The cool Operator by Christian Aust | 3rd September, 2021 | Personalities
Whatever Idris Elba sets out to do looks easy. It’s this effortlessness that makes him irresistible. The British actor also has multidimensional talents. Besides acting he produces, directs, writes and composes. He is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, kickboxer, racing driver, rapper, singer and D.J. Always on a mission to advance…
Until fairly recently, there were only three very basic archetypes for men: macho, softy and boringly ordinary. And despite the fact that this was a deeply unrefined time with clearly designated cookie-cutter roles, many long to return to it. Today’s zeitgeist is so diverse, complex and fast-paced that many men are no longer sure how to act – or how they’re allowed to act – in order to cut a decent figure in the general melee. Hollywood also seems deeply confused, casting big kids as protagonists, instead of grown men. Into that vacuum steps a knight in shining armor – Idris Elba.
“I know that my celebrity can shine a light on a part of the world where my family is from.” IDRIS ELBA
He occupies a rarefied showbiz niche as an icon for grown-ups of any gender. A sophisticated man who can be uncompromising and sensitive at the same time. On top of that, he is also an engaging raconteur and a deeply affable person. With his charm, coolness, sense of style and sense of humor, Idris Elba is an ideal ambassador for the British isles. Most audiences know him from his role as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, in the BBC crime drama “Luther” that ran for five seasons. It is centered on a brooding investigator who crosses moral and legal boundaries and is prone to violent outbursts in which he threatens suspects and throws around the odd chair. In 2012, Elba was awarded a Golden Globe for his performance, followed by the SAG and Critics’ Choice awards. The long-awaited “Luther” movie is currently in production – causing fans around the world to go into meltdown.
Idris Elba is much more than an actor. He unleashes his seemingly boundless creativity in a number of professional universes as a producer, director, author, composer, UN Goodwill Ambassador, kickboxer, racing driver, rapper, singer and D.J. And as if that wasn’t enough to keep a person busy around the clock, the 49-year-old father of two is now branching out as an author of children’s books. Of course, a person like Elba is not content with writing just one book; he has co-written a whole series with the award-winning British author Robyn Charteris. Elba is a team player. His network includes all the right people and he likes to bring them on board when he ventures into new professional territories. The books are scheduled to be published next year. The fact that as a genre, children’s books may not fit in with the image of a hunky leading man doesn’t worry him in the slightest. That’s because he is constantly defining and redefining his image himself.
Upwards of a certain budget size, there are some unwritten rules in the movie industry. One of these is that actors are not allowed to display their talents across too wide a spectrum, but are typecast instead. This rule no longer applies to Idris Elba. Long before campaigns like #OscarSoWhite or the debates around diversity in Hollywood, Elba embodied roles for which non-white actors had rarely been hired up to that point. In the adaptation of the “Thor” comics, we see him as a god from Norse mythology and in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” he plays an astronaut. We see him on the silver screen in movies ranging from opulently produced blockbusters to ambitious low-budget productions, being tough, being gentle, sometimes the good guy, sometimes the baddie. In the romantic action drama “The Mountain between Us,” he plays the lead, a surgeon, opposite Kate Winslet. In the Netflix movie “Concrete Cowboy,” he stars as an urban cowboy (a role for which he learned to ride horseback despite being allergic to horses).
For many years, Idris Elba has been touted as Daniel Craig’s successor in the role of 007 to become the first “Black Bond.” It’s a rumor fans and journalists are so excited about that they still ask Elba for a comment at every possible opportunity, leading his publicists to request would-be interviewers politely to please not bring up that particular topic. Elba has previously confirmed how much he would have liked the part, but that it had never in fact been offered to him. He admitted how much this bothered him in an interview with Vanity Fair two years ago. Elba said it was disheartening to be told by the old guard in the industry that it wouldn’t work and to realize that it was really all about the color of his skin. “And then if I get [the job] and it didn’t work, or it did work, would it be because of the color of my skin?” He concluded that it was a difficult position to put himself into when there was no real need to.
