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Idris Elba
Photograph: Lia Toby/Getty

Idris Elba interview: ‘I’d lose who I am if I decided to become more Hollywood’

The Londoner on his new ‘Luther’ movie, those Bond rumours and staying grounded

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

‘That’s an... original question!’ Humouring me with a generous chuckle, Idris Elba entertains a meta curveball of an opener as he hunches beefily over a table in a bustling London hotel brasserie. Which Idris Elba movie would his Metropolitan Police detective, John Luther, be most into? Unsurprisingly, it turns out not to be Zootropolis or Hobbs and Shaw. ‘He might be into Beasts of No Nation, just because there’s a military fucked-upness about it that I think he can relate to,’ he muses, reflecting on his character’s upbringing as a ‘military kid travelling around with his dad’.

The gnarly backstory, the tweed coat, the red tie, the bashed-up Volvo: they’re all present and correct in the big-screen Luther outing that he’s here to chat about, too. After five high-rating TV seasons, one of London’s favourite sons has delivered his much-loved TV detective – a kind of growly, post-millennial Sherlock – on to a bigger canvas courtesy of Netflix’s Luther: The Fallen Sun. There are nasty new villains (Andy Serkis’s serial killer, David Robey), old pals (Dermot Crowley’s long-suffering Schenk) and new star names (Widows’ Cynthia Erivo’s senior detective is now busting Luther’s balls from police HQ) – as well as a grand guignol nastiness that fans of the show will recognise.

There’s a definite fucked-upness here, too. The Fallen Sun is an upscaled showcase of London’s dark side, with the odd nod to James Bond that might seem surprising considering the actor has been pursued by links to the role for nigh-on a decade. As it turns out, Elba is happy to tackle them one last time. 

Luther: The Fallen Sun
Photograph: NetflixIdris Elba as John Luther in ‘Luther: The Fallen Sun’

How big a buzz was it to close down Piccadilly Circus for a Luther movie?
‘It was like: “Wow, I’ve shut this down!” I heard that the locations team asked about permits for shooting there and it was like: “No!” Then [Westminster Council] heard it was for a Luther film and it was like: “Oh! okay,” and they let us in. We shut it over a few nights and it was cold and wet and it was pieces of a puzzle being pulled together. Lots of stunt work and extras... and obviously the flow of London traffic coming in and out. But it was great. I kept thinking about An American Werewolf in London and that massive sequence there.’

And 28 Days Later as well.
‘Yeah, which I was also in.’

Weren’t you in 28 Weeks Later?
‘Sorry, 28 Weeks. Same family.’

You’ve said you need a holiday after playing Luther. Is he the hardest character for you to shake?
‘I think so. It’s because you can’t phone it in. When I’m playing Luther I’m not really doing too much else, it’s a 12 to 14 hour day of being on, on, on. The time I have at home, I’d rather just sleep. There’s some roles where you can come in, say your lines, bosh, bosh, bosh, see you later, and there are others where the concentration needs to be a lot deeper. With John, that’s where it is and I don’t mind that.’

We need to talk about Luther’s coat. It’s become like London’s answer to Batman’s cape.
‘It’s definitely the uniform, isn’t it?’

Has your relationship with it changed over the years?
‘Nah, still love it. This coat was tailored a bit differently – it felt a little bit more muscular than the original coat, which I did battle with a little bit. But I understood that the scale we’re playing on in the film is just slightly larger. It just says: “Film... bigger budget”.’

Do you own one of Luther’s coats? Are you someone who likes to keep mementoes from sets?
‘Honestly, I’d have a fucking great museum – I’ve done over a hundred films. But no. The coat from this one is actually going to be auctioned to raise some money against knife crime. Because Luther has such a dark tone to it it’d be good to use it to raise awareness of real-life crime.’

