Idris Elba on Eric Garner, ‘Mi Mandela,’ and Selling Weed to Dave Chappelle

The star of Pacific Rim and Luther just produced an eclectic, joyous album in honor of Nelson Mandela. He opens up to Marlow Stern about music, Hollywood, and more.

12.06.14 11:30 AM ET

Idris Elba has, in the eyes of many, reached the melting point. When he was recently reduced to a mere box on the cover of People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue, the Internet threatened a coup. And if the machismo, élan, DJ skills (under the moniker “Big Driis,” no less), and undeniable acting talent weren’t enough, you can now add “distinguished music producer” to his already stacked resume.

Yes, in addition to starring on what many consider the greatest television series of all-time (The Wire), his Golden Globe-winning turn on the BBC drama Luther, and Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the 42-year-old Brit oversaw the making of the album mi Mandela, available now. It’s an eclectic musical celebration of the late, great Mandela featuring a plethora of standout artists from England and South Africa.

In a wide-ranging conversation, The Daily Beast spoke to Elba about everything from his musical stylings to his place within the Hollywood machine.  

As far as mi Mandela goes, Mandela helped put an end to Apartheid in South Africa, but in America, there are big problems when it comes to race, as evidenced by the fates of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I hate to use such a tired cliché, but it does feel like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s very frustrating. It’s been this way for a very long time in America, and there are waves where it becomes more publicized. It’s an absolute shame that there is no justice for Eric Garner. It’s an absolute shame. That is bound to put a dent in public confidence in the police. It’s bound to. And that’s where the situation gets circular. It’s a damn shame because it really does not feel like people are paying attention to that rising issue. It’s a crisis, and people don’t seem to be paying enough attention.

You can’t really have more evidence than that Garner video.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

You lived in New York City about 15 years ago before you really blew up. Did you ever have any bad run-ins with the NYPD?

No, I didn’t.

Speaking of your NYC days, Dave Chappelle recently said that you sold him weed while you were working as a doorman at Carolines comedy club. Is that true?

[Laughs] Is that what he said? Oh my God! Yeah man, ten-bags. That’s all we did! I worked there on-and-off for about a year, man. I loved that job. I’m surprised Dave remembered it! That was in the late ‘90s.

Congrats on your baby boy, Winston, by the way. Are you getting sleep these days?

[Laughs] Thank you very much. He’s in good shape! He loves sleeping.

How did your album, mi Mandela, come about?

I pulled a massive team together in England and South Africa, and needed to express myself musically; I hadn’t done it before publicly in a big way, and felt this was the moment to do it. I spent four weeks in the studio with musicians from both England and South Africa writing songs with themes about what it was like playing Nelson Mandela, and in the last year we’ve been making refinements on the album, so it took a whole year to make. I told a lot of stories about what it was like playing Mandela, and me and the other producers and artists discussed my feelings about it, and also about how different their thoughts of South Africa were compared to how it was when they got here. I thought South Africa would be quite prejudice to me, but when I got there, I didn’t get any of the angst that I thought I’d get—just a really great feeling. The song “You Give Me Love” came from both playing Mandela, and my positive feelings about the country.

On the track “mi Mandela” you share a fun anecdote about Mandela watching footage of you playing him and his positive reaction to it. Were you able to meet Mandela?

The truth is, I didn’t meet him. He was way too ill to visit the set and all that, but was very curious about the film. I didn’t get a chance to meet him, though, which is my only big regret. I would have loved to sit down with him. But the producer of the film took the clips to him since he was very close to Mandela.

How did you get all the artists to come onboard for this?

I reached out with heartfelt pleas, and spoke to people that I felt were ideal—and I was right in most cases. I definitely shared my vision with people, and for me, and some were like, “OK, he’s an actor who’s now making music and wants to make music about Mandela,” and didn’t quite get it, but there were plenty of others that did. Most DJs, like myself, end up buying equipment and playing with it—and I love equipment, like drum machines and all that—so I started to collect equipment when I was 20, and by the time I was 25, I had a mini studio where I could make songs. I can’t play instruments, really, but I can handle music software pretty well.

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I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a Big Driis DJ set, but what sort of stuff would I hear?

You’d hear house, man. Very bass-y house, if I was in my element and playing what I like to play. But I have to play at certain places where I can’t just play house, so I’ll play a mixture of old-school hip-hop to reggae to house to drum and bass. A mishmash of good music.

Are you a Taylor Swift fan?

[Laughs] I do love Taylor Swift, man. I think she’s all right!

You can remix “Shake It Off” in your next DJ set.

