"Do I make you nervous with my knife?" asks Idris Elba, playfully brandishing a big shiny blade.
The mock-sinister tease—raised eyebrows, velvet baritone—could have come straight from one of Elba's bad guys.
But today's script calls for a lighter touch: Six feet three and built like a stack of cannonballs, Elba is wrapped in a pinstripe apron and sipping peppermint tea in the kitchen of an old warehouse. The space has been transformed into the recipe-development lair of his pal, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. The only thing Elba will be threatening with that knife today is a pile of onions ready to be minced.
Elba's here to test a recipe his mother gave to Oliver: groundnut soup.
"It's not caviar," Elba explains in a booming dance-hall voice that's at once at home here in East London and hard to place. "It's cheap, cheerful, and quick. It's like the fish 'n' chips of Sierra Leone."
The hearty peanut-butter-thickened okra-and-chicken stew is, indeed, the unofficial national dish of Sierra Leone, the birthplace of Elba's late father, Winston. And the version being made today is a family recipe: Eve, Elba's Ghanaian mother, taught him to make the stew when he was 10 years old. He's been perfecting his technique ever since. Oliver plans to include the recipe in a book of comfort food, due out this fall, as a tribute to Winston, who passed away last year at the age of 76.
Elba moved back to London from Los Angeles to be with his ailing father. After Winston died, following a grueling bout with lung cancer, the Hackney-born actor (full name: Idrissa Akuna Elba) decided to stay on.
"This is where my ambition started, you know?" Elba says. "I fell in love with a movie—some live-action Spider-Man at the Rio in Shoreditch. Saturday-matinee situation, kids climbin' all over. But I was just fascinated. I knew from age 10 that this was the industry I wanted to be in."
For Elba, the homecoming is a chance to regroup—as well as a staging ground of sorts for another act in a varied career and life.
Two weeks before this day of soup-making, he and his girlfriend, Naiyana Garth, welcomed a child: a boy, named Winston. Elba has a daughter, Isan, age 12, from a marriage that ended years ago. He and Isan are close; his right arm bears a legend tattooed in dark script that is a tribute to the meaning of her name: the long awaited gift bearer. On the inside of his left elbow, another name is written: moses, the paternal grandfather he never had a chance to meet.
Between sleepless nights looking after his infant son, Elba zips to shoots and meetings through the streets of London on a Piaggio scooter. He's set up a proper headquarters for his production company, Green Door Pictures. ("I find it really grown-up to say I have an office," he says.)
"It's fascinating now, being back here," Elba says. "It's a real check-up, you know? I haven't lived here for 15 years, but there's a familiar feeling I have from before I went to America.
"It's a hunger to get there. I have it here. I feel it again."
By all reasonable measures, Elba, who turns 42 this month, has arrived there: Having achieved cult status as the drug kingpin Stringer Bell in a career-making run on HBO's The Wire, he's gone on to memorable parts in a series of big-budget movies (Prometheus, Pacific Rim, a pair of Thor films). Last year he tackled the role of a larger-than-life figure in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. He's considered by many to be the world's best (slash only) hope for a black James Bond. ("That he isn't James Bond yet is a complete failure of imagination on somebody's part," says David Simon, creator of The Wire. "I don't know who bollixed-up that obvious triumph.")
Elba decided to assemble his own development team at Green Door partly as a reaction to the kind of roles he was being sent after Mandela—or, to be more precise, the kind he wasn't.
"You know, I'd just played this iconic human being, and the scripts I got afterward were sort of . . . disappointing.
"It's hard not to sound disgruntled sometimes as an actor," Elba says. Though, in truth, he doesn't sound disgruntled—just eager to keep the momentum going, to see to it that these disparate strands of his career are pulled together in a direction he feels good about.
"Look, I know that I work a lot, but I'd prefer to wait sometimes because I don't want to just do rubbish films anymore or characters that anyone can play," he says.
The roles only Elba can play are indelible. He's currently a hit on both sides of the pond as the troubled-sexy-weirdo-genius star of the BBC drama Luther, which just garnered Elba an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor (the part earned him a Golden Globe in 2012).
He's mined even darker veins for his latest project, No Good Deed, in which he plays a home-invading psychopath set on making life miserable for Taraji P. Henson and her family. "There must be some demons within me, because I sort of enjoyed having that rage," Elba says of his character. "The other actors were like, 'Oh my God, you're terrifying the shit out of me!'"
In addition to the pleasure of seeing him inhabit this range of hard-to-pin-down roles, there's the sheer joy of watching Idris Elba—fun-loving rake, international DJ, and dude-about-town—be himself. It's a role he's cultivated without the usual assistance of tabloid-ready misbehavior or brazen calculation. Which is to say, he comes by it naturally.
U2's bassist, Adam Clayton, worked on the film score for Mandela and got to know Elba while promoting the film. "I found him full of life," Clayton says. "He liked hanging with the Irish boys, liked to have a good time." The two have since been spotted hitting the club scene.
"He was very humble about his portrayal of Mandela, but it was kind of amazing," Clayton says. "I thought he should have got the Oscar."
Elba's particularly adept at moving between scene-stealing, accent-shifting roles. And not just in film: In addition to playing Beyoncé's husband in Obsessed, he raps on her real husband Jay Z's American Gangster album. As a DJ and a singer, Elba regularly performs under the name Big Driis the Londoner. For a program on Britain's Channel 4 entitled Idris Elba's How Clubbing Changed the World, he identified himself as "Idris Elba, DJ, actor, lifelong raver" and proclaimed clubbing "the most significant British cultural export over the last 30 years."