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.Idris Elba is a man in demand, and if you haven’t yet figured out why, watch
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.