It's a strange bit of luck when an actor lands an iconic role. It can haunt them like a malicious spirit, cursing future projects and warding off all subsequent fame. Stringer Bell, the drug kingpin from HBO's The Wire, was an iconic role for Idris Elba, who at the time was living in a van and working as a bouncer and DJ in New York City. But Elba's long been free of the specter of that character: He followed The Wire with his portrayal of the titular detective in the BBC's Luther, and he's since portrayed Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and gave an award-winning turn as the commandant in Beasts of No Nation. The internet was responsible for putting forth Elba as a fan favorite for portraying the next James Bond—as well as the subsequent outrage when 007 author Anthony Horowitz claimed that Elba was "too street" for the part.
I ask him how he's navigated his career with such versatility, and he responds humbly: "There's no real formula to it. If that's what I've achieved, then that's how I do it." Along with his upcoming Discovery Channel documentary Fighter, which chronicles Elba's attempt to become a professional kickboxer in 12 months, he's currently promoting 100 Streets (a British film that sees an American release today), in which he plays former rugby star Max Moore, who's coming to terms with his decreasing celebrity status. Among other things, it's fun to watch one of the best-looking and most charismatic men alive try to convince us that, due to his character's fading fame, he'd have a hard time picking up women at a bar.
VICE: Some of the characters you've played have been torn between two worlds and conflicting desires. Are you drawn to those types of characters?
Idris Elba: All characters are given a dilemma. That's pretty much the way of writing. I've played characters that have extreme dilemmas. All characters are torn between one decision or another— that's just life—but the ones I've played have been pretty extreme. It's life, and people are conflicted. I pay attention to whatever that conflict is. And I'm a human being, you know? I've been through conflicts myself. I'm always drawn to roles that stretch me emotionally. I'm not particularly drawn to roles where I just run around with a gun. I need something to play with as an actor—otherwise I'd just be a stuntman.
With Max Moore, how would you characterize the worlds he's torn between?
He's someone who's facing his relevance—who was in the public eye, had his heyday, and isn't as popular anymore. He's caught in that downfall, which for people in the public eye can be hard, because it's a fall from grace. That's what he's battling.
"Luther's walk is my walk, to be honest."
I've always been curious about Luther's way of walking. It is specific to that character, in a way that reveals so much about his interiority. Do you spend a lot of time thinking through those type of details?
I wouldn't say that, but physicality is an important part of the character. People pay attention to how a character walks, or their idiosyncratic behaviors. I try to not overdo it. Luther's walk is my walk, to be honest. But when he wears his costume, there's a different force of physicality that happens. I don't go out of my way to create physical traits in characters, but it's important for most actors.
You are so involved in so many different types of expression—music, film, fashion, directing, now kickboxing. You seem to be preternaturally capable of having a foot in multiple worlds and, perhaps, most comfortable when you are taking on many challenges. Is that true?
Yeah, I'm obviously trying to challenge myself, and I want to live a full life. I don't want to be one of these people who end up saying, "Shoulda-coulda-woulda." I just think, Why not? Actors and people in the public eye are afforded such license to do so many things—good, bad, and for themselves or others—and I take advantage of the idea that, because of what I do, I'm allowed to explore things. I can help and open doors for others, and I love doing that. I love exploring what I'm doing with music because it's just an art form. Directing is a natural progression for actors, eventually, because they hate being told what to do after a while.
"I used to work in a grocery store weighing peanuts and raisins into bags. That was a bad job."
Any really terrible early jobs?
I used to work in a grocery store weighing peanuts and raisins into bags. That was a bad job.
When you first came to the US, you paid your bills working as a DJ and living out of your van. How did those early jobs shape the way you think of your career now, and how did you stay focused on your art and your desires in those leaner moments?
I'd grown up not having money. My parents weren't particularly successful—they were just hardworking people, and I wanted to try to be something different. I focused in on that failure of not being able to be an actor the way that I wanted until I had no choice. Living in my van forever wasn't a choice.
Human beings are so resilient. Even if you can't do something, you can program yourself to do it. It doesn't matter what it is, you can really do it. It's the most incredible thing our brain can do. And that is what I used and honed in on since I was a kid. No matter how shit is and no matter how bad the chips are down, you can definitely climb out of that situation. And if you have an attitude like that, when you don't ace an audition, you don't sort of stop acting, you'll go in and do it again and do it better. I've had that attitude since very early in my life.
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100 Streets is in select theaters and on demand today, January 13.