Originally published in
May 2009
Part actor, part DJ and part wide boy, Idris Elba is the whole package. No wonder Hollywood can’t get enough
As Will Smith once sang, “I’m going to Miami. Welcome to Miami.” I can’t get the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s summer anthem out of my head as I touch down in South Beach to meet Idris Elba. The Hollywood actor is in town for some sun, sea and siesta on a rare break in his filming schedule and has invited ARISE along for the ride. It would be rude to refuse...
I was Mr Kipling because I got all the tarts!
Photography: Nabil

Having spent a few nights partying hard, this evening Elba is found DJing poolside at the Fontainebleau, one of Miami’s classiest hotels. His mash-up of disco, funk and hip hop ripples out of the speakers and gets the minimally attired crowd into the swing of things. With the mood set and his artfully undone shirt billowing in the breeze, he’s so at ease, he doesn’t mind the constant interruptions by autograph hunters and camera crews. Something tells me this isn’t his first time behind the decks. “I started DJing when I was a teenager,” he explains later. “At first I played African weddings with my uncle, so it was a lot of Congolese classics and Ghanaian high life. Then I hit the party circuit and played reggae and slow jams. Then I went on to London pirate radio stations such as Climax FM and Paradise FM. So yeah, I’m a good DJ.”

These days he goes by the name of Driis (www.myspace.com/idrismusic) but back then he was Mr Kipling, after the British brand of traditional cakes. “I was Mr Kipling because I got all the tarts!” he jokes. His girlfriend, sitting nearby, wrinkles her button nose at him as he laughs mischievously. “Producing music came next and I’m currently in the process of putting a DJ album together. I’ve leaked a record out in Europe, too, and because I’m not so well known there it’s not this celebrity DJ thing. I’m not saying it’s by Idris Elba, it’s just Driis – take it or leave it.” If the gleeful, glistening bodies moving to his beats tonight are anything to go by, we’ll take it.

The next day it’s an early start for the ARISE shoot. As I arrive at his hotel suite, Elba is in the hands of his barber having his beard shaved off. It’s a wise decision, taking him from rough-and-ready to suave-and-smooth in the flash of a blade. He emerges from the bathroom a new man, takes his top off and falls to the floor to perform a few impromptu press-ups, revealing not only some serious muscle but also several tattoos. It’s quite a sight first thing in the morning.

Elba points to an obscure tattoo on his hand. “That’s the head of a record player. There’s nothing like the excitement of a needle hitting a record.” He moves onto some cursive writing on his forearm. “This one is a lyric by the reggae group Culture. It says, ‘This train carries no wrong-doers’. And this one says ‘Moses’, who is my grandad and my spiritual anchor.”

Further up is his daughter’s name and the time of her birth: “Isan 4.49 – her name means ‘the gift bearer’.’” Then he points at what looks like a squat Chinese man. “This funny thing is my first tattoo, it’s a guy with a goatee; long story. And this is a tree. I couldn’t finish off the foliage so I put my name on it instead – just in case I forget who I am. And there is another one on my back which looks like a jail tattoo, but it’s actually a stripper’s name from the Bronx.” He lets out a dirty laugh. It’s just as well his girlfriend isn’t around.

It’s dress-up time. He tries on his first look – a crisp, white Ozwald Boateng suit. He then slips into a dapper Dolce & Gabbana dinner suit, followed by a Maison Martin Margiela trench coat. He looks as comfortable in these designer garments as he did minutes earlier in his own baggy sweatpants. “It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually wear but, you know, I like it, it works,” he says while turning this way and that in front of the mirror. The preening complete, the team heads out for a hard day’s shooting around Miami, first on the beach, then in some less savoury corners downtown where Elba’s series of tailored outfits make him conspicuous. Not that he cares much. Renowned for his role as drug baron Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell in HBO’s cult crime drama The Wire, he’s used to seedy locations and sharp suits, not to mention the unsolicited attention fame brings. Today, as yesterday behind the decks, he takes it all in his stride.

After the shoot, he’s quick to change back into his casual attire before we reconvene at Wet Willie’s, a cocktail bar and Ocean Drive institution. He orders a round of the house special, Shock Treatment. As the drink’s name – and colour (an eerie blue) – suggests, it’s a potent mix. Elba’s manager steers clear with an ice-cold beer but Elba and I take our lethal brews to a cosy, yet sticky, corner to talk about his new movie, Obsessed. In the film he plays Derek Charles, a successful asset manager with a beautiful wife (Beyoncé Knowles). His character’s flirtation with a temp at work (Ali Larter) turns into a deadly obsession – a Fatal Attraction for the noughties, if you will.

“It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times before, but what’s unique about this is that it’s a black man and a white woman. Yet the race isn’t mentioned in the script, which is refreshing,” he says, taking his first sip. “If you think of it along colour lines rather than gender lines the story becomes more interesting, especially because the two leads are African American. It’s like the nativity play – you know the story but this time Jesus is black.” And, this time, Mary is, well, bootylicious. “Yeah, Beyoncé’s beautiful. We shared a trailer. And Ali Larter is very sassy. We had a good time making this movie.”

