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June 20, 2016

Digging Deep

Patience — and a willingness to exorcise demons — lead Idris Elba to the core of DCI Luther and his ever-increasing array of roles.

Ann Farmer
  • Ray Burmiston
  • Courtesy BBCAmerica

After learning that he would play Nelson Mandela in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Idris Elba asked to spend the night in the penitentiary where the freedom fighter was held for 18 years for anti-apartheid activities.

"It's haunted, for sure," says Elba, describing a long, unpleasant night on South Africa's Robben Island, where Mandela's former prison — now a museum — is located.

At his request, Elba was locked into a cell and left for the night. He couldn't sleep. By morning, though, the experience had provided the perspective he was seeking. "I have to be patient," he says, about channeling Mandela's fortitude. "I have to wait for the door to open."

When Elba took on the role of Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in the BBC America series Luther, he again sought insight into his character — a man obsessed and psychologically burdened by the gruesome crimes he investigates.

He queried London detectives, to discover "how they don't become emotional," as he went about molding what has become a signature role. Yet, unlike those real-life cops, he says, "My character doesn't manage his anger as well."

When the most recent installment aired late last year as a two-hour movie (available on DVD, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon), Luther was taking a leave of absence.

But once he got whiff of a cannibalistic serial killer on a rampage, he couldn't stop himself. He muscled his way onto the investigative scene. And, as usual, he flouted police procedure whenever he believed it could save a life or inch him closer to solving the case.

Viewers love Luther's brilliance and unorthodox style. They're also drawn to his dark, inscrutable side — simultaneously elusive and evocative — as accented by Elba's instincts for just the right gesture or pause or expression at just the right moment.

Elba has received three Emmy nominations for his portrayal (he's also been nominated for his guest role on Showtime's The Big C). At press time, the series' fate was not known.

"I'm trying to create a relatable character," says Elba, who adds that if he were a director, he'd tell actors, "Don't be afraid to exorcise your own demons onto a character."

Tall and charming (there's talk that he may be the next James Bond), Elba was drawn to acting from a young age. "My drama class was my favorite," he says, recalling a memorable early performance in the musical Guys and Dolls. It perhaps set him on course for his breakout role, Russell "Stringer" Bell, the drug lord on The Wire.

He fooled David Simon, creator-executive producer of the acclaimed HBO series, who has said he didn't realize Elba was British until after his audition, when he unleashed his Hackney accent.

Not that success has been easy. Born in London, the son of a clerk and a Ford factory worker, both of whom emigrated from Africa, Elba also toiled on the car-assembly line before moving to New York.

There, he initially slept on friends' couches and worked as a doorman at the popular comedy club, Carolines on Broadway. Nowadays, however, he is juggling any number of film and TV projects — this summer he's shooting John Ridley's Guerrilla in London, for Showtime and Sky Atlantic. He also performs internationally as a deejay, opening for Madonna last year during her "Rebel Heart" tour in Berlin.

"Life experience is really important," he says. "All of the things I did certainly contribute to who I am and how I approach a role."

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