. So in this film, we get an opportunity to see both Chris and T.I. show their talents.
Now with T.I., he’s a very charismatic kind of guy and so is his character. So what you’re seeing is TI bringing himself to the role. I’ll tell you an insight. When he would talk to me about these scenes when he and I had scenes, I would encourage him to forget about acting but bring himself to the scenes. The exercise I would use was let’s throwaway the lines for a second and just improvise. What would you say to me right now, Clifford Harris, and I’ll tell you what I’d say. We got into these dialogs where, this guy has got a lot of passion, he’s got a lot of anger. He’s got words for days, he’s an eloquent cat. So we would use that exercise to then strip it all back down to the words and what tends to happen is he would bring himself to these scenes.
Chris Brown is a ball of energy. He does exactly the same thing. His character is a ball of energy so again, it’s a matter of Chris channeling that energy that is natural to him onto the screen. I’m not one of these actors that is going to say, “Hey, because you haven’t had experience, I’m not going to work with you.” I’ve worked with people who are not famous and are very, very talented and it’s because of opportunity that they’re not world-known. I am one of those actors. If it wasn’t for me knocking at the door of big actors, big directors, I would never be where I am today.
Listen, in this day and age, the marketplace has changed. This is a big entertainment film. It’s not designed to sort of politically leave any messages. It’s designed to entertain. I think there is a unique combination of things in this film that will make audiences just enjoy it.
IN: I’m actually going to switch it because we’ve been talking quite a bit about Takers. I wanted to see what your take on your role as, forgive me if I’m not pronouncing this correct, Heimdall from Thor. And if you could tell us about the possibility of you playing Alex Cross in the James Patterson franchise.
IE: So Heimdall is a huge, huge Marvel property and is part of Thor, of course. I play a very small part in it. Actually, I’m a little embarrassed that I get asked to talk about Heimdall because he’s a small part. The film is called Thor. However, Heimdall is a very historically important character in the legacy of the comics. But in the film, it’s a quite small part. However, I’m interested in seeing the reaction. When I got the film, I was cast in the film, there was a huge reaction from the purists who said, “Hey, wait a second. Heimdall is not Black. He’s white. How could you cast him? This is modern day casting gone absolutely crazy.” I had to laugh at that, there were many shots taken at me and the filmmakers. I thought to myself, “Wait a second. We are talking about a man in a cape and horns and a flying hammer, and you are going at me about me being Black.” I was like okay, for me, these sorts of reactions to this sort of media is just too much. It’s like, give me a break. So hey, I can’t wait for Heimdall to come out, I mean Thor, and I hope people enjoy it.
As far as Alex Cross is concerned, there is no official word that I’m actually doing it. There has been interest from the James Patterson camp to sort of bring that role back to life. I am one of the actors that they have discussed and have been in talks with, and if it should come my way, I think I’d be very excited to do it. The great Morgan Freeman would be an incredible act to follow. But if they give it a modern spin and perhaps revitalize the character a little bit, I would love to play it.
IN: Do you think you’re well on your way to playing the next Bond
IE: I’ve never said that I’m on the way to playing the next James Bond. It’s been a crazy rumor, and of course my name has been in the mix. Again, it’s one of those fantasy roles that a lot of actors, Black or white, would love to play.
IN: How is the sex symbol thing is playing out with your career. How are you handling that?
IE: I have to tell you, it’s quite third party to me. I’m told more than I actually experience it that I’m a sex symbol. But when I walk down the street, ain’t nobody chasing me so I don’t know how true that is. That said, I was just in a big scene with Laura Linney and I was sort of cast as her lover. This character was described as a sexy man and she wanted me to play it. I think that’s great. I’ve said this in the press many times that Black men in film are not often times described as sexy, and if we are it’s not in the right sort of connotation, it’s just about the size of our members or what not, or we’re either very intimidating in a sexy way, or we are scary in a sexy way. But just to be a Black man that is sexy, that is a rare thing. So hey, if that’s the moniker that goes above the title, hey, I’m in for it and I thank you.
