When you're a DJ superstar, a fashion designing, movie directing, Hollywood A-lister and all-round mogul, attention to detail is everything. "I'm probably a perfectionist," admits Idris Elba. "With what I do, I need to be, whether it comes from film, music, whatever. You're putting a piece of art out there, and you need to be confident with it because once it's out there, it's out."
For a perfectionist, Elba is vastly chilled and agreeable in conversation. He knocks back cool, considered responses with ease. Meeting him is akin to stepping into a magnetic field. The man radiates so much energy and intensity that you can't escape it, and it also permeates through his increasingly diverse roles, embodying the likes of Luther, Heimdall, Stringer Bell, Charlie Jaffe (Molly’s Game) and even Charles Milner in The Office.
Turning 50 represents a significant point along the track for Elba, and while his current big project is the film version of Luther – along with George Miller’s epic fantasy adventure Three Thousand Years of Longing, opposite Tilda Swinton – he is as much in mind to drop back into old grooves, notably those found on vinyl...
RSNG You don’t seem to be able to stop; you always have something else on the go. Do you ever sleep?
IDRIS ELBA, LUTHER STAR “I don't have time to rest that much, but I don’t really like long sleeps. They don’t put me in a place of urgency and that’s where I want to be, certainly in terms of work and productivity and happiness. That’s not to say I don’t try to get as many hours of good sleep as I can – I’m just not very good at it.
“Over the past decade or so I have made a conscious effort to try to relax myself before going to sleep. That helps me shut off my brain so I can sleep better. I also find that I work better when I sleep less, albeit more serenely. It’s a real balancing act and it’s safe to say I’m not there yet!”
I was very close to giving up on a number of occasions, yet I knew I never would
RSNG Yet for someone so driven you are also so cool and calm?
IDRIS ELBA “I think it’s easy to confuse being laid back with being laissez-faire about things. I think you can be calm and charged at the same time. Your actions don’t always reflect your emotions – hey, I’m an actor, after all!
“It’s safe to say I am, and have always been, very ambitious. It took me nearly 20 years to establish myself in the business so that I could get big roles, and I learned a long time ago that people with the same level of talent can find themselves heading in very different directions.
“Of course, most of it is luck – most of life is luck, good and bad. On which side are you going to fall? The trick is to lift yourself up from the wrong side and try to make it over the fence. The trick is not giving up before you’ve had to do that a few times. I was very close to giving up on a number of occasions, yet I knew I never would.”
RSNG Is preparation for everything you do in life an essential element?
IDRIS ELBA “It depends what it is. As an actor, as a DJ, in an interview, I normally don't like to prepare too much and just let myself be more spontaneous and start thinking about the work I'm going to do when I arrive on the set.
“I guess DJing is probably the one where you want to have some sort of set order and some degree of preparation in mind. You’re going to need to know what works and what doesn’t work, but being spontaneous in changing your set to suit and to feed off the mood of the crowd is also important.
“I had early gigs that were quite rigid in terms of tracks I was playing and the overall vibe of the set. I could see the crowd on a certain night, for whatever reason, just weren’t feeling it. Because I was so regimented in the tracks I was playing I remember feeling as if I was in some sort of death spiral that I couldn’t get out of, haha! It’s like a slow death. I’m getting back to DJing and don’t want any more death spirals!”
“For movies and acting, I want more spontaneity because almost every director I’ve ever worked with looks for the actor to embed a bit of themselves – both in terms of personality and ideas – into a character; otherwise what is the point? So there is always flexibility and freedom there… there has to be.
“And depending on who you’re acting with, there might also emerge a synergy that you can play off. For instance, when I worked with Kate Winslet in The Mountain Between Us, we both fed into the survival mood of the film and combined our own experiences from past projects.
“With Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game, I only had 10 days to shoot my scenes with her, so that meant we had to learn 45 pages of script with very heavy and complex dialogue. As a result, we approached it like a theater piece and every day would be rehearsing and shooting from morning until night. It was exciting to work like that, although I wouldn't want to do that on every film!
“The opposite to that was Matthew McConaughey in The Dark Tower. We actually distanced ourselves from each other around the set, intentionally, so our warring characters could play out some genuine degree of separation and conflict. As I said, it depends on the situation in hand.”