Is it a sad indictment of Hollywood, I ask, that having two black leads in a mainstream movie is still regarded as somehow innovative? Surely we should be past seeing colour before character in 2009? “The problem is that studios choose stories that are going to make money and if the majority of moviegoers are white they are going to want to see white actors. Until we get to a place where audiences can relate to people who are not their colour, that won’t change,” he says, draining his drink. Another round of blue booze appears. “And if a film does have major roles for black actors, then more often than not it’s also a black storyline, you know, it’s something historical about slavery or something, and then it’s seen as a ‘good role’, but those roles can be stereotypical. As an actor I always try to avoid playing the same roles over and over again. At least there is a larger range of roles here in America than there is in the UK.”

Born to a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother, Elba spent his formative years on the slightly mean streets of east London. “At school I was the tallest, which meant I was sort of forced into being a bully. Responsibility was also thrust on me early because I was the tallest – I was the designated driver when we went out stealing cars,” he says with a wry smile. “I was a good student but I was lazy. My drama teacher was influential though, and very pretty too!” His teacher encouraged him to apply to the National Youth Music Theatre, for which he won a scholarship from the Prince’s Trust (he’s now an ambassador for the charitable body) and he toured with a musical production around Europe and the US for six months.

Upon his return to London he started trying to break into TV while doing night shifts as a welder at the Ford factory where his father worked. “I was a piss-poor welder. I’d clock in at 9pm and clock out at 7am, absolutely hating it, but it motivated me to get out and be an actor,” he recalls. Thankfully TV roles did begin to trickle in and throughout the 1990s Elba made a name for himself on shows such as The Bill, Ultraviolet and Dangerfield. By the end of the decade though, he was yearning for a bigger challenge. “I got hired a lot for detective drama stuff. I’d play cops or lawyers and a bad guy here and there. It was good but I could feel the glass ceiling coming, so I decided to move to New York. It was a vibrant city to be in and it gave me drive.” The gamble of starting from scratch soon paid off with a role in Law & Order, some Broadway plays and the film Buffalo Soldiers alongside Joaquin Phoenix.

Undoubtedly his big break came in 2002 with The Wire. Originally only introduced as a bit part, his enigmatic portrayal of Stringer saw him become key for three series. However convincing Elba’s Yankee accent is in The Wire, and indeed Obsessed, in the flesh there’s no mistaking him for anything other than a true Brit. In this tacky South Beach bar, surrounded by bronzed women with bionic breasts and their equally pumped, sun-baked man friends, Elba’s low-slung look and booming cockney accent mark him out from the herd despite the decade he’s spent in the States.

Since The Wire, he’s hit the big screen in films such as American Gangster alongside Denzel Washington, The Reaping, 28 Weeks Later and Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla. And riding on the success of Obsessed, he’s currently working on a number of films including The Losers, which is based on a DC Comic about a bunch of errant US marines, and the heist movie Takers co-starring Matt Dillon, T.I. and Hayden Christensen. Back on TV he’s also in the new series of the US version of The Office and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which he shot in Botswana with Jill Scott last year. “It was great seeing the country. Botswana is an African success story. The economy is thriving, it has a strong student scene and I was impressed by the efforts being put into Aids awareness. I have been to Rwanda, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa and I felt that the energies in each were very progressive. I haven’t been to Ghana or Sierra Leone but I would love to soon.”

At this stage the Shock Treatments have done their worst. Fighting the urge to order a third, we call it quits for the night instead. The next day Elba and I meet for the final time. He’s back by the pool, reading scripts and catching his last rays before leaving this city of sun and sin tomorrow. He’s in a contemplative mood today – less jovial, more businesslike, as the thought of work beckons him out of his reveries. Now 36 years old, he’s currently based between Atlanta (where his ex-wife and daughter live) and wherever work takes him (Los Angeles, London, New York and around Africa). But he still feels as restless as he did starting out back in the day. “When I first began acting at 18, it was all about money and fame, you know, but that sort of attitude didn’t get me where I wanted to be. With the move to New York when I was 26 I worked out there was more to life than that, and that’s where the seeds of who I am today began to grow. And now it’s 10 years later and I’m not sure whether America suits who I have become. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do but I realise there are other things I want that I can’t get in this country. Perhaps it’s something to do with spirituality or cultural diversity, or maybe it’s just the lack of curiosity. In America you can have everything you want without being curious: you can travel to a tropical island or go skiing without a passport, but I am still a very curious person.”

So what’s next? Will he take the well-trodden path from acting into producing and directing, or throw in the towel altogether? Will I find him in 10 years’ time, convening with nature or forming a new religion?

“I don’t know, whatever it is, it has to have elements of who I am now and elements of who I want to be,” he muses. “I love acting, but I am playing characters that came from someone else’s imagination. I do a good job of communicating them, at least I think I do. But the next stage is working out what I can create myself. Maybe I’ll pick up the brush and paint on canvas, and there will definitely be more music, but there are other things I want to do.”

Right now though, there’s a private cabana with his name on it nestled among the hotel’s six pools. Equipped with a flat-screen TV, refrigerator, loungers and a ceiling fan, as well as privacy curtains and a butler service, it’s my guess no amount of curiosity is likely to draw him away from this spot until tonight’s last chance to paint the town red. As Will Smith once sang, “Party in the city where the heat is on. All night on the beach till the break of dawn. Welcome to Miami. Buenvenidos a Miami.”