 The Bond rumours have been fun but I’ve always been secretly gearing Luther to be my version of that space

In the film, a barman offers to make Luther a Martini and he asks for water instead. Bearing in mind how often you’ve been asked about Bond, it feels symbolic. How did you feel when you read it in the script? 
‘At first, I was like: “Ooooo, I dunno, feels like a pisstake.” But when we played it, it came out so funny and natural, I wanted to keep it in. The Bond rumours have been fun, but I’ve always known that I’ve been secretly gearing Luther to be my version of that space. Not my version of James Bond or anything, but it’s similar real estate: it’s a singular character that’s got this conviction. He’s not a spy but if you’re going to sit and watch Bourne and Mission: Impossible and James Bond, then I want Luther to sit in that space – but with its unique vibe.’

Will you celebrate with something stronger than water when the next Bond gets cast and you stop being asked about it for good?
‘I’ll be sad... no, I won’t be sad, I’ll be very happy, but I’ll also be: “Oh, it wasn’t me then...” (Laughs)

Did you ever have meetings about the role?
‘Barbara (Broccoli) and I are friends and we’ve talked about it many times – not in terms of me doing it, but because the world has always conspired for her and me to work together. But not in an official [playing-007] capacity.’

There are moments in the film that made me think about Batman – in the comic-book-iness of it, the fact that Luther is an almost mythological crime-fighting figure and his London is Gotham-like.
‘“Lutherland”, we call it.'

Right. Instead of Bond, what about playing Batman?
‘That’d be an interesting spin. Would I play another superhero? Well, I have two characters that I love playing – [Suicide Squad’s] Bloodsport and Hobbs and Shaw’s Brixton – and I played Heimdall, who I think is underserved in the Marvel universe. If you want some thrills and spills and some fucking badassery, Brixton is the guy. He’d slap Luther to death – he’s a monster. I really love that character. Bloodsport has got a lot of potential in that superhero space, too. I don’t think Batman would be me but I’ve got some others that would rival him.’

The Suicide Squad
Photograph: Jessica Miglio/Warner Bros.Idris Elba as Bloodsport in ‘Suicide Squad’

As your fame levels have increased, has your relationship with London changed? Do you still take the tube?
‘I’d love to be on the tube and pop about, because the traffic’s a nonsense. I ride a motorcycle and I get about with my visor down and no one knows who I am. My public persona has risen but I stay grounded – I don’t walk about with too much security. If people ask for a picture and I say no, it’s not the end of the world. I think I’d lose who I am if I decided to become a bit more Hollywood. In other countries, where they’re not used to seeing me about, it’s a different story. You have to be protective of your space, but in London it’s like [excited voice]: “Oi! Idris, fuck!” “All right! See you later!”’ (laughs)

That must be a nice energy to feed off.
‘A hundred percent’

Do you have a London local you love?
‘I love The Star of Bethnal Green. I’ve DJ-ed there a couple of times and I love the crowd, the area, the unpretentiousness of it – and the owner loves a bit of house music, so every now and then we just smash it down. What’s my order at the bar? Usually, a Guinness. The Guinness is good there.’

What’s it going to take for you to get behind the camera again? Do you have anything to share?
‘I’m actually shooting a film at the end of this year, that I’m really excited about. I haven’t really announced it, but it’s me behind the camera and me in front of the camera. It’s a contained story about a man who looks after refugees and finds some refugees that are misplaced. I’m really excited to get behind the camera again. Acting’s one good job, but behind the camera is the best – and hardest – job in the house. I loved my first film [2018’s Yardie]. I learned a lot. I love the process and the crews, but now I think about what I’d do different. It’s got an action-thriller to it, but it’s emotional.’

Is it set in the UK?
‘No, it’s not. I don't want to say yet but it’s not set in the UK. It’s not a massive film but it’s big for me.’

Starring and directing is a lot. 
‘I know. It’s gonna be tough. I really do have to be disciplined about how I pull that together. It’s twice the work.’

What’s more likely: another Luther TV series or another movie?
‘Another movie.’

Because there were threads left hanging in season five.

Have you started on another film?
‘Well, we wanted to open this movie and then we’ll think about what’s next...’

Luther: The Fallen Sun is in UK cinemas now. It launches on Netflix worldwide Mar 10.

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