“I don’t consider myself a ‘Black’ actor. I’m an actor, not a number.” IDRIS ELBA
Today, at the age of 49, he is, presumably, too old to be James Bond. But who knows? Maybe he will be able to override this rule, too. Idris Elba always has a surprise up his sleeve. I once interviewed him on a hot summer’s day in Cologne, Germany. Instead of meeting me in a 5-star hotel as previously arranged, Elba spontaneously decided he wanted to relocate from his air-conditioned suite to a Beach Club on a bank of the Rhein River. So we sat on sun loungers with our feet in the sand, a bucket filled with ice, beer and soft drinks in front of us. It felt more like a vacation than a work assignment and Idris Elba, sporting a red beanie hat, felt like an old friend.
I congratulated him on his hit “Boasty” – a collaboration with Sean Paul, Wiley and Stefflon Don – which was high up in the dance charts at the time. Only a few weeks after its release, the video had already been viewed millions of times on YouTube. Idris Elba was delighted. His success as a musician is at least as important to him as his success as an actor. At the age of only 14, he was already helping his uncle, who worked as a D.J. Elba played his own first sets under the name of Little Driis. At the age of 19, he was spinning in London clubs, and later in New York, too, under the name of Big Driis. Elba has since worked with greats like Jay-Z, Macklemore and Taylor Swift, and D.J.ed for Madonna during her Rebel Heart Tour. Two of his most spectacular D.J.-ing jobs to date were a set at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding reception, and a set at the legendary Coachella festival. He has his own channel on Spotify, which attracts roughly 741,000 listeners every month.
Like almost all the really cool British stars, Idris Elba is from a solid working-class background. It is something he has in common with acting icons like Sean Connery and Michael Caine, epitomes of a down-toearth Britishness, which is deeply rooted in the country’s pop culture. Elba grew up an only child in London’s East End, in the then still deprived district of Hackney – a multicultural melting pot and home to many immigrant families. His father Winston is from Sierra Leone, his mother Eve from Ghana. After their wedding in West Africa, the young couple moved to London and Idrissa Akuna Elba was born roughly a year later. Tired of being taunted by his classmates, he shortened his name to Idris while still in school.
His father worked at the Ford factory in Dagenham. Idris had his first encounter with acting in a school play, and fondly remembers his old drama teacher to this day. He worked through some of the experiences from his childhood and his youth in his directorial debut “Yardie,” for which he was awarded the National Film Award for best director. The movie is based on the eponymous novel by Victor Headley, which is set in 1980s gangland London. In an interview, Elba once explained: “The story is set in a world that was part of my world and that I know. That’s why I wanted to turn the book into a film.” In a sense, “Yardie” was to him what “Good Fellas” was to Martin Scorsese.
“My mum and dad really retained their culture, even though they lived in England,” he said on the U.S. talk show “The View,” where he turned the studio audience of women of a certain age into the sonic equivalent of a mob of screaming teenage fans. We almost forgot to mention: Idris Elba is a sex symbol, too – one with obvious magical charisma. Even Whoopi Goldberg, who is not known for being easily impressed, enthused: “Too young for me, but I still think about [him].” So the man must have that certain something. People magazine named him their “Sexiest Man Alive” in 2018. But back to his youth: “My parents spoke in their language, Krio, and there was lots of real African food. Do you know what fufu is? You eat it with your hands and dip it in a sauce.”
In January 2016, Idris Elba addressed a group of British parliamentarians. He considers this speech the most important he has ever given. He spoke about his industry and the need for fundamental change so that talent from diverse backgrounds would no longer go untapped. He highlighted the many barriers he had to overcome until he was finally able to shine. “I’m not here to speak just about Black people on TV,” he clarified. “I’m here to talk about diversity. In the modern world, that’s about more than skin color. It’s about age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, social background and most importantly, in my opinion, diversity of thought.” He said he didn’t consider himself “a Black actor.” “I’m an actor, not a number.” But it was precisely these unique talents that he had rarely been allowed to show for many years, so one-dimensional were the parts he kept being offered over and over – like gang leader. “So today, I’m asking the TV and film industry to think outside the box.” Audiences didn’t want to see caricatures any longer, he said. For that to happen, the cultural background of many of the decision makers would need to change. Last year, he was awarded an honorary BAFTA for his work in promoting diversity and new talent.
