Notes from the edge

As Idris Elba returns to the big screen in Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us, Emirates Man examines what makes the English actor such a compelling talent

Idris Elba looks nothing less than beaten. It is well below freezing on the border of Alberta and British Columbia in Canada, and his character has just endured a plane crash in the mountains. He’s hauled fellow survivor Alex, played by Kate Winslet, out of ice-cold water and now has to drag her across a frozen wilderness. The Revenant surely has nothing on this.

And if anyone suspects that Elba was, in fact, cooped up in a slightly chilly London warehouse, acting in front of a green screen, nothing could be further from the truth. For The Mountain Between Us, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad flew Elba and Winslet up to the top of a frozen mountain range by helicopter and let them get on with the business of making the film in situ. His reasoning was simple. “I didn’t want a wimp,” the director said.  “I wanted a man. So I cast Idris.”

“It was very important to The Mountain Between Us that we shot it in such difficult conditions,” Elba agrees. “Because we actually got to experience the conditions that the characters would have had to endure. I think the coldest day was minus 38 if I remember rightly – and believe me that is cold. Full credit to the mountain safety experts who were doing tests for months before filming started to make sure everything was as safe as it could possibly be.”

But the edginess that Elba brings to a role is always present,
even if, as an actor, he’s not in any real danger himself. It’s the quality that sums up his allure. Right from his breakthrough role as drug kingpin Stringer Bell in one of the 21st century’s most influential television series, The Wire, Elba has had that invaluable and attractive acting commodity in spades: presence. In Luther, the entire show is predicated on his obsessive, borderline genius detective being both believable and dangerous. And in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2013), he makes the iconic South African president both stately and beautifully human.

Elba is always watchable, not least because filmmakers and audiences alike know that they get total commitment from the 44 year-old Londoner. For all the complaints about this year’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, most critics mourned that it was a misuse of the actor’s talents rather than laying the blame at his door. And it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for the way Elba perfectly judges and balances his character’s fears and hopes in The Mountain Between Us, it would be a far less compelling movie.

The gritty determination to portray the elements as they really were lends the film a sense of reality it might not otherwise have had. “I was attracted to a great director, great writing, and a chance to explore a really interesting character,” he says of a movie that has Rogue One: A Star Wars Story writer Chris Weitz on screenplay duties.

Of course, such a minimal cast – mainly Elba, Winslet and a dog – does offer a different kind of acting environment to being part of a huge blockbuster like Thor, in which the actor plays the sentry of Bifröst Bridge, Heimdall. Working in Queensland, Australia, must have been a more comfortable shoot, but Elba saw carrying an entire film with one other person a proper acting challenge rather than a lot of hard work.

“That was one of the most appealing aspects of the movie for me,” he explains. “The fact you had these two strangers who just happened to be on the same flight – and the next thing these total strangers are completely dependent on each other.”

So the chemistry between Winslet and Elba was, then, vital to this movie, and for his part Elba says that it was a dream working with the Titanic actress. It’s interesting that throughout his career, Elba has been at his best when his character has had someone strong to bounce off – detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) in The Wire, serial killer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) in Luther – and Winslet is a good foil in a film that has been described as inhabiting that tricky, if not mercifully rare, genre: the romance-disaster movie.

“I’m not sure a disaster movie does the writing justice,” counters Elba. “It certainly starts as a disaster movie with these two people in a pretty desperate situation – but as it develops it becomes a story of determination, of hope, of optimism, and of two people starting to be very real with each other and themselves.”

Not least because Winslet’s Alex is supposed to be going home to get married.

“As they go deeper into the journey both Ben and Alex realise there are things they both need to confront,” he continues. “And the exciting thing about playing Ben is that as he goes further into his journey he discovers more about himself, too.”

This commitment to character development is in the end what has made Idris Elba such a sought after actor. In The Wire, Stringer Bell begins as a seemingly typical drug lord, ordering the murder of competitors and generally being bad news to anyone who comes into his orbit. But as the seasons progress, it transpires he has the intelligence to try and become a property developer, taking classes in economics, dealing with politicians and planning his exit strategy from the Baltimore hood. By the end he becomes not just an anti-hero, but someone to root for.

It remains Elba’s defining role, but The Wire also tore up the whole idea of what television drama could achieve, a pulsating yet slow-burn story told over a number of seasons that allowed characters room to grow, learn and convince. Without The Wire, the boxset culture that has brought us brilliant shows like Breaking Bad and a whole host of Scandinavian noir may never have existed.

And if you haven’t watched Elba’s magisterial performance in The Wire yet, well, firstly you should and, secondly, beware. Because he’s possibly about to spoil it for you right now.

“The important part of The Wire story for me was to portray that what was happening on screen was actually happening in America,” he says. “I have openly said I celebrated the death of Stringer as I have an issue with the glorification of drug dealers – they are the biggest problem America has in its hood. I loved playing him, but it was the right ending for him, to show there is no glory to living that life.”

