How Idris Elba took over the world

‘A gentleman isn’t too ego-filled,’ he insists in our exclusive interview...

Idris Elba for Purdey's

‘A gentleman isn’t too ego-filled,’ he insists in our exclusive interview. So he’s bound to be typically modest when we ask: is there anything Idris Elba can’t do?

Getting stuff done is what Idris Elba does best. He’s first and foremost an actor in most people’s minds, and has been ever since he stormed into the world of TV playing the part of Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell in the 2002 hit US drama series The Wire. But to others, he’s a DJ, petrolhead, political activist, clothing designer, cookbook contributor, soft drinks ambassador, part-time director and, oh yes, rumour says he might be the next James Bond, too (not that he’ll admit it). The to-do list of this 43-year-old from Hackney is running out the door, down the street, and round the corner.

Before his big screen appearance in The Wire in 2002, Elba had been working as an actor since he started auditioning for parts in his early twenties. Snatching up a starring role in The Wire, the show proved popular – even viral, perhaps – as it paved the way for box-set TV, appealing to a new breed of stay-at-home binge watchers. Since then, his filmography includes the likes of RocknRolla, 28 Weeks Later, Thor, The Jungle Book and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom – a part Elba sees as a defining moment in his career.

Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey Dark Tower
The Dark Tower, 2017

Unlike most gentlemen approaching the dreaded arena of middle age, Elba’s showing no sign of slowing down

But it’s off-screen where Elba appears to spend most of his time. Having played DJ sets since the age of 19, going by the name of Drijs, he’s been fortunate enough to back none other than Madonna at the O2, while also making guest appearances at Glastonbury and Ibiza. In a conjoining of two of his worlds, he co-directed a music video for Mumford & Sons’ ‘Lover of the Light’ track in 2012 – something he’d like to do a little more of, we learn.

Unlike most gentlemen approaching the dreaded arena of middle age, Elba’s showing no sign of slowing down. His time in the limelight has enabled him to reach into people’s living rooms, bedrooms and into the public consciousness, albeit behind a screen. Some would sit back and enjoy the ride but no, that’s not very Idris, is it? Following the likes of politically charged celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson, Elba’s entered the realm of politics. His debut outing to Westminster saw him warn MPs about the lack of diversity in the media in January 2016. Now he’s looking towards film, television and music as a platform for his messages, although he’s cautious about people using their art for this, he tells me.

His latest venture is as unlikely as any of them – as an ambassador for Purdey’s soft drink, he’s the man behind the strapline, ‘Thrive On’. ‘It’s a drink for big dreamers and ambitious people – a bit like Idris!’ he says. With all he’s done so far and yet to complete, it seems a most fitting strap line for a man hell-bent on achievement.

Idris Elba Purdey's

Rory FH Smith: Actor, DJ, political activist, clothes designer, soft drinks ambassador – how did you end up doing so much?

Idris Elba: It was just a case of one day waking up and thinking, yeah, I want to do a bit of that. It’s then a question of going out and figuring out how to do it. When I was a kid and wanting to act, I figured out how to get in front of a casting director, for example. It’s partly about being organised and educated on what you want to do but it’s also about good old-fashioned, bloody hard work!

What makes a gentleman in your eyes?

From my perspective, a gentleman isn’t too ego-filled – that can scupper a lot of things. A gentleman puts his ego aside and deals with what he has on his plate. Also, an understanding that kindness can go a long way is important.

Gentlemen tend to look after their appearance – they’re conscious of how they look. Looks can leave a lasting impression, so it’s worth getting it right. Also, on that note, they’re well groomed. I believe grey beards are God’s way of saying you’re distinguished.

Would you say you had some grey in your beard by any chance, Idris?

Ha, ha, ha, yes – definitely!

What about the ultimate gentleman: James Bond. Are you still after the part?

Oh man, if I answer that it’s just going to all start up again – it’s only just calmed down! Look, it’s just a rumour – everybody knows that…

Okay, so on to cars. They’re a big part of your life, but where did it all start?

It started with my dad working at Ford. He’d come home with bits of cars, like dashboards and exhausts, and I used to use them as toys. From there, I got my first job as a tyre fitter at 14 years old. I looked a bit older than my age and my boss asked me one day if I had a licence. I lied, said yes, and started to move a load of cars around the forecourt. I still don’t know how I managed it! The first car I sat in was an old Triumph Spitfire – I can still remember the smell of the leather.

So what’s in the garage at the moment?

I have quite a mix to be honest. I have a Dodge 1500 Ram, an Audi RS4, a Triumph motorbike, two mopeds, and an old, old Range Rover – man, I love that car!

Are you a classics or a hypercar man?

No, I’m not a classics man really. I like the new hybrid cars that are coming in. The engineering is so sexy, man. I mean, essentially, the world is going to run out of fuel so we’ve got to find some way of powering cars, and these hybrids are the closest thing to that at the moment.

Okay, what about your career. What was the real high point?

Playing Nelson Mandela and speaking in Parliament about diversity. I was so nervous but then I got there and spoke and it was an absolutely unbelievable feeling.

What does the future look like?

I never want to stop doing new things. But as I get older, I want to step behind the camera more and direct. I’m a bit torn about celebrities pushing political issues through their art but I’d like to use movies to convey a message in the way I know best.

And what about the music?

Oh, I’ll be the oldest DJ in the world! I want to score my own movies. The idea that I could bring film and music together is amazing.

Finally, what are your three tips for being a gentleman?

1. Always be on time. A gentleman is never late.

 

2. Always look people in the eye when you’re speaking to them.

3. Tell the truth – it’s the easiest thing to remember

Further Reading