Idris Elba talks 'Luther,' 'Thor,' Alex Cross, why it's okay if he does 'Ghost Rider 2', and who should replace Michael Scott

luther-elbaImage Credit: BBCIdris Elba is a man in demand, and if you haven’t yet figured out why, watch BBC America’s Luther (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET), the six-part British export in which Elba stars as a brilliant, physical, loose cannon detective with his own secret to hide (he sort of dropped a dangling serial killer in last week’s U.S. premiere who’s in a coma), an unusual and ongoing platonic relationship with a female psychopath who got away with murder, and a wife who wants to divorce him. We recently caught up with Elba to talk about the page-turner series written by novelist Neil Cross, how he navigates his career (he’ll play an “alcoholic warrior monk” in Ghost Rider 2?), who he’d nominate to replace Michael Scott on The Office (and whether he’ll return this season), why the outrage from some fans about a black man playing Heimdall in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor surprised him, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The role of Luther wasn’t written for you. You made him your own after reading the script. Name something you drew inspiration from that might surprise us.

IDRIS ELBA: [Laughs] Columbo. Columbo was a detective that never changed his clothes and never really adhered to social graces. He wasn’t violent, but he was very sort of obtrusive when he wanted to be just to get to the truth, and wouldn’t mind putting himself in harm’s way. I just loved that character, and you’ll see me walking around with my hands in my pockets a lot — that’s just my homage to Columbo.

You appear fearless when it comes the diversity of projects you choose. Is there any kind of role that frightens you?

I would never be fearful of any character. I think there’s a tendency for actors like myself, and I don’t mean to generalize myself, but I’ve played “men’s men,” if you will, characters that are simmering rage and calculated. There’s a trend not to play anything that is opposed to that. I remember when I left Stringer [on HBO’s The Wire], one of the films I did was Tyler Perry’s Daddy’ Little Girls, which was about a man doting over his three little girls. I remember there was talk, “Why? Why would you do that? Play gangsters. Play ruthless.” It’s really funny because the same people who loved me as Stringer Bell were the same people that were watching Daddy’s Little Girls literally in tears. Some people don’t like the film, but some of the guys that came up to me and said, “Yo, I want to see you play gangsters” were the same ones that were in tears because they had either strained relationships with their children, or they loved their children so much and they were watching a character that they could relate to. I don’t mind playing characters that are opposite of what people think I am.

You recently signed on to play an “alcoholic warrior monk” in the Ghost Rider sequel. How does one prepare for that?

[Laughs] I think Luther was an alcoholic warrior monk, so there it is.

Is there anything more you can tell us about that character?

I just want to say this: People compare Luther to Stringer, as if those are the only two characters I’ve ever been. To be fair, those two characters appeal to a certain audience. That audience always says, “He plays Stringer, and then he played all these other silly parts in silly films.” For me, it’s entertainment. Every single film I’ve done, it’s about the character. I chose these roles, whether it’s Obsessed, whether it’s The Gospel. Not everything is going to be as powerful as some of the more iconic roles. I mean, my two biggest performances to date: One film is called Sometimes in April, which is a really important film about the Rwandan genocide, and people don’t ever speak about that role, or that film and what it meant to the people of Rwanda. And I have a film that’s out now, a small film called Legacy [he stars as a former black-ops soldier who was captured and tortured, and returns home to struggle with his paranoia and anxiety and a political conspiracy], but not one bit of acclaim. We actually sent a screener to Roger Ebert this week because he expressed his wish to see it. Not to say he’s given his iconic two thumbs up, yet. But I really hope that he does. Michael Moore saw it and loved it. It’s a film that critically, in the festival world, has done really well, but again, it’s a tiny film and no one wants to write about it because no one really wants to support small-timey films. This character holes himself up in a room for a week, and in this room, he starts to unravel who he is and where he’s been. You start to understand that this is a man who’s not very well. And then you realize that you’re not sure if some of the things we’re seeing are real, and in the end, there’s a twist. I’m so proud of it, because we made it for no money. [He was also an executive producer on the film.] But I’m also proud of it because it actually does resonate for people who have someone like that in their family, someone who worked in the armed forces and the person that left and the soldier that came back are different…. I get criticized for taking roles in films like Ghost Rider 2, but if you look at my résumé, dude, I’ve mixed it up as much as I can. [Laughs] I love to play different roles. That’s just the kind of actor I am. 

You took the role of Heimdall in Thor because you wanted to work with director Kenneth Branagh. Is there a moment that epitomizes that experience for you?

Every day. This is a man that’s an amazing actor. Just hearing him giving his take on how to mold me as an actor. This is a man that called me up personally and said, “I know this isn’t a big role, but I would really love to see you play it.” It’s Kenneth Branagh. I was like, “Definitely.”

I loved how you responded to fans questioning whether you should be cast as Heimdall (known as the “White God”): “Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the color of my skin is wrong?” Was that something you and Kenneth Branagh ever discussed?

Never a topic of conversation. I addressed that because there was a mini, mini uproar about the casting of Heimdall. I just had to comment on it because I found it so ridiculous.