[Laughs] I’ll be all right.

Let’s talk about the state of Idris Elba in Hollywood. There was a recent piece titled, “Is Idris Elba a Hollywood Leading Man Yet?” that expressed frustration over the roles you were being offered, and how despite your success, your name isn’t being banded about a lot for many of these plum Hollywood roles, which spoke to the larger issue of the lack of diversity in Tinseltown. 

That’s an interesting question. The real question is, “What is a leading man?” and “Who is a leading man now?” There’s a massive relatability to the characters and the actors that we like now, and then there are actors that have massive popularity who don’t have the leading man esteem. So it leads you to question: “What is a leading man these days?”

Chris Rock wrote this great op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter that touched on race in Hollywood, and he argued that black actors aren’t being offered the same breadth of roles as white actors. For instance, when they were casting Fifty Shades of Grey or the new season of True Detective, your name or Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name was never even in the discussion. And he also wrote about how he’ll go a month and not see a black woman have so much as a speaking role in a movie.

[Sigh] I just don’t really know how to answer this question. The thing is that I work and I know there’s a shortage of black actors on film, but the only way I know I’m going to change that is by working, and gradually changing the perception of that. There’s no other way I can do that. If I’m not getting written a role in Fifty Shades of Grey, then I need to show them that I absolutely can be in that role in that film, and expand their imaginations. In England, when I played Luther, there were no other black detectives—and the role wasn’t written for a black man. I played the role, and before I knew it, there were three or four other black detectives on TV on British television—Chiwetel, myself, Adrian Lester. It’s not because of me, but that the imagination of people that control this went, “A-ha.”


Keith Bernstein

There’s also really no reason why a black actor can’t play certain roles. If you look at something like Beverly Hills Cop, that part was written for a white guy and was supposed to be played by Sylvester Stallone, and when he dropped out, they cast Eddie Murphy, rejiggered the script a bit, and it was all the better for it.

Eddie Murphy opened the doors for other black actors—and black comics—who are now seeing a major amount of play in films. Eddie, Richard Pryor, and those guys paved the way. So there needs to be more of that.

I know that People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue is strange because you have to agree to be on the cover, and many have turned it down. But you were featured in a little box on the cover. Were you offered the cover?

[Laughs] No, they didn’t offer me the cover.

There’s been a strange amount of backlash to a recent interview you did with The Telegraph that basically claimed that you weren’t happy with your place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and want out. Is there any truth to that, or were those quotes just taken out of context?

I don’t know where people got that, man. I was quite specifically talking about the comparison between playing Heimdall on one day, and playing Mandela on the next. That’s sloppy journalism, or just really bad misquoting. I have a great relationship with the Marvel team, and the character of Heimdall. People are really running with this thing like, “Oh my God, he doesn’t want to be with Marvel anymore.” People thinking that comparing those roles means I don’t want to be with Marvel, well, that’s crazy.

You’re currently appearing in ads for The Africa United Campaign, which is helping to spread information about fighting Ebola. It seems like a personal one for you, since your parents are from Sierra Leone and Ghana.

That message for Ebola with the footballers is targeted to West Africa. My concerns are whether practical information is being given to the people. Half the reason it’s spread so quickly is because people are not sure what it is, and how to avoid it. For me, moving forward, I have no doubt that Ebola will be eradicated, but as Ebola does what it’s doing, there are just as many people dying from malaria and things like that, because people aren’t visiting hospitals out of fear of Ebola. It’s about being hopeful, and encouraging the heroic aid workers to help quash it where they can.

The 24/7 news cycle is so crazy these days, but it does some like a lot of the Ebola hysteria has died down in the U.S. I spoke with your pal David Oyelowo about Ebola coverage in the U.S., too, and he felt that the hysteria in America was overblown, and also pretty xenophobic—that it promoted antiquated views that Africa was the “Dark Nation” that spread disease. 

The coverage of Ebola was certainly heightened to scare people, and let’s be honest: That’s what the news does, and the way it’s designed. The news uses big headlines to provoke emotion. But the rest of the world needs to understand that Africa isn’t just a disease-filled place, but one of the most beautiful places in the world. It does strike a chord when you see just how victimizing some of the media reports can be of Africa. The news portrays Africa as eating itself.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m going to be on the set of Luther, and I’m excited about going to do that—my big, two-hour film version of Luther. I’m really looking forward to it.

How much longer are you going to star on Luther?

The movie is next, for me, and the American version has been green-lit, which is great, and for me, the movie version looks like it will be great to make.