IN: You mentioned something about Takers not having any political statement. Are you doing any works that do make a political statement? What would that statement be? What is the burning issue you wish to address?
IE: I’m not sure if I had a burning issue, which I do have some, that I would use my medium as an actor to portray those or to combat those issues. But I did sometime in April, which shed light on a political situation that was ignored, I’d probably do films that sort of highlight history that has been ignored. This is not political per say, not in our modern day politics, but I have interest in playing and bringing the Moors story, the African Moors, to life. There is a big chunk of history that has been completely forgotten in place of all sorts of other stuff, and that is something that I’d be interested to do. As far as my personal politics in certain situations, I’d rather just sit down and work with a group, an active group to air my situations rather than make a film about it. If there was a script that came along that sort of highlighted some issues I had with certain things, I would certainly consider it. But I don’t like actors dealing with politics in their films. To me, that doesn’t always work. I think if you’ve got an opinion as an actor, then you should just say it as who you are, as opposed to your character.
IN: Do you have an organization that you work with, or are you looking to start one?
IE: In England, I work with the Prince’s Trust, which is more of a foundation for the youth. In that, we battle crime, we battle the idea that there are kids as young as eight-years-old being drafted into gangs to fight for their zip codes. I have an issue with that. I work closely with the Prince’s Trust. I’m working closely with Oona King, who is a former MP and is running for London mayor at the moment, and she has very similar issues about how our youth in England have been sort of ignored. So I don’t want to make a film about—well, I say I don’t want to make a film about it. I’m actually going to direct a film about it, but it’s more of a journalistic film. But I won’t make a film as an actor if I can actually just say my real feelings, you know?
IN: Can you give our readers a little insight on the things they can look forward to seeing from you in the future?
IE: The next thing that you may see is my television show Luther, which will be on BBC America. That comes on some time in October. I’d be interested for audiences to see that. I also have an independent film that some of you may have seen. It’s called Legacy. I premiered it at the Tribeca Film Festival and also at the ABIA Fair. I’m going to the Chicago Film Festival next. It’s a film that I’m very proud of. It’s quite a small film. It didn’t cost us very much money to make, but it’s very deep. In a weird way, it’s a political film, but it’s about politics. It’s about a character that believes his brother, who is a senator, is in dirty politics. By the end of the film, you realize that my character has paranoid schizophrenia, and you’re not sure what’s true from what’s not true. It’s certainly one of my favorite parts that I’ve ever played because it really, really, really demanded a lot from me. I think my audiences will be surprised at where I go in that film.
IN: How does [your role in Takers] play into your lifestyle and how does that make the character feel? That’s just glam.
IE: My personal lifestyle is nowhere near as glamorous as that. But I would say, if I was going to steal, I would steal like that character because think big, do big. I think by design, the film makers wanted a film that was sexy to look at. They wanted a good looking piece of celluloid to put out there and sort of like heighten the urban sheik genre, so to speak. This film is skewed toward an urban audience, if you like. But it doesn’t look like a typical urban film, if there is such a thing. It tries to be a little bit more sophisticated. I personally think this film is a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Heat in terms it has all this really beautiful cinematography, but it also has quite a complex storyline going on. All be it, you might know what’s going to happen at the end, or you might know which characters are going to be shady or not. You definitely are taken on a ride with this film.
IN: I read that you were going to be coming out with a mix tape because I know you have the DJ thing going on. Can you just speak a little bit about the mix tape that you plan on releasing?
IE: New mix tape coming soon! Grab your music from T.I.! There you go.
IN: That’s all we’re going to get on that?
IE: I’m going to get on it. I asked some of the guys that were in the film to give me music for the tape and then also I gave an opportunity for my social network, Twitter, … Elba on Twitter and my Facebook to submit music for the tape. There is some great music out there, and try to put some on this tape. A lot of people are going to say, “Listen to this tape” just because it’s associated with the film, so it’s an opportunity to maybe discover some new talent.