As Russell “Stringer” Bell, a calculating Baltimore drug lord on HBO’s The Wire, Idris Elba drew accolades that ignited the British actor’s career and granted him the title role as a tortured but talented detective in BBC America's Luther.
As Russell “Stringer” Bell, a calculating Baltimore drug lord on HBO’s The Wire, Idris Elba drew accolades that ignited the British actor’s career. Now he has the title role as a tortured but talented detective in Luther, a miniseries premiering this month on BBC America.
“Luther is a complex character who’s a bit like Columbo on crack,” says Elba, who also serves as an associate producer. “He’s compassionate and really good at catching bad guys, but hasn’t got a grasp on how to fix his personal life.”
Created and written by novelist Neil Cross, who was a writer on the spy drama MI-5, Luther is less a whodunit procedural and more a character driven psychological thriller. Cross suggests that it’s “not only about human depravity, but the complex nature of love.”
The role was appealing, Elba says, because Luther sometimes acts in misguided and self-destructive ways. “There has been a castration of male characters in that they’re not allowed to act badly. But Luther is passionate about his cases and his wife [with whom he is trying to reunite] and when he releases his pent-up anger and frustration, it’s both realistic and cathartic.”
The six-part series, a coproduction between the BBC and BBC America, debuted on BBC One earlier this year; a critic at The Guardian hailed Elba’s performance as his best post-Wire role to date. “I’m really an everyman in the roles I choose, and I seek out those parts that allow me to take some risks,” says the actor, whose gigs on U.S. television have included a comedic turn on six episodes of The Office and an arc as a love interest for Laura Linney’s character on Showtime’s The Big C. “No one knew who I was when I appeared on The Wire, so I was able to pull the wool over their eyes by playing an American. Many people still don’t know my name, but they remember that character.”
But portraying Luther is especially satisfying for Elba, who is scheduled to shoot additional episodes of the series in England. “I’ve wanted to head a drama at the BBC for a long time, so it’s great to return home and be part of this long tradition for British actors. It’s a very exciting time for me right now.”
As published in Emmy® Magazine (10/No. 6)