From Space to South Africa: Idris Elba on Prometheus and Playing Mandela

Idris Elba. Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra/Contour by Getty Images

For almost a year, Idris Elba’s home has been his suitcase. Not literally, because at nearly six-foot-three, he wouldn’t fit. But for the first time in his career, the 39-year-old, best known for playing The Wire’s Stringer Bell, is shooting back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back movies, and the luggage he’s been carting around the world is the only thing providing him any sense of comfort and stability.

“No fixed abode, because there’s no point,” Elba says in a thick London accent when I ask him where he lives. “I’m a traveling circus for a while. It feels kind of weird. Like, if I wanted to go home, there isn’t anywhere to go. Just a hotel.” All of his things are in storage, save for a suitcase filled with D.J. equipment and a limited wardrobe of road-friendly darks. “I’ve worn this outfit a million times,” he says of the black shirt, gray jeans, and newsboy cap he has on when he meets me at the Crosby Street Hotel on his single day off from shooting the thriller No Good Deed in Atlanta, which he’ll spend doing interviews for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s upcoming companion film (but not prequel) to the Alien series. Elba shot Prometheus, in which he plays Captain Janek, the spaceship’s pilot-for-hire, right after finishing the second season of his BBC crime drama, Luther, and just before Guillermo del Toro’s alien-invasion movie Pacific Rim. (No Good Deed is actually a clever ploy to squeeze in time with his 10-year-old daughter, Isan, who lives with her mother, Elba’s ex-wife, Kim, in Atlanta.)

Right now, Elba says, “I’m three people”: the actor sitting before me; the escaped convict he plays in No Good Deed; and Nelson Mandela, whom he’ll play in the biopic Long Walk to Freedom, which he’ll begin shooting in South Africa the day after he wraps in Atlanta. “It’s one of my biggest opportunities, and I can’t think about preparation or where my head is at. I just get this sinking feeling as soon as I open my mouth,” he says. “I wish I wasn’t working directly up to it.”

Still, these are nice problems to have, especially for an actor just becoming a leading man twenty years into his career. Elba attributes his slow rise to a number of things: He’s British (“America already has hamburgers, so why do they need more?”), and the bear market for leading men. Just don’t ask if he blames a shortage of roles for black actors. “Next question,” he says when I raise the subject. “I’m so bored of answering that. Are there differences between black actors’ opportunities and white actors’ opportunities? Yes, there are. It’s been said. I’d rather a young black actor read about success as opposed to how tough it was. I get these roles because I can act and that’s it. Hopefully that’s it. The less I talk about being black, the better.”

He doesn’t mind talking about growing up poor, though. From the rough neighborhood of Hackney, the son of West ­African immigrants, he left home at 16 to join the National Youth Music Theatre, and toured with a production of Guys and Dolls. (He played Big Jule.) “We traveled the world,” he says. “I didn’t ever see a future in musicals, but I loved it.” It also kept him out of fights in Canning Town, the ostensibly nicer neighborhood where he went to high school, then a hub for the extreme right-wing party, the National Front. “Their beliefs are ‘Keep Britain White,’ ” he says. “Walking down the street, someone would call you a black cunt. I was like, ‘Fuck that.’ ” It was around that time that he shortened his given name, Idrissa, which he says means “firstborn son,” because he got tired of beating people up when they told him it sounded too feminine. “I quickly got well known because I was tall and wasn’t taking any shit.”

Elba’s characters don’t take much shit, either. Stringer Bell was a surprisingly sexy drug kingpin who ordered hits on rival gangs in between business-school classes. Luther, the role that won him a Golden Globe in January, is an obsessive detective prone to violence. In Prometheus, he’s a tough-guy pilot. In Marvel’s Thor and its sequel (which he’ll shoot in London immediately after the Mandela biopic), he’s Heimdall, a god whose primary job is wearing a horned metal helmet and looking intimidating. And in Pacific Rim, he’ll play the commander of a robot army defending Earth against aliens. Elba himself, though, insists he’s not a leader. Robots or no, “twenty or 30 years from now,” he says, “I’m going to be on a beach in Jamaica.”

The last time Elba had time for leisure might have been while shooting the first season of Luther in London. He rented a huge place, he says, “and because I hadn’t been home to England in forever, all my mates moved in.” It became a “party house” complete with turntables. Elba has been spinning professionally since he was a teen, and has opened for electronic acts like Deadmau5 and Skrillex. By the time the season wrapped, he’d changed his D.J. name from Driis to 7Wallace, the address of the house. “Some people think the name is about Wallace from The Wire, like ‘Oh, where’s Wallace, String?’ ” Or they ask if it’s a tribute to Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace. “We did have a Christopher Wallace suite, which was for Christopher Wallace–type activities,” says Elba, refusing to elaborate. “You’re going to have to use your imagination,” he says. “When you watch season one of Luther, understand that most of those scenes were done with a hangover, which is what makes it grumpier and more interesting to watch, I think.”

He’s taking better care of himself now. To prepare for Long Walk to Freedom, he’s taken up boxing, a passion of Mandela’s. “If an alien craft were to come down and go, ‘We want the fittest people in the world,’ we’d give them a bunch of soldiers and boxers,” he says. “I want to take my body there.” He’s considering making a documentary about his training, the culmination of which, he hopes, will be a charity fight next year to benefit children in Sierra Leone, where his father is from. (His mother is Ghanaian.) But isn’t he worried about damaging his leading-man looks? “If I made my living off my face alone, I don’t think I’d be here talking to you now,” he says. “I don’t have much to lose. Besides, there are characters out there that have crooked noses. I think I’ll get those characters.”

But if his nose survives, Elba would like to do a romantic comedy, or a children’s movie. “I love kids and kids like me, so I’d like to do something a bit silly,” he says. “I admire Dwayne Johnson, the Rock, and his fearlessness in taking roles like that even though he’s known for being a hard man. That shows versatility. Plus those movies are a lot of fun, and my daughter likes them.”

If his busy year fails to make him a household name, Elba won’t mind. “My publicist says a lot of the time people don’t get it. They’re like, ‘Ee-dris Elba?’ And she’s like, ‘The guy from The Wire.’ I don’t see myself as ­famous. I’m more, ‘What’s his name again?’ And I love that.”

This story appeared in the June 4, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Idris Elba on Prometheus, Playing Nelson Mandela