The Undeniable, Indescribable Appeal of Idris Elba

The badass Brit has an impressive résumé—from acclaimed parts in The Wire and Mandela to popcorn fare like Pacific Rim and this month's No Good Deed—but that hardly explains his legions of admirers and the intense passions he inspires. No, there is something to the 41-year-old actor that goes beyond talent, something elusive and rare, and so undefinable we simply say he's got "it."

Coat by Dunhill. Sweatpants by Gucci.

Styling by Sean Spellman. Hair by Paul Da Stylist. Makeup by Nana Fischer at The Milton Agency. Production by Sasha Rickerd.
Coat by Dunhill. Sweatpants by Gucci.
"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.
Styling by Sean Spellman. Hair by Paul Da Stylist. Makeup by Nana Fischer at The Milton Agency. Production by Sasha Rickerd.
"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."
Styling by Sean Spellman. Hair by Paul Da Stylist. Makeup by Nana Fischer at The Milton Agency. Production by Sasha Rickerd.
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."
Styling by Sean Spellman. Hair by Paul Da Stylist. Makeup by Nana Fischer at The Milton Agency. Production by Sasha Rickerd.
Sweater by Berluti.
A couple of weeks later, I talk to Elba, who is unexpectedly in Los Angeles for a day. "I flew in yesterday from Ghana to do a one-day shoot here," he says, calling from the back seat of an SUV headed to LAX. "Twenty-four hours ago, I was in Africa doing something very different, and 24 hours from now, I'll be back home in London with my family in a completely different environment. And next week, I'm gonna be in front of a bunch of people playing music in Ibiza."
From dictator to daddy to DJ, it's all part of what Elba refers to, not unhappily, as "the randomness of my life right now."
"It's very, very random, but part of me is used to it," he says. "It's become my life's pattern. And I think I've always been this way—this variedness is a part of my personality. I'm not schizophrenic or anything, but literally one day to the next, I can become very different people."
Elba describes his experience filming in Ghana as an epic journey, moving and exhausting. The fake eye didn't work out, as there was no one in the jungle to help him get it right. But the filming was a success, and he was able to meet family there, relatives of his mother he hadn't known.
Now he's back and thinking about music, planning his set lists for Ibiza and looking forward to being with young Winston and his mother. After a brief break, he'll focus on Yardie, a coming-of-age film about West Indians in London that will be Elba's feature directorial debut. Directing is a new hat for him, and yet his approach remains constant.
"All these things I do come from the same place," Elba explains. "When I'm rapping, it's kind of like this character that I put on. It's a character who can write songs and lyrics really easily, so therefore I can stand up and do it too. Acting is definitely jumping into someone's personality."
And a part like the Commandant in Beasts of No Nation allows Elba to fly far into foreign emotional territory.
"It's strange, but I've chosen to be this guy because I get something out of being other people, you know?" he says. "It's this departure for me. I get a sense of release. A sense of rejuvenation."
That's the goal: catch and release. Find the next great role, bring that character to life, and move on to the next challenge and opportunity.
"From an actor's point of view, you're obliged to lose yourself a little and take on someone else's agenda," he says. "That's why you're there."
Thinking of our day browning onions and making stew, Elba offers: "If I was to play a chef, for example, I could just come in and play it as Idris. Just show up in costume and say my lines. But I'm obliged to take you further into the psychology. That's what my job is."
• • •

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