I know Laura Linney also called you personally to ask you to do a guest arc on her Showtime series The Big C. Who else would you like to call you out of the blue and offer you a role?

I’ve been a big fan of Mr. De Niro for a long time, and it would be an honor to work with him. I’d love to work with Judd Apatow, because I think he’s hilarious and I’ve loved his work.

We were psyched to see you cast as the new Alex Cross [the forensic psychologist played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came A Spider]. Name someone you’d love to see end up in that movie with you.

[Without hesitation] Joaquin Phoenix.

Interesting. What role did you have in mind?

[Laughs] I don’t have a role in a mind. Without me saying too much, the script is phenomenal. The part opposite Alex is equally phenomenal.

If what I’ve read is accurate, there’s a serial rapist/mutilator. Could that be it?

Um…. I can’t confirm which of the [James Patterson] stories it comes from. But in the script, yeah, that sounds like the character.

Last question: As a former guest star on The Office [as Charles Miner], who would you like to see replace Michael Scott (Steve Carell)? The producers have said it would have to be someone with a different energy, like Harvey Keitel.

Oh, wow. Good question. [Thinks] I think Bill Maher would be really great. I know he’s not an actor, but he would play such a kooky, weird boss.

Is there any chance of you returning to The Office this season?

We’ve certainly talked about it. The producers and I have discussed ways to do it. It seems like it won’t happen, unfortunately, because of scheduling. They’ve always left the door open for me, which is a real honor. So, we’ll see.

Follow: @EWMandiBierly

Comments (47 total) Add your comment
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  • JMaG

    Great Actor. I’m glad he is getting all these roles. He’s great on the Big C and I really enjoyed the first episode of Luther last week. Look forward to seeing the Alex Cross role..

  • retirednotdead

    absolutely love that man! excellent in any role he plays! when you love an actor and he can make you hate the character he plays, that’s genuis!

  • Jason

    I’m from Britain and saw Luther earlier in the year. And it just keeps getting better and better, brilliant series. Plus it will be returning next year for two specials, which is excellent news.

  • therealeverton

    Loved the guy since Ultra Violet, pure class. Also his Heimdal response is pretty perfect.

    • Brittany

      Yes! I’m so happy someone else remembers that show. Still one of my favorites of all time, and where I first took notice of Idris and Jack Davenport.

      I’ve loved Idris in everything I’ve seen him in since. He’s a class act off-screen as well, so I am so very glad to see him getting all these great opportunities and deserved rave reviews.

  • Heath

    All I see is Charles Miner.

  • dropper

    Idris Elba is a brilliant actor. I respect that he is not afraid to take chances with roles, and doesn’t boo hoo if the project does not turn out…great.

    I can’t wait to watch another episode of Luther tonight.

  • davey

    I am in the middle of The Wire: Season 3 and I am absolutely addicted to Elba’s Stringer Bell. Love him. Want to see more definitely!

  • shamon from the bronx ny

    great bbc show to bad i have to download all there stuff because cablevision don’t carry it .

  • Teresa

    Stringer Bell!!
    I love this man. Yesterday I saw him in American Ganster. :)

  • Eric

    Honestly, with all sincerity, I want to see a black superman and an Asian bond. In exchange, you can make Fu Manchu white in Iron Man 3.

    • KevinG

      P”lease give it a rest!

      • Eric


  • Peggy

    I am not familiar with him as an actor, I hate to admit, but would like to see him as Alex Cross. Morgan Freeman is a great actor, but he was and is way too old to play Alex Cross.

    • Aisha

      I thought it might be worth mneitoning that Sitecore recommends that all non-technical users start in the simple Page Editor inline editing interface rather than in the more capable Content Editor or Desktop user interfaces, which are intended for advanced content managers, developers, and administrators. Also, you can use Sitecore Client Security Roles to limit the features available in all Sitecore user interfaces, which seriously reduces perceived complexity, but also controls which users can perform specific functions. You can expose more features as users become more familiar with the system and find needs for those features.Sitecore has put a great deal of effort into maximizing client performance without sacrificing features or usability. The less data you send over the network, and the closer you are to the server, the better a Web application performs, which is another reason to use the Page Editor and limit features available in all of the user interfaces. Developers tend to turn on all sorts of the features that they only need occasionally, and forget to turn them off, but they can hide tabs, disable prefetching of collapsed sections (and collapse sections they use rarely), hide the standard fields, and take other steps to improve client performance.Personally, I would always vote for features and usability over performance, but then again, I have never used Umbraco.

  • gigi

    My crush on Idris Elba grows everytime I watch his work. Hopefully one day Idris will get to play Bond!!

  • Ne Oublie, Sleepy Hollow

    Loved Idris Elba in The Wire. And I am enjoying Luther. Check it out people!

  • Ann

    The only thing missing from this interview is video. Elba in all his sexiness should be seen & heard, not just read.

    • orianis

      yes! totally agree.

  • Dee

    Really Mandi? The U.S. premiere is in a coma? ;}

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