Idris Elba | Arise


In the immortal words of Will Smith, ‘I’m going to Miami. Welcome to Miami.’ I can’t get the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s summer anthem Miami out of my head as I touch down in South Beach to meet Idris Elba. The actor is in town on a rare break from his filming schedule and has invited me along for the ride. It would be rude to refuse.

Having spent a few days partying rather hard, tonight Elba is to found DJing poolside at the Fontainebleau, one of Miami’s most high-class hotels. A mash up of 70s disco, rare groove and hip hop ripple out of the speakers getting the minimally-attired crowd in the swing of things. With the sun setting and his artfully undone shirt billowing in the breeze, he’s so at ease he doesn’t mind his set being interrupted by autograph hunters and a camera crew. Something tells me this isn’t his first time behind the wheels of steel. “I started DJing when I was a teenager. At first I played African weddings with my uncle so it was a lot of Congolese classics and Ghanaian high life,” he confesses to me post-set. “Then I hit the party circuit and played reggae and slow jams. And then I went on to pirate radio stations like Climax FM and Paradise FM. So yeah, I’m a good DJ.”

These days he goes by the name of DJ Driis but back then his moniker was Mr Kipling, after the British brand of traditional cakes. “I was Mr Kipling because I got all the tarts!” His girlfriend, sitting nearby, wrinkles her button nose at him as he laughs heartily. She does indeed look sweet enough to eat. “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 right now 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 reaction of tonight’s crowd is anything to go by, we’ll take it.

The next day we’re all up early for the Arise shoot. As I arrive at his hotel suite, Elba is already in the capable hands of his barber having his beard removed. It’s a wise decision, taking him from soave to smooth in the flash of a blade. He emerging from the bathroom a new man, takes his top off and falls to the floor to do a few impromptu press ups, revealing not only some serious muscle but also several tattoos.

He points to some cursive writing on his forearm. “This one is a lyric by a reggae group called Culture. It says ‘This train carries no wrong doers’.” He points to another tattoo. “This one says Moses, who is my granddad 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 moves on to point at what looks like a squat Chinaman. “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.” Another dirty laugh pops out of him.

It’s dress up time. He tries on his first look - a very dapper white suit, then a dinner suit complete with dickie bow tie, followed by a trench coat over a waistcoat and dress trousers. He looks as comfortable in these designer garments as he did minutes earlier in his own sweatpants. “It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually wear but, you know, I like it,” he says while turning this way and that to check out his reflection. The preening complete, the team heads out to shoot around Miami, first on the beach, then some less savoury corners of the city where the actor’s series of tailored outfits certainly makes him conspicuous. Not that he cares much. Best known for his role as Stringer Bell in US crime drama The Wire, he’s used to seedy locations and sharp suits, not to mention the unsolicited attention fame brings.

After the shoot, he’s quick to get back into his sports sweats before we reconvene at Wet Willies, a cocktail bar and Ocean Drive institution. He orders a round of the house specials, Catch A Cab. As the drink’s name - and colour (an eerie blue) - suggest, it’s a potent brew. 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 it he plays Derek Charles, a successful asset manager with a beautiful wife (Beyoncé) whose flirtation with a temp at work (Ali Larter) turns into a dangerous 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. Also the race isn’t mentioned in the script, which is also refreshing,” he says, taking his first icy sip. “If you think of it more along colour lines than gender lines the story becomes more interesting, especially because the two leads are African American. It’s like in a nativity play - you know the story but this time Jesus is black.” And, this time, Mary is, well, bootylicious. “Yeah, she’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 seen 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 people seeing movies are white they are going to want to see white actors that they can relate to. 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 film does has major roles for black actors in it, then more often than not it’s also a black story line, you know it’s something historical about slavery or a race issue, and then it’s seen as a ‘good role’ but those roles can be as stereotypical as playing a drug dealer or a police chief or whatever. As an actor I always try to avoid playing the same roles over and over again, I could see it happening to me in England, which is why I decided to leave. At least in America there is a larger range of roles.”

Born to a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother, Elba spent his formative years in 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 helped him apply to the National Youth Theatre, for which he won a scholarship from the Prince’s Trust (he’s now an ambassador for the charitable body) and toured Europe and the US for six months.

Upon his return to London he started auditioning hard while working the night shift as a welder at the Ford factory where his father worked by night. “I was a piss pour welder. Clocking in at 9pm and clocking out at 7am, I remember thinking ‘There must be more to life than this.’ I hated it but it motivated me to get out and be an actor,” he recalls. “I also used to get into trouble with the supervisors because I didn’t take the job seriously. They’d bark at me, and I’d bark back and then my dad would come and defend me. He was a bit of a rebel so he loved it.”

TV roles did begin to trickle in and throughout the 1990s Elba made a name for himself on shows such as The Bill, Family Affairs and Dangerfield. By 2000 though, he was yearning for more adventure. “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 gave me drive.” The gamble of starting from scratch soon paid off a role in Law & Order, a number of Broadway plays and the film Buffalo Soldier opposite Joaquin Phoenix. Undoubtedly his big break came though in 2002 with the cult HBO drama The Wire.

Since then 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, Hayden Christensen and T.I. Back on TV he’s also in the new series of the US version of The Office and the pilot for 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 strong student scene, and I was impressed by the efforts being put into Aids awareness. I have been to Rwanda, Kenya, Botswana, 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 Catch A Cabs have done their worst. Fighting the urge to order a third, we call it quits for the night instead. The next day we meet for the final time. Elba is back by his hotel’s pool, reading scripts and catching his last rays of sunshine before leaving this candy coloured toy town tomorrow. He’s in a contemplative mood today, less jovial, more business-like. Now 36 years old, he’s currently based between Atlanta (where his ex-wife and daughter live) and where work takes him (Los Angeles, London, New York, Africa) but still he’s feeling restless.

“When I first started out as an actor at 18, it was all about money and fame and being a star, 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 now began to grow. And now I get to here and I’m not sure whether America suits who I have become. Now I am doing the things that I always wanted to do I realise there are other things I want that I can’t get in America. Perhaps it’s something to do with spirituality or cultural diversity or maybe it’s just the lack of curiosity. In American 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 in favour of finding yourself Perhaps I’ll find him in another 10 years 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. I love acting, but I am playing other people and characters that came from someone else’s imagination. I do a good job at 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 too.”

Right now though, all he’s interested in is the 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, he’s unlikely to move from this spot until it’s time for his last night out on the tiles. As Will Smith once said, ‘Party in the city where the heat is on. All night on the beach ‘til the break of dawn. Welcome to Miami.’

Photography :Nabil Elderkin
Publication: Arise magazine

Helen Jennings