Idris Elba: ‘I always saw myself sitting in the hot seat one day’
His directorial debut, crime saga 'Yardie', brought him back to his 1980s London youth
Have you seen the 2015 music video for Confidential featuring Idris Elba rapping in a bowler hat alongside Nigerian superstar D’banj and Shadow Boxxer?
Well, Idris Elba is like that all the time. Well dressed. Cool. Charming. Cool. Polite and gallant, he makes sure you have the best seat and says all the right things: “It’s lovely to see you again.” And after a few pleasantries, he says “Let’s break this down”, a statement that you know would sound profoundly wrong if you were to say it. We did say cool.
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Elba, at 45, is too sophisticated, too suave, too bloody good by half, to play an imperialist hound-dog like James Bond. But nobody wants to listen to reason.
In the weeks before I meet with him in London, the actor’s name is seldom spoken or written without the dread words “James Bond” attached. This is not a new idea. All right-thinking film fans have, for years, rallied behind the notion of a black Bond in general and an Idris Elba Bond in particular.
I’m probably the most famous Bond actor in the world and I’ve not even played the role
The 2014 Sony hack revealed that even Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment motion pictures group, was rooting for Elba to land the role.
Other actors, notably Jamie Foxx and Will Smith, have publicly volunteered for the job. Various actors, notably Colin Salmon, Djimon Hounsou and Chiwetel Ejiofor, are often mentioned in the apparently endless Bond conversation.
But from the beginning, Elba has been the people’s choice. “I’m probably the most famous Bond actor in the world,” he said in 2015, “and I’ve not even played the role.”
The ongoing saga was given new momentum in early August when Esquire magazine reported that Bond producers were “leaning toward Elba as the next 007”. Elba responded with a jokey tweet: “The name is Elba. Idris Elba.” And then the internet imploded.
Meanwhile, all is not well in the Bond universe. Last week the official James Bond Twitter account announced Danny Boyle had resigned as director and said: “Michael G Wilson, Barbara Broccoli and Daniel Craig today announced that due to creative differences Danny Boyle has decided to no longer direct Bond 25.” Predictably, various commentators began to speculate that this break-up might have something to do with casting.
Elba has subsequently issued a flat, unambiguous no to squash the rumours. So I’m not too surprised when a PR person, attempting their least weary voice, asks that there be no Bond questions today.
Fair enough. Elba actually does have a few other things going on. Like breaking an 88-year-old land speed record in a Bentley in 2015. Like winning his first professional kickboxing fight in 2016. Like opening for Madonna on her Rebel Heart Tour. Like performing aerobatic manoeuvres at the Coventry Airbase Airshow. And then there’s his music career, his record label, the fashion line he designed for Superdry and being named Rear of the Year in late 2017. Oh, and he just got engaged to his girlfriend, Sabrina Dhowre.
I remember watching Ridley Scott work and thinking, I want to do that, watching Guillermo del Toro work, watching Cary Fukunaga work and thinking, 'Wow'
How he found the time to make Yardie is something of a mystery.
“It’s just that I’m never going to say no to challenges,” he says. “If you get a computer, a laptop, and you buy it, and you take it out of the box, it doesn’t do anything. It’s a great piece of kit. But you have to use it. And that’s how I feel about my brain.”
He smiles: “I’ve only got about 75 years to go.”
Yardie, Elba’s energetic directorial debut, is based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Victor Headley. A very Jamaican crime saga, the film chronicles the violent life of D (played by the charismatic Aml Ameen), a young Kingstonian who, during the early 1980s, becomes embroiled in the island’s gang culture and who is sent to London to facilitate a major drug deal.
Elba has spent almost five years adapting Yardie for the big screen. It has been a sharp learning curve, he says.
“It’s a bit of a cliched journey for any actor to go into directing, isn’t it?” says Elba. “I definitely always saw myself sitting in the hot seat one day. I remember watching Ridley Scott work and thinking, I want to do that, watching Guillermo del Toro work, watching Cary Fukunaga work and thinking, Wow. I operated second camera on this film because that’s what Cary does on his films. I remember wondering why he does that, but when you get into his process, you realise it’s because you can see the lies. You can get distracted when you’re a director just looking at a screen. But when you’re right there, there’s a relationship between the naked eye and the camera, and you can see what doesn’t look right.”
