Idris Elba: ‘My ambition is boundless’

Idris Elba is powering through his midlife crisis 007 rumours and all. He talks to Tim Lewis

Idris Elba is currently in the grip of a midlife crisis – “really and truly,” he insists – but it is also somehow the most Idris Elba kind of midlife crisis. No flashy little sports car or grunting Harley-Davidson. He’s not started dressing ridiculously, either: today, in a hotel room in London, the 45-year-old actor is wearing black, from his Vans trainers to his fitted polo shirt. He has something like nine tattoos peeking out here and there, the most eye-catching being a lion, representing Sierra Leone, inside a star, the emblem of Ghana, on his right fist.

Instead, Elba’s midlife crisis mainly seems to take the form of saying “yes” to new experiences. Untouchable as a profoundly charismatic, swaggering leading man (The Wire, Luther, Beasts of No Nation), he’s currently more interested in making himself feel uncomfortable. He’s just directed his first feature film, Yardie, an adaptation of a notorious novel about Jamaican gangsters in London. In the past couple of years, he’s filmed documentaries in which he has done everything from driving 180mph on a beach in Wales to flying in an aerobatics competition and making his professional kickboxing debut. He’s designed clothes for Superdry and he’s just set up his own record label. He continues to DJ around the world and he even spins tunes at weddings if you ask nicely (as his pals Harry and Meghan did).

So yes, Idris Elba may be having a midlife crisis, but perhaps inevitably, he’s making it not at all tragic.

Yardie: Elba’s debut as a director

“Yeah, there comes a time when you get to 40, 45, where you’re like, ‘Oh shit, I’m losing my youth, I’m facing 50,’” he says, stuffing salt and vinegar crisps in his mouth. “You’re on this cusp and it’s not like you can make new experiences so much, because you’ve probably covered it all. So part of this journey of digging deeper into my fears is the idea that I’m getting older. I’m probably annoying to people going, ‘Fucking hell, he never sits still.’ But we all die, we’ve got plenty of time to sit still.”

Elba is right: it should be annoying. It should definitely be annoying that he decides he wants to drive a car really fast and ends up shattering Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 88-year-old record for the “flying mile”. Then he learns to fly a stunt plane and defeats three professional pilots in a competition. Then he takes up kickboxing seriously in his 40s, and wins his first contest with a knockout in the first round.

But this is Elba we’re talking about. By law, every profile written about him has to mention how beloved he is. And it’s true. Since doing the interview, I’ve met a man who named his son after him, and a couple whose wedding speeches consisted almost entirely of jokes about how they were both obsessed with him. Everyone from George Clooney to Steven Spielberg thinks he should be the next James Bond (almost a decade of speculation linking him with the role reached feverish new volumes as we went to press when he tweeted, “My name’s Elba