Interview with Idris Elba, a new Hollywood star with a strong fan following
Idris Elba, looking as cool and virile as the fictional Baltimore drug lord whom he so memorably played on the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire," winces at the mention of the s-word.
"Sexy?" he repeats, shifting in his chair and wrinkling his brow in a convincing display of mild discomfort. "I'm a little sheepish about it. Whenever I meet fans and they're like, 'Oh, you're so sexy,' I just don't get that. There's no way one man can be universally sexy."
It's a good answer, because had he said, "Hell, yeah, I'm sexy!" even in that cute British accent of his, it wouldn't at all jibe with the image of the sensually serious man whose face these days is all over magazine covers and television and movie screens.
Right now, Elba's career as an actor also is hot.
And that is something he is not only comfortable with, but eager to talk about. Elba, through the character of Russell "Stringer" Bell, seduced a loyal following that crossed race, class and gender lines. He also has been the most successful acting alumnus of the series, appearing in a number of movies, such as "American Gangster" with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and several episodes of the TV sitcom "The Office."
His latest project, "Takers," a heist flick starring the rapper T.I., Chris Brown and Matt Dillon, opened Friday. Once again, Elba plays a cerebral criminal, the head of a high-tech, high-class ring of thieves who rob banks for big bucks.
He is also back on premium cable TV, in a recurring role in Showtime's new series "The Big C," starring Laura Linney. He will play a love interest of her character, an uptight suburban homemaker who decides to let loose after learning she has terminal cancer. And last year, he was praised in England for his starring role in a new BBC cop drama, "Luther," which U.S. fans will get to see later this year on BBC America.
One morning this month, after a night out for a screening of the new movie and an after-party at Eden nightclub in downtown Washington, Elba's aura was a bit dim. Still, he was cordial, engaging and thoughtful during a chat in a suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, even though he'd been doing back-to-back media interviews all morning. This is part of the job, and he is serious about his work.
Dressed simply in a black T-shirt and denims, he is tall -- 6-foot-2 and change -- lean and muscular, with dark, smoldering eyes, smooth ebony skin, and full lips framed by a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. His look is at once movie-star handsome and warmly familiar, especially to his black fans who see in him the often misdefined black man. He looks like family -- a brother or cousin or a dude you grew up with -- until he starts speaking.
Elba, 37, was born in East London, the only child of working-class parents from Ghana and Sierra Leone. As a teenager he joined London's National Youth Music Theatre and landed bit parts on British television. His father was displeased when Elba announced that he did not want to work with him in the Ford factory and struck out for America to pursue an acting career.
As a result of his success in Britain and the United States, Elba says, his parents are "very proud now, overly so."
"It's weird because my parents don't really understand my business," he says. "I get fan mail all day long, but if a piece happens to get to their house, they're like, 'Oh, my God, you've got a fan! You have to write them back. You have to do it!' " As a teenager, Elba would accompany an uncle who was a popular DJ on the party circuit. In time, he took over the turntables and went into business for himself. When he moved to the United States in his late 20s, he would support himself between acting gigs by DJ-ing at clubs in New York and Philadelphia. He still DJs, but mostly because he enjoys it, not to pay the bills. Still, in some YouTube videos Elba looks serious and focused as he works the turntables, his head and shoulders pumping to the beat. He also dabbles in music, singing, rapping and mixing. The brother is seriously on the grind, a characteristic he says he shares with Gordon Cozier, the gangster he plays in "Takers."