RSNG “What about when you’re doing non-acting work?
IDRIS ELBA “In the context of interviews I am relaxed. If I am giving the interview, I would say the best way is to conduct it is as a casual chat. I typically wouldn’t prepare any questions if I was in conversation with someone – a conversation should be completely natural.
“The exception to that was probably when I interviewed Sir Paul McCartney – I had three questions written down for that one, haha!”
RSNG Is the return of Luther repetition or originality?
IDRIS ELBA “Let’s be honest, it’s a bit of both. It’s a new format and I think it needed to be, because the series was done and to take it out into a new way of presenting the character becomes interesting.
“You are elongating what you have to play with, yet at the same time shortening the whole story into two hours rather than a whole season, so the very fabric and feel of it is different to anything we’ve ever had before, and I think for that reason you can regard it as original.”
RSNG As entertainment fans, have we grown tired of repetition?
IDRIS ELBA “It depends at what level you approach from. There is definitely a move where people are saying, ‘we don't want any more sequels, any more prequels, reboots, revamps, rehashes… we want original characters, original stories… we're crying out for it, we've got remake fatigue’.
“And that’s true, up to the point where we realize people love characters that are familiar with them. We can’t rip up the rulebook every time and create new things… you would lose all context.
“Personally, I am always looking for different kinds of stories and characters. That makes it exciting for me because I can throw myself into all these different settings. I'm pretty restless. I need to feel like I'm moving forward and not just coasting.”
RSNG What are your favourite types of characters?
IDRIS ELBA “I will say I love playing villains. They're so fleshed out and developed. And that's because writers love writing bad guys. I'm not saying the good guy is boring, but he can sometimes be a little safe.”
RSNG What’s your perspective post-50 compared to pre-50?
IDRIS ELBA “At 50 it’s always the same. Just keep looking up. No point looking down, just keep facing up and going as high as you can. I'm very proud of my career and to have a career I'm proud of.”
I got knocked down in the third round, and my mother asked me whether I needed my asthma inhaler, and suggested I should stop letting my opponent kick me in the head!
RSNG What would you be doing if you weren't an actor?
IDRIS ELBA “Teaching… teaching drama. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, I won't be teaching no fractions, no calculus, haha!
“No, honestly I like to think I'd be teaching acting, because I had a teacher who inspired my love of acting. She gave me the confidence, told me I could do it, and is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing now; so I'd like to think I'd do the same. I'd like to be able to light that fire in someone else, and maybe I will.”
RSNG What was your parents' reaction to your decision to go into acting?
IDRIS ELBA “My father wasn't that happy about it – he was worried I would starve as an actor and he told me to keep working as a DJ so I could at least earn a living, but my mother supported me.
“I have always felt the need to challenge my limits – I've been doing that all my life, like kickboxing in my Forties.
“That was funny actually – my mum hated the idea and she was worried about me getting hurt. When I had my fight [which ended in a draw], I got knocked down in the third round and my mother, who was there watching me, asked me whether I needed my asthma inhaler and suggested I should stop letting my opponent kick me in the head. I told her: ‘Mum, please be quiet’ haha!”
RSNG Weren't you worried about getting your nose broken or suffering a serious injury while you were doing your fight training in breaks between shooting The Dark Tower and Thor: Ragnarok?
IDRIS ELBA “The one big concern I had was avoiding getting hit in the face, but of course that's almost impossible, and a few times I got punched in the nose which worried me.”
“But going through with that kind of extreme training helped me prepare for both those movies because they're also physical roles. There's no more intensive training than the kind of workouts you do as a fighter. It's the ultimate test you can put yourself through.”
I think there's so much we can achieve if we have the will to do it – life is for living
RSNG You're a man famous for embarking on so many personal challenges. You love testing your limits and constantly setting new goals for yourself. What drives you that way?
IDRIS ELBA “I think there's so much we can achieve if we have the will to do it. I like to say, ‘life is for living’. We all have a lot of dreams and desires, but we often don't get to realize them. For a long time I've believed in going out there and doing things instead of just thinking or wondering about doing them.
“Too many people think about what they want to do or who they would like to be instead of just being who they want to be. I like being able to go out and doing all those things I've dreamed about. Other people can too – it’s not difficult once you start, but you must start.”