Elba said at the time that he didn’t want to keep playing Stringer Bell-type figures forever, however easy that might have been. But there is a similar dark heart behind the charisma of DCI John Luther, his lead character in psychological drama Luther, recently re-commissioned for a fifth series by the BBC. And, like Stringer Bell, the difference between the character now and when Elba first started playing him is marked.

Speaking about the last series, Elba said that shaking up and “maturing” the show and its lead character was vital. “Of course, a happy Luther would be a bit odd – it would be a different show, but I think there are elements of him that need to be satisfied,” he said. “If we’re gonna keep going with him, you have to have some resolve. He’s lost so many people, so what does that mean to him? How has that affected him? I think we want to put that to bed.”

All of which sounds rather like a famous film character that has become something of an elephant in the room for Elba: James Bond. It’s not surprising the actor is sick of talking about whether he might like, one day, to take over from Daniel Craig as long-running super spy 007 – particularly when comments from the likes of Bond ‘continuation’ novelist Anthony Horowitz and, more recently, Joanna Lumley suggested that he is either “too street” or too unlike the description of the original character in Ian Fleming’s novels.

Horowitz later apologised and Lumley tried to sugar the pill by saying he was in Absolutely Fabulous and a brilliant actor who deserved a new film in his own image. Fine, but the insidious fear of a ‘black Bond’ is ridiculous, not just in terms of its outdated attitude but because Elba would clearly excel in taking the James Bond franchise in exciting new directions – if Luther is anything to go by, anyway.

After all, talking to an invited audience after a screening of Luther in America, Elba was clear about the show’s connection to Bond. “In truth, candidly, everyone keeps talking about Bond and all that nonsense… not to sit here like I’m ignoring it, but the truth is, Luther is my Bond… a central character that gets himself into a lot of trouble – no reinvention of the wheel there.”

So whether Elba will get to be the actual Bond in the future has become less important as the success of Luther continues – and there is talk of a connected Luther film in any case. Of course, Elba would still jump at the chance to take on the iconic Bond role if asked, but it’s no longer a big deal for him, and the racial debates it’s provoked have worn him down. “I’m probably the most famous Bond actor in the world and I’ve not even played the role. Enough is enough. I can’t talk about it any more,” he said in 2015. Although he has. He’s irritated, essentially, by being labelled as a black actor – and rightly so. Actor will do just fine.

Unless of course, he’s not acting at all. Elba has been DJing since he was 14, helping his uncle out on the African wedding circuit in London, and is now completely comfortable mixing epic house sets in Ibiza or at festivals and clubs in England as DJ Driis. In 2014 he also released his first album, mi Mandela, after listening to South African music during the filming of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.

Interestingly, he told The Guardian at the time that “my music is so much more truthful about my art – me – than my acting is. Music comes from my soul. I can connect with you more through my music”.

Since then he’s appeared on a remix of grime star Skepta’s hit Shutdown, amusingly referencing Stringer Bell, Nelson Mandela and John Luther, and made a Luther-inspired record called Murder Loves John, an “extension of my massive fantasy to be a musician” and featuring members of Wretch 32 and Kasabian.

And for all the vanity project pitfalls, his music has been a qualified success. It helps that there has been a genuine desire to try and make music based on the characters he plays, to “sort of explain the journey playing him, and the journey of the character, in music. What would he have listened to, what might have influenced him, what influenced me as an actor”.

Indeed, music is so important to Elba that he tells Emirates Man that if he had a Desert Island Disc moment and could only choose films or tunes, “then I would go with music to get me through the days. I would make sure I had everything from Bob Marley, who I pretty much grew up on. And of course David Bowie as well”.

Greedy. But such a dalliance in the music world does confirm Elba is something of a polymath. Along with the acting work, he’s not just the face of fashion label Superdry’s premium range of clothing, but has helped create the lines with the brand’s founder and design director. And he’s making his directorial debut soon with a film adaptation of Victor Headley’s cult 1992 novel Yardie, telling the story of a Jamaican teenager who arrives in early 1980s London and discovers the man who assassinated his revered brother a decade earlier. Needless to say, his quest for justice ends in a violent street war – although Elba has a supporting role as a peace-loving Rastafarian.

“I have always wanted to be able to work behind the camera, and it was an honour to be able to do it in my hometown of London and as a guest in Jamaica,” he says. “I have always been interested in making human stories with characters that are either full of grace or flawed, and I hope it really means something to the people.”

What’s particularly interesting about Yardie is that Elba has chosen to tell this tale via the medium of cinema rather than television – it’s the kind of story that could easily have stood up to a longer series. The kind of series, indeed, that Elba has made a very good career out of.

“Well, television and movies are very different animals,” he says. “Of course, television gives you more time to develop characters and storylines – but in movies you have to find the art of telling that story in two hours.”

As far as the art of telling stories goes, Idris Elba is rather quickly becoming a master. 

By Michael Conroy