Elba's uncle, a DJ in London, would bring his 12-year-old nephew along to help out at weddings and christenings. "Whenever he had too much fun or got too drunk, I'd take over for him," Elba says. "I grew up on music round the house. It was always something I loved. When I got a little older and I saw you could spin and it'd be a job, well, I never looked back. I always keep it close to me and just love it."
Music, spinning records and making them, has been a part of his life from his early career in London through his New York City years and his big break in Baltimore—where he'd record with his Wire costars. "Me and Wood Harris, who played Avon, and Hassan Johnson, who played Wee Bey," Elba says, "we'd book out a studio and make records of us rapping. I'd make the beats and chords—just fun, freestyle stuff."
There's a good chance you're an Idris Elba fan—even if you're not sure what you've liked him in. The whole of his appeal is greater than the sum of his parts. "I've been that guy for a while, where people recognize me but they're not sure why," he says. "I'd done a lot of popcorn films, but the reinvention came when I decided to do more of the character-driven stuff that won't be seen by as many people. But it makes people start to realize, 'Wait a second, this guy is that guy.'"
The Guardian once summed up Elba's presence thus: "He often has fewer lines than anyone else, but you still feel as though he has the bigger part, because he is luminous."
Or as an ostensibly straight male friend of mine blurted out when informed that I was going to interview the most indescribably cool badass who anchored People's Sexiest Man Alive list in 2013: "He's the only actor where I kind of want him to pick me up and hold me."
There was a period not all that long ago when "Idris Elba: leading man, generalist, Oscar contender" wasn't a foregone conclusion. From Canning Town, East London, he got into acting at school and won a scholarship to the National Youth Music Theatre. He also worked with his father at a Ford factory and struggled to find roles to pin a career on. He appeared in Family Affairs and the BBC mini-series Ultraviolet, then decided in 2001 to try his luck in New York City. He lived across the Hudson, doing time between auditions as a doorman at Caroline's Comedy Club in Times Square and taking DJ gigs to pay the bills.
"It was survival tactics for a couple of years," he says. "I was jobbing it. I used to finish at two or three in the morning and stump the fuckin' streets back to Jersey City."
By the time Elba read for what would be his breakout role as the enlightened drug dealer Russell "Stringer" Bell a year later, he'd nailed more than the accent. "I didn't realize he was English," says David Simon, recalling Elba's audition. "I figured he was a New York actor I hadn't met yet. The casting director was rooting for him, which I didn't know at the time. She'd advised him not to break his accent even outside the role."
But it was the nuance of the reading, more than the linguistic sleight of hand, that won over Simon and his colleagues. "To be able to play a cold and calculating character and then be able to let air into the room with humor, that's a huge range," Simon says. Elba's versatility and bearing were unmistakable. "If he can't hold a movie," Simon adds, "the fault is probably on the page or behind the camera. He doesn't do bad work.
"From a very early moment, we all thought, Okay, let's enjoy this while it lasts, because he's going to be a movie star, without a doubt. Pay attention, because we're gonna be sitting at a bar some night telling everyone we worked with Idris Elba."
Despite his seeming swagger, Elba himself didn't realize what changes The Wire would bring to his career.
"Everyone knew he's going to be a movie star, no question," Simon says. "The last person to realize it was him, which made it even funnier."
"It needs more peanut butter," Elba declares, tasting the groundnut stew—a lilting uptick on the last syllable: pea-nut-buttaaahhh!
"I like to cook," he says. "I went to Trinity boys' school, Canning Town, East London, the edge of the industrial world. But we had this home-economics class where you got tough lads like me and my mates learning how to cook, and I absolutely loved that."
A wave of giggling excitement passes through the kitchen as the recipe-testing staff wrap their collective minds around the image of young Idris Elba, star pupil of home-ec class. A photographer drops by to shoot Elba eating the stew for Oliver's book, and, one by one, the cooks and various assistants overcome their shyness and general cool to line up for iPhone snaps with the man.
"You've got a future in cooking programs," one of the recipe testers cheerfully tells Elba. That particular brand extension will probably have to wait because of his unusually high dance-card volume at the moment.
These days, cooking is a kind of reprieve from the constancy of his work life, a retreat he likens to the rare moments of personal quiet enjoyed on the back of his scooter between meetings.
"Cooking and riding the bike, they're therapeutic: Both make you get out of your own head for a little while," Elba says. "It's a massive reset."
Switching between emotionally exhausting roles and new-dad duty at home would be draining or at least disorienting for most folks, but Elba's used to the routine.
After our kitchen chores are finished, he's headed back on his bike to a studio in Shoreditch where he's finalizing edits on a video he directed for the American singer K. Michelle. (She's referred to it as a "female 'Trapped in the Closet.'") In a week he'll leave the family behind for a shoot in Ghana. Beasts of No Nation, loosely based on the Liberian War, tells the harrowing tale of the child soldiers of Africa.
Elba, who helped produce the film with the director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Jane Eyre), plays a sadistic general known simply as the Commandant: "He's a dictator, completely deranged and derailed."
It's a more taxing transformation than picking up a Baltimore street accent. "I think about him all the time," Elba says of the Commandant. "I think about his walk, I look for mannerisms he might have. I'm going to put a gold tooth in, and then I had this idea of his eyes—that one is sort of skewed. He looks at you straight, but one eye looks off the other way. I can do that with a contact lens with a false iris. You're not sure where to look and it throws people off, which is what I'm trying to achieve."