The Next Denzel
British-born actor Idris Elba, best known to American audiences for his role as ambitious drug kingpin Russell “Stringer” Bell in HBO’s The Wire, might not yet be a household name, but if this year is any indication, he’s on the path to quickly becoming one, thanks to roles in The Office, The Big C, and the upcoming relaunch of James Patterson’s Alex Cross franchise.
The 38-year-old multi-hyphenate—who works in film, television, theater, and music (he’s an accomplished DJ and singer using the sobriquet Driis)—also stars in BBC America’s gripping psychological thriller Luther, premiering Sunday.
The show follows Elba’s detective John Luther as he attempts to untangle a series of puzzles—arcane murders, ghastly kidnappings, cop killings—while examining the condition of his own soul and the moral lines he’s willing to cross.
Luther also depicts the dangerous game of cat-and-mouse between Elba’s maverick detective and psychotic killer Alice Morgan ( Jane Eyre’s Ruth Wilson), an inversion of the Silence of the Lambs formula. Alice’s lack of empathy is at odds with Luther’s righteous anger and his willingness to erase any semblance of morality. What follows is a gripping exploration of how our pursuit of love can lead us into some very dark places.
The Daily Beast caught up with Elba to discuss his small-screen roles, stepping into Morgan Freeman’s shoes to play James Patterson’s Alex Cross, and his role in Luther.
Created by suspense novelist Neil Cross, Luther isn’t your average police procedural. While police antiheroes are nothing new (see Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey in The Shield ), Cross infused his story with an additional layer of psychological menace, matching Luther’s physicality and wits against criminal genius Alice Morgan and a rogue’s gallery of psycho baddies.
Idris Elba: Neil is a twisted young man. I don’t know what he had in his cereal when he was a kid but it wasn’t milk. Whatever he churns out is always really deep and complex and multilayered. The premise of a detective that’s a little bit wayward and unorthodox is not original. But, with Luther, he just brought something a little fresh to it, something a little edgier, something a little more uncomfortable for the audience.
He describes the type of wallpaper in the scripts. It completely engulfs you. I was filming The Losers when I got sent the scripts in Puerto Rico. It’s a million degrees out there and I’m just engrossed in these scripts set in this little dark London world, which was damp and cold. It was a complete contrast to where I was. That was it. I was hooked.
When we first meet Luther, he’s chasing child killer Henry Madsen and that encounter—during which Luther lets Madsen fall to his presumable death—leads to a mental breakdown and suspension from the force, which causes the breakup of his marriage to Zoe (Indira Varma) and pushes her toward a new lover (Paul McGann). But it’s the way that Luther handles these trials—or doesn’t—which casts a spotlight on Luther’s anger and the nature of evil.
Elba: I think that this is a man that really takes evil to heart. Most of us can read about a man that killed his three kids and then [say], “Oh, that’s terrible,” and get on with our day. But Luther doesn’t. He absorbs it and he’s like, “That’s really fucking out of order. I’m going to find that bastard and I’m going to make him eat his own shit.” That’s the kind of thing that drives him. It’s not really ideal for a cop.
Luther forms a strange bond with psychotic genius Alice Morgan as they engage in a series of encounters that prove how unstable and dangerous Alice is. As Luther is drawn to Alice, the audience can’t help but wonder which of them has the upper hand in this co-dependent relationship.
Elba: Alice is very, very smart, while Luther is book smart. He reads a ridiculous amount of books. Alice is born smart… I think he admires that… This is a guy that breaks the law, and he gets caught. He’s messy. He’s untidy. She can break the law and you wouldn’t even know. She farts and you can’t smell it. Luther, he leaves shit trails everywhere.
Luther leads up to a pivotal moment that leaves Luther and the audience to wonder, “Now what?” The conclusion of the six episodes leaves the door open for further Luther stories, but also rips down the framework of the series. Without spoiling, it’s possible that this could have been the end of Luther, even as BBC One has commissioned two two-hour movies.
Elba: In my opinion, it was the end… I wanted the audience to be like, “Fuck, if I never saw another Luther, I was on the ride for six episodes. Great book. Put it down. On to the next.” With the appeal of Luther and [its] success, we’re all compelled now to see what happens next. Neil and I have had discussions about that. It’s like, what do we do next? I think in Neil’s head, he’s already got the answers. But as far as I’m concerned, it was done.
I get a phone call and my agent’s like, “Hey, Laura Linney wants to say hello.” I’m like, “What?”… I hadn’t even read the script at that point. “Of course, Laura. Anything you say, Laura.”
Perhaps complicating Luther’s future is Elba’s own schedule. The actor has just signed on to step into the role of James Patterson’s detective/forensic psychologist Alex Cross, played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider .
Elba: I’m excited about the prospect of it. I’m a fan of Patterson. I’m a fan of those films. Morgan Freeman, he’s not left me an easy feat... I think that it has a huge fanbase. Audiences of the books love it, and they’re very excited at the prospect of it coming back to film.
Earlier this year, Elba joined the cast of NBC’s The Office, where he played corporate killjoy Charles Miner, who made life extremely difficult for Michael Scott (Steve Carell). For Elba, it was a rare shift to comedy.
Elba: It was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had and one of the most exciting jobs I’ve had. I absolutely adore comedy. If I watch anything, it’ll be something that’ll make me laugh. I’m a big fan of the U.K. version of The Office and that style of comedy. Having a chance to be in that was just a dream come true… The urge for me to want to go back and do more is overwhelming.
Elba can also be seen in an arc on Showtime’s The Big C, where he played painter Lenny, a love interest for Laura Linney’s cancer-stricken Cathy, who swept her right into bed with little more than his Cockney swagger and intense gaze.
Elba: Apparently, we’re fans of each other’s work. I say “apparently” because I was just honestly taken back that Laura Linney knew who the fuck I was. I get a phone call and my agent’s like, “Hey, Laura Linney wants to say hello.” I’m like, “What? Fuck. OK.” This beautiful woman gets on the phone… I’ve been a big fan of her work for years. She says, “Hey, Idris. I’m doing this show and I’ve just been asking people that I admire to come and work with me. If you’ve got the opportunity, would you do it?” I didn’t know what to say. I was like, “Of course, honey.” I hadn’t even read the script at that point. “Of course, Laura. Anything you say, Laura.” And boom.
For all his charm, Elba likely connects more with bad boy Luther than with Heimdall, the Norse god he’s playing in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, due next summer. (He’s also rumored to be up for the lead in Marvel’s Luke Cage .) Luther is a deeply flawed individual making his way in an imperfect world, drawn toward self-destruction.
Elba: There’s a part of all of us that wants to be that guy. One of the things that stood out when the reviews came out was that an English character was allowed to be a wanker, allowed to be an asshole, allowed to have a temper, allowed to smash in the door, allowed to be a real man. The antihero detective is not a new premise. But I think we’ve just shied away from those types of characters for a long time. I think that Luther absolutely brings you right back to that point. He’s just badly behaved.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.