Elba’s film has plenty of verve and swagger, and yet, in contrast to most crime sagas, it studiously avoids any glamorisation of violence.
“There’s a lot of violent energy in the book that I was nervous about portraying on screen because of the type of violence it is,” he says. “I had to ask, What am I saying about this? What am I saying about this culture? The term ‘yardie’ is a derogatory term in the first place. So the energy I wanted was cultural energy. I wanted to feel like I’ve just gone to Jamaica. I wanted to I feel like I’m in the ’80s.”
Elba grew up in East Ham with his Ghanaian mother and a Sierra Leonean father. As a teenager he took weekly drama classes and hoped to be a DJ, but instead he took a job at a Ford factory in Dagenham alongside his father, Winston. Aged 19 he won a place in the National Youth Music Theatre thanks to a £1,500 Prince’s Trust grant; he was able to return the favour by DJing at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.
The events of Yardie take place in Hackney and Canning Town during the 1980s, which also happened to be Elba’s stomping ground.
“This story was definitely tapping into my memory banks,” says Elba. “I can tell you about the type of wallpaper in the pubs or that might have been in D’s house. It’s really interesting that the feedback from the beginning has been about the era. There’s a generation of kids that wouldn’t have a clue what was going on in London back then. I wanted that younger audience to see it and think, Wow, that’s when my mum and dad were growing up.”
Several commentators have framed Yardie as a post-Brexit lament for multicultural Britain. That was entirely accidental, says its director, but he’s happy to hear it.
“I started thinking about this film four years ago,” says Elba. “It just happens that now, when people are watching the movie, they’re talking about the Afro-Caribbean experience in a certain part of England, and it fits with what’s been happening around Windrush, with Brexit. I’ve had people of Irish descent come up and say that the film took them back to when being Irish was still a pressure cooker in this country. Clearly, whatever Victor was writing about all those years ago still resonates with people.”
It’s nerve-wrecking. But I can cover up my nerves by just ploughing on
Given Elba’s varied skills, it’s easy to forget that for his first decade as an actor, he faced several lean years and good deal of transatlantic travel, as he worked up a series of credits on such English telly staples as The Bill, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries and Silent Witness. He played a gigolo in a 1995 episode of Absolutely Fabulous and had a seven-episode run on the ill-fated Channel 5 soap Family Affairs.
“The worst time was when I had no work for three or four years,” recalls Elba. “I was coming back to England. I’d grab a job, I’d get some money, and I’d go back to America. But I never really got to the place when I thought: I’m done. I’ve done millions of jobs and this has been my main job since I was 18.”
In recent years Marvel has powered Elba into the billion-dollar movie club. Since 2016 The Jungle Book ($966.6 million), Finding Dory ($1.029 billion), Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million) and Avengers: Infinity War ($2.046 billion) have been there or thereabouts. Next year’s Fast and Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw will see Elba take on Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. He’s already working on a new screen adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and has created a new sitcom, Turn Up Charlie, which will premiere on Netflix next year.
“There are definitely more choices now in the type of work I can do,” he says. “Yardie is a small project. It’s not designed to be a big money-making film. Of course, this is a business and I want to be proud of it. I think there’s a misconception that the higher you get, the less the success matters. That’s not true. Are you kidding me? I’ve directed this thing. I’ve conjured it and to watch it go out into the public domain is great. I mean, it’s nerve-wrecking. But I can cover up my nerves by just ploughing on.”
Ever the gent, he’s keen to take the lessons learned from the impressive ensemble cast of Yardie and use them on set. He’s not naming any names, but . . .
“I’ve always been sympathetic when directors have actors who are difficult to work with,” he says. “Guys, I’ve got a million things to deal with, I don’t need your issues right now. Actors are a really important part of the film engine but after working with actors that are super-dedicated – dedicated to the point where you couldn’t ask any more and young and eager to impress and who just went for it – it made me look at my own dedication. How much time am I giving the director to work to rehearse? How many times am I prepared to do it again differently if they ask me? Do I know my lines? I’ve always been an actor that wants to contribute to a happy crew. Now I’m going to work even harder to get there.”
- Yardie opens August 31st