As the child of a Syrian father and a Ghanaian mother, the Afro-British cinema and television actor Idris Elba built his reputation as a performer in sitcoms and cable dramas. His most notable role to date was on the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire, where he played business-minded drug deal Stringer Bell. Stringer Bell met an untimely demise in Season Three, and since then Idris has been lying low from the public building up his resume.
Of course we spoke to him during AllHipHop.coms infamous Wire Week and learned of his passion for DJing. Since then, Idris has been developing his skills as a producer and songwriter, and he still has a lot more up his sleeve.
Idris is now ready to make a big splash on the big screen, working side by side with Denzel Washington in the highly anticipated drama American Gangster. We recently spent some time catching up with Idris in the U.K. to discuss his various upcoming work with the likes of T.I., Chris Brown, Ludacris and Angie Stone.
AllHipHop.com: Rappers in the past have come under attack by actors who feel that rappers should not be given big film roles. Youre in a unique position being an actor who wants to also dabble in music. What are your thoughts on the debate?
Idris Elba: By my own definition; if you’re an artist you’re an artist – whether you’re a rapper, actor, musician or painter. If you’re good at various different art forms, then why not and I’m not just saying this, as I also dabble in music. People may not realize, but a lot of artists actually have acted before they started rapping or singing; Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott were all actors before musicians. For me it’s really a case of if you can do it then who’s to say you cant. Certain people believe you should do what youre best at and stay in your lane, but I honestly feel if you can do a few things well then why shouldn’t you be allowed too.AllHipHop.com: You’re real breakthrough came in the U.S. Did you feel the U.K. market was not supporting you? Is that why you moved?
Idris Elba: For me personally, my ambition is and was huge – larger than life. I always had giant dreams. I always wanted more than I could actually do. In the U.K., I found as soon as I came out I was auditioning against people who I was watching on TV, people who I admired throughout the years and that just made me realize that England couldn’t house my ambition. You could only reach a certain point in the UK and then you would be stuck on that level.
Also, there isn’t really a star support system here in the U.K. for actors of African or Caribbean decent. You could be a white actor in a show and your considered a star and they’ll support that, there publicity and promotions will support that and the next thing you know you’ll get more work and offers and that’s not the case with Black actors. In America they have a history of Black stars – stars in general, not just actors – and they have a history of celebrating people who have done well and are doing well.AllHipHop.com: Do you think, especially here in the U.K., that Black actors are still getting the stereotypical roles rather than opportunities to do something different?
Idris Elba: I definitely feel [in the U.K.] there’s still the element that “Oh, he’s Black, then he cant have a story line that isn’t relevant to his culture or the stereotype.” If he’s Black, then they’re like, “Black people are violent, or Black people are angry”. So yeah, I feel England still suffers from stereotypical roles. I don’t feel they know how to express a storyline that has a Black man in it without including some cultural issues. If a Black man’s in a TV show then they have to include some issues that link to his race.
America seems to have gotten over that, which is why you can see characters playing roles that have nothing to do with their race. Me personally, I have always avoided stereotypes. As an actor you have to be able to show you can play different roles, different styles, and different personalities. Idris the person is very much a Black man, I might even be considered a stereotypical Black man, but when it comes to my work I wont accept that. I wont have you pigeonhole me.AllHipHop.com: But in America, your most well known character was a drug dealer right?
Idris Elba: Yeah, but It wasn’t a stereotypical drug dealer. It was a drug dealer that completely flipped it on his head, and since then I haven’t been playing drug dealers, I’ve been playing a variation of different roles. The route I’m taking is a longer route as normally actors will play what they are known for, so you have actors like Tom Cruise that is always hired for action movies, or certain actors that will always do comedy – but I think Black actors really need to avoid doing that as we can be typecast.AllHipHop.com: Your next film is American Gangster. How was it like working with Denzel Washington? All your scenes were with Denzel right?
Idris Elba: Yeah they were. Honestly, I really cant talk about what it was like working with Denzel the person, it was the character he was playing. Denzel is a method actor, so Denzel the person wasn’t there; it was the character ‘Frank Lucas’ that he was playing. And was that amazing? Of course, because he was very dedicated to that character, and I walked into a room with an actor that is giving 110%, but there are no real personal stories that I can give you. I respect him as an actor.
Too be honest, I don’t like talking about Denzel Washington, because in America for some reason people keep saying the next ‘Denzel Washington’ when my name is mentioned, and I get annoyed with that.AllHipHop.com: Why does that annoy you?
Idris Elba: Well I think that’s kind of limiting me. He’s great, but is that it? Is that the best that there is? Is he the best that ever did it? I don’t think so. There are some fantastic amazing actors that I rather be compared to that haven’t even broken yet.AllHipHop.com: Do you also find it annoying that Black actors are only compared to other Black actors?