When Elba was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire – OBE for short – in a solemn ceremony a few months later, he was accompanied by his mother. He received the honor from Prince William. “Flying the East End flag at Buckingham Palace today,” Elba cheered on Twitter afterwards.
After leaving school, he managed to get one of the sought-after places at the National Youth Music Theatre. This included a grant from the Prince’s Trust, Prince Charles’s charity that aims to give young people from underprivileged areas a good start to a steady working life. Elba is still connected with the trust to this day. But it would be a long time from those days to being able to make a living from his first acting jobs on shows like “The Ruth Rendell Mysteries” or “The Governor.” In between taking on small parts, he would make ends meet by working as a tire fitter or packaging produce in a health food store. He also worked the nightshift on the assembly line at Ford, like his father, for two years.
Elba’s breakthrough came in 2002 playing Russell “Stringer” Bell in the HBO show “The Wire.” Eight years later, he starred in “Luther” – the start of his international career. The part of the sensitive but aggressive detective who breaks the law to fight crime was just perfect for him. At the time, Idris Elba was already 37 years old.
Eight years ago he played Noble Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela – a part that was close to his heart and also sent a message. He has never lost touch with his roots and his parents’ home country, and has continued to deepen his involvement. He produced a show for BBC Radio 2, in which he showcased a huge variety of African music. Since the start of his career he has been working with charities that fight poverty and HIV/AIDS, like ONE.
Since last year, Elba and his wife have also been goodwill ambassadors for the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). In this role, they have so far generated 40 million dollars for African farming families affected by the pandemic. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper Elba said: “I have understood that my celebrity can shine a light on a part of the world that my family is from. That’s why I want to be a representative of this continent.” He added that Africa was so full of potential and culture, and that the rest of the world was starting to realize this. “It makes me happy if I can contribute to that.”
Since 2019, Idris Elba has been married to his third wife, Somalian-Canadian model Sabrina Dhowre. The couple split their time between London and Los Angeles, and Elba also owns properties in New York City and Atlanta. Those who would like to experience the dynamics between the two should really watch the clip by British Vogue called “Sabrina & Idris Elba Play Mr & Mrs.” The newlyweds have recently launched a podcast in which they talk to famous guests about marriage and relationship issues. The couple are also launching a collection of shoes called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” with designer Christian Louboutin, the proceeds of which will go to charity.
It is difficult to imagine, but in between all of these activities, Idris Elba keeps managing to find the time and energy to face ever-new challenges that he seeks out himself. In 2015, already 42, he started a 12-month kickboxing and martial arts training program. Under the tutelage of Thai boxing coach Kieran Keddle, he prepared to fight the younger and more experienced fighter Lionel Graves in London’s York Hall. Elba won the bout with a first-round knock-out.
And then there are the cars. For Elba they are much more than a passion, they symbolize part of his philosophy of life. In 2015, he broke the Flying Mile speed record with a Bentley Continental GT. In the TV show “Elba vs. Block,” Elba and the famous stunt driver Ken Block challenge each other to perform wild driving maneuvers. “In the end, it’s about facing my fears,” he once said. “Fear rules a large part of our lives. I don’t want to make decisions from a place of fear of the unknown. I want to try things.”
And now, years after the much lamented end of the show, there’s a big-screen, feature-length “Luther” movie in the works – the big finale. A complicated hero for complicated times, Idris Elba is also the movie’s executive´producer. No release date has been set yet, but one thing’s for certain: We can hardly wait to see it.