He’s been tipped as the next 007, was recently voted the sexiest man alive, has just got engaged to his model girlfriend and is back on our screens as Luther, can life get any better for man of the moment Idris Elba?
words | Sarah Freeman
Idris Elba nears his half century, he admits he’s having somewhat of a mid-life crisis. Not that you’re likely to see him sporting ridiculous clothes, posing in a flashy sports car or burning about on a Harley Davidson.
Instead, Elba’s midlife crisis seems to come in the form of pushing himself to the limits and throwing himself into a whole host of new experiences. This year he directed his first feature film, Yardie, an adaptation of a notorious novel about Jamaican gangsters in London, he broke Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 88-year-old land speed record for the ‘Flying Mile’, topping 180mph in a Bentley Continental and even made his professional kickboxing debut.
He’s also designed clothes for Superdry and he’s just set up his own record label. He continues to DJ around the world and he even turned up to spin the tunes at a certain Royal wedding.
Talking about his insatiable thirst for life, Elba admits: “Yeah, there comes a time when you get to 40, 45, where you’re like, ‘Oh s***, I’m losing my youth, I’m facing 50.
“You’re on this cusp and it’s not like you can make new experiences so much, because you’ve probably covered it all. So, part of this journey of digging deeper into my fears is the idea that I’m getting older, we all die, and we’ve got plenty of time to sit still.
“I’ve got my flaws, I’m human, I’ve made mistakes and I will make mistakes. But at the same time, I feel like, ‘Hey man, I could do a lot worse’.
Since his big break as drug trafficker Stringer Bell in HBO’s gamechanger series The Wire, pretty much everything he has touched has turned to gold. There was his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom, his scene stealing roles in everything from American Gangster to Prometheus and then there’s Luther in which he even makes the wearing of a tweed overcoat look like an art form.
As an early Christmas present, the detective series is about to return for a fifth series and as soon as the opening credits roll, the rumours that DI John Luther is about to step into Daniel Craig’s shoes are sure to return.
Such is his screen presence, the 46-year-old has long been the bookies’ favourite to be the next James Bond and while Elba refuses to discuss it he was happy to send fans into a frenzy earlier this year when he tweeted: ‘My name’s Elba, Idris Elba.’
Throw in the fact he was also named in the Time 100 list of the Most Influential People in the World and it’s been a meteoric rise for the only son of African immigrants who seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps of welding side panels on to Fiestas at the Ford factory in Dagenham.
For years it looked like that was where his life was heading but following a few roles as an extra on Crimewatch and a subsidiary from The Prince’s Trust, Elba knew acting was the path he wanted to follow.
“The good old Prince’s Trust subsidised my first job with the National Youth Theatre as my mum and dad didn’t have the money to pay for me to do theatre.”
But frustrated by what he saw as a lack of imagination within the British television and
film industry, Elba packed his bags and went to LA looking for acting work. For a long time though it never happened and forced into working as a bouncer and even selling bags of weed to make ends meet, he wondered whether he would ever make it.
“I moved out to America with my life savings, just waiting for the phone to ring. It didn’t for three years. That was a tough time. I was basically homeless for a long time. I used to sleep on people’s sofas, in my van, you know, just out. That’s when The Wire came. That’s when my life changed.”
The Wire, in which he played the drug lord Stringer Bell, is one of the most revered television series ever made. Not that Elba noticed that at the time. “I thought, ‘OK, OK, I’ll take the job because I need the money’.”
It was to be the turning point and the moment his life finally changed for the better.
The screen time afforded to Stringer meant he caught the attention of casting directors and the parts he was offered suddenly got a whole lot more diverse. He has since played everything from a top criminal lawyer to Norse superhero and an alcoholic warrior monk and this summer he released his first film as director. It is a life he has worked hard to achieve and something he will never take for granted.
He said; “If I’m appreciated for what I do as an actor or as an entertainer, then I wear that with pride and I’m thankful. Long may it continue.”
Yardie was based on Victor Headley’s cult 1992 novel about a young Jamaican’s rise from the streets of London to the top of the drug-dealing underworld and it’s unlikely to be Elba’s last stint behind the camera.
“I really enjoyed directing,” he said on Yardie’s premiere. “I think it’s the best of all my interests: from the technical aspects to the acting and the soundtrack to the photography. All of that stuff really intrigued me.”
Next year, Elba, will add another notch to his already impressive CV when he premieres his new show Tree at the Manchester International Festival.
The collaboration with Kwame Kwei-Armah, the new artistic director of London’s Young Vic, focuses on South Africa post-Mandela and features Elba’s music as the soundtrack.
“Kwame and I have both had a strong desire to work with each other for a long time now,” he says. “For me, an interesting part of the process is looking at the next part of the story; the new universe that sprung up after Mandela. To be able to investigate that with Kwame, a writer with such tremendous vision for whom I have great respect and love, and within the artistic community of MIF, is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time.”
Elba has another reason to be cheerful: in March, he became engaged to Sabrina Dhowre, a model and Miss Vancouver 2014, whom he met while shooting a film in Canada. It will be his third marriage – he has two children from the previous two – and came as something of a surprise, mainly because Elba had been outspoken, quite recently, about not wanting to get hitched again.
So what changed? “I fell in love,” says Elba. “That’s it. No long-winded answer to that. I just fell in love and want to be with that person for the rest of my life. “And marriage is a nice commitment to someone, especially when you’ve said, ‘I’m not getting married again.”
Luther returns to BBC1 this Christmas. For full details of next summer’s Manchester International Festival go to mif.co.uk