Idris Elba: Exactly… I don’t want to be just the next so and so. That’s like saying we can only have one star. So if that’s Denzel then we can only have him until he retires then you can have the next ‘Denzel.’ That’s just putting us in the box. We can all be stars and have individual styles.AllHipHop.com: You’re a household name in America, but not so much in the U.K. where you’re from. Why do you think that is?
Idris Elba: I’m always home, but when I’m home in the U.K. I don’t really like talking to the press. It’s just in my nature to keep myself to myself; it’s who I am as a person. When you see me in American magazines, its usually me doing a phone interview here from London.AllHipHop.com: But if you’re talking to American press than why not the British press?
Idris Elba: In America, the support system for stars is crazy, so even if you don’t want to be a star, they’re going to get you out there. In America they really like to celebrate the fact that you’re good, and that’s great. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a blessing, and if it means that I get more work then that’s brilliant, but for me personally I honestly don’t want to be famous. I rather you know what I do and you respect and enjoy my work, but you don’t know nothing about me personally, you just connect to the characters I play. I love being in London,as not many people recognize me or know I’m on TV and doing films in the states.AllHipHop.com: That’s going to change though. You’re in a lot of big budget movies that are about to come out?
Idris Elba: I’m definitely embracing the idea that I will have to promote myself to keep the momentum going. I’m not hating on it, and I understand at the end of the day; I have to do it, its work. That’s another reason I enjoy doing music, photography and other projects as then people find it hard to pigeonhole me.AllHipHop.com: Let’s talk about the films you have coming out.
Idris Elba: I have two more films coming out this year; American Gangster and this Christmas film which is with Chris Brown. Next year I have a film called Prom Night which is a good old fashioned American thriller, a slasher film, and I play the hero cop that comes and saves the day on a prom night. Then I have a part in the Guy Ritchie film which is called RocknRolla, and Ludacris is also in that film.
On the music side, I have this character that I have developed, and I have some music attached to this character that I’m about to put out there. When you’re an actor or youre known for one thing, then people are not willing to use you or hire you for anything else, and people in the acting side also start to act funny – especially music journalists. They’re like, “What’s this guy doing, he’s no artist.”
So I’m putting this character together and putting this music out via this character, so I can say whatever I want basically. The first song that I think I’ll attach to this character is a song called Pervert. I like the fact that the project’s going to be faceless. It’s great that all these famous artists and famous actors get their shine, but I think sometimes it takes the focus away from listening to the music.AllHipHop.com: I wanted to also ask you about your ‘sex symbol status.’ You were one of People Magazines most beautiful people
Idris Elba: [Laughs uncomfortably] I guess I look at it in two ways. On one side I’m really pleased. Black people don’t usually get the Black sex symbol status regularly. That’s the sign of the times when you got white girls saying you’re sexy. Black men before were never really considered sex symbols – it was either they’re very athletic, they’re great basketball players or they’re very mean looking or whatever, it is but personally for me it’s like, who cares?
Some people think you’re sexy and some people don’t. If it helps me sell some tickets at the box office then great. While I was growing up; no one ever called me sexy, so it’s strange for me getting that now. It’s a compliment, but not everyone finds me sexy.AllHipHop.com: You seem uncomfortable with that title.
Idris Elba: If you see me every day, you see I’m a scruffy guy. Obviously in films and photo shoots; I’m scrubbed and clean up nice, but it’s not who I am every day. I have a friend of mine, the most beautiful, beautiful girl and anywhere she goes people are like “oh shit” and it just gets on her nerves. She cant even have a real conversation with someone as they cant see past her beauty, and therefore she just feel she’s being dumbed downed by people. I rather people talk about my acting than me being sexy.AllHipHop.com: Any directors, actors you really want to work with still?
Idris Elba: Antoine Fuqua who did Training Day and Shooter. I’d like to work with him; I think he’s smart and a force to be reckoned with. I’d like to work with Ridley Scott again. He directed American Gangster. I had fun working with him, he’s fantastic.AllHipHop.com: Are there any roles you would like to try out?
Idris Elba: You know what I would like to start doing comedies. I enjoy goofing around, and think I’d have fun playing some light hearted roles.AllHipHop.com: What is your biggest achievement to date?
Idris Elba: My biggest achievement is my daughter. She I five years old and I love her to bits, she definitely keeps my grounded and focused. She’s changed the way I live.
AllHipHop.com: What’s to come in the future?
Idris Elba: I see myself directing eventually and fusing pictures and music together. I’ve started writing treatments for videos in America, and I might be directing Angie Stone’s next video, her second single. I actually wrote a song on her new album with a partner of mine and she loved the record. It’s hopefully going to be her second single, so she might be giving me a shot at directing the video also. The song is a duet with her and James Ingram and it’s on her new album. Shout out to Angie!
AllHipHop.com: Ok finally just out of curiosity, who did you buy on September 11th? Kanye or 50?
Idris Elba: Kanyeezy! 50s cool, but his music lately just hasnt been doing it for me.