Idris Elba: The Man Who Is Luther, Was Stringer, And Could Be James Bond

Sep 28, 2011
Originally published on September 28, 2011 9:44 am

Idris Elba tells Linda Wertheimer on Wednesday's Morning Edition that he didn't come to the United States from the UK to play "black roles," but merely "roles." And he has: roles like Stringer Bell on HBO's dark drug epic The Wire and John Luther, the central character of Luther, a drama series that returns for a second season tonight on BBC America.

Elba was nominated for an Emmy for Luther's first season, playing the detective he says has a close relationship with rage and a resulting ability to identify with the perpetrators he pursues. "The difference between someone with a conscience and someone [without]," he says, "is that one person will say, 'You know what? No, I'm not going to go over to that person and smash them in the face.' But the other person is quite close to that decision without any remorse and just will do it. And I think Luther is close to that mark all the time."

Luther is certainly not Elba's first experience with ambiguity: Stringer, too, was a man who was, as Elba puts it, "caught between two worlds." A ruthless drug dealer, he was also an entrepreneur who wanted to apply the lessons of business school to the huge criminal operation he helped run — and he wanted staff meetings that ran according to Robert's Rules Of Order. He, like John Luther, understood what it was to work on both the right side and the wrong side of the law.

One cosmetic difference that many Americans notice the first time they see Elba in Luther is his accent, which comes directly from his native London. If they've seen him mostly in The Wire, or perhaps on The Office as enigmatic short-term boss Charles Minor, they're surprised. He initially kept that fact from The Wire's producers and directors, too, on the advice of the casting director. "They really wanted those characters in The Wire to be as real and authentic as they can," he says. "So they got actors that had little experience, actors that actually hadn't done much before, and they got natives — Baltimoreans and such." And with authenticity high on the list of qualifications, he got that critical piece of advice: "Don't tell them you're English."

Interestingly, even though he's hidden his accent to play Americans for many of the most high-profile roles of his career, chatter has circulated for years that Elba could one day wind up playing one of the most iconic British film roles there is: James Bond.

"It's a rumor," he says flatly. But does that mean you should dismiss it out of hand? Not necessarily. Elba says he recently talked about the role with his father and said that while it sounded like an interesting idea, he had concerns. "I just don't want to be the black James Bond," he says. "Sean Connery wasn't the Scottish James Bond, and Daniel Craig wasn't the blue-eyed James Bond, so if I played him, I don't want to be called the black James Bond."

That doesn't, of course, really answer the most interesting question: What would he do if they asked him? At first, he's noncommittal. "I"d definitely consider it," he says. But when Linda Wertheimer presses the issue — if Sony called, would he get in a cab to take the meeting? -- he can't resist.

"I'd not only get in the cab," he says, "but I'd take the taxi driver out of the car, hostage. The taxi, jump out while it was moving, jump onto a pedal bike that was just past the door as I got on it, and then get onto a plane — on the wing — land on top of Sony Studios, slide through the air conditioning, and land in the office."

Sounds pretty confident. And so does this closing line: "I'm never shaken or stirred."

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

John Luther, the powerful character created by the British actor Idris Elba, is coming back to American television. BBC America is presenting four new episodes of the popular crime drama "Luther," starting tonight.

Luther is a brilliant but out-of-control police detective who specializes in getting inside the minds of serial killers. The last season ended with a lot of gunfire - the murder of Luther's wife, quickly followed by the murder of the man who killed her. This season begins with John Luther sidelined. He's under investigation by his own police department. In this scene, two characters discussing Luther and his involvement in the death of his wife's killer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "THE WIRE")

DERMOT CROWLEY: (As Martin Schenk) Tell me about Ian Reed.

RUTH WILSON: (As Alice Morgan) He's a friend who betrayed John and hurt him very badly. So I killed him, two barrels of his own shotgun - boom, boom.

CROWLEY: (As Martin Schenk) And did John - and this is very important, Alice. Did John ask you to do this?

WILSON: (As Alice Morgan) Good heavens, no.

INSKEEP: To help solve that mystery and explain the conundrum of John Luther, we turn to NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: That woman who sweetly says, "so I killed him," that's Alice. Played by Ruth Wilson, she's a psychopath and a killer. But Alice sets up the powerful conflict of this series; that Luther is bathed in violence, that he's surrounded by evil, perhaps corrupted by the killers he's hunting. Still, in the climactic episode of Season 1, it is Luther who is trying to save the life of his wife's murderer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "LUTHER")

IDRIS ELBA: (As John Luther) Stop! OK, listen! Ian, step back! I know how much you wanted to see him die, but don't do it.

STEVEN MACKINTOSH: (As Ian Reed) She had a few good rides left in her.

ELBA: (As John Luther) Don't do it, Ian, no!

WERTHEIMER: Two barrels of a shotgun - boom, boom. Idris Elba plays Luther as a moral man who's close to the edge.

ELBA: Luther has this ver - sort of capability to think how, you know, his, you know, perpetrators are thinking; what they may or may not do next. And I think also with Luther, he lives quite close to rage himself.

You know, the difference between someone with a conscience and someone with not is that, you know, one person will say, you know what? No, I'm not going to go over to that person and smash them in the face. But the other person is quite close to that decision, without any remorse - and just will do it. And I think Luther is close to that mark all the time.

WERTHEIMER: I must say that I think these programs are very intense. I watched the first season over again, to prepare for this conversation; and a couple of times I just had to turn it off and wait for my husband to get home. I needed backup to watch it.

ELBA: Really?

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

ELBA: The idea - it is a very dark show. I mean, you want to push that intensity, but did you really get scared?

WERTHEIMER: Yes.

ELBA: Hmm.

WERTHEIMER: I mean, I don't get scared by the "don't open that door, don't open that door" kind of things, but this one scared me.

ELBA: Hmm. Well, you're not the only one, by the way, but I just get, like, I - don't know.

WERTHEIMER: Idris Elba's Luther has a little touch Lucifer in him. A fallen angel who longs to be close to God, he tries to do the right thing. This series is frightening and violent - and very, very good. Elba is always center stage, as he was in the role most Americans will remember, the villain he played in "The Wire," the drug dealer, Stringer Bell.

It did not begin as a starring role, but Elba stole every scene he was in. He says he didn't think of Stringer Bell as being a black drug dealer, but as a complicated man.

ELBA: I didn't come to America to play black roles. I just came to play roles. And Stringer Bell being my first character - was a smart drug dealer who in my opinion is black, but that's not the point. The point is, this is a man who is kind of caught between two worlds; and that complex sort of balance that he's in, is what made the drama.

WERTHEIMER: Quiet, cool - and completely ruthless, Stringer Bell tries to put Baltimore's drug traffic on a sound business footing. With death and destruction just a cost of doing business, he conducts meetings with his dealers according to Robert's Rules. And in this chilling scene from "The Wire," he's clearly setting up a war with his rivals. .

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "THE WIRE")

ELBA: (As Stringer Bell) Nah, man, we done worrying about territory, man - what corner we got, what project. The game ain't about that no more. It's just about product. Yeah, we got the best damn products, so we're gonna sell no matter where we are, right? The chair recognizes Little Charles.

WERTHEIMER: That black American accent, with overtones of Baltimore, took Idris Elba a while to learn. He says he went to the auditions for the part in character and did not tell the directors that he's British, born and raised in London's East End.

ELBA: The directors and the producers were very clear that they didn't want anyone that could be deemed as acting fake. They really wanted those characters in "The Wire" to be as real and authentic as they can. So they got actors that had little experience, actors that actually, you know, hadn't done much before, and they got natives - Baltimoreans and such.

And so, you know, the casting director, Alexa Fogel, just was very clear that, you know, when you go there just don't tell them you're English - yet. Not yet. Don't do that. And she took a risk because it was clear that that was not what they wanted.

WERTHEIMER: Idris Elba says the role he dreams of playing is Nelson Mandela, the leader of South Africa's revolution - another complicated man. I also asked Elba about the story often repeated that he might one day play James Bond - which would, of course, involve an entirely different, presumably posh accent.

ELBA: It's a rumor.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

ELBA: It's a very old rumor. My dad and I were talking about this the other day because he says, yeah, you could do it. Would you do it? I was like, I would do it, but I just don't want to be called the first black James Bond, although it - do you understand what I'm saying, because that's not - you know, Sean Connery wasn't the Scottish James Bond, and Daniel Craig wasn't the blue-eyed James Bond. So if I played him, I don't want to be called the black James Bond.

WERTHEIMER: Mm-hum.

ELBA: So but listen, you know, if Sony decided to call me and say hey, we want you to do it, you know, I'd definitely consider it.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah, just get in a cab and go right over and have a talk?

ELBA: I'd not only get in the cab, but I'd take the taxi driver out of the car, hostage. The taxi, jump out while it was moving, jump onto a pedal bike that was just coming, you know, just past the door as I got on it, and then get onto a plane - on the wing - land on top of Sony Studios, slide through the air-conditioning, and land in the office.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I hope that you have that opportunity and don't hurt yourself.

ELBA: I'm never shaken or stirred.

WERTHEIMER: Idris Elba - the second season of his series "Luther" starts tonight on BBC America. I wouldn't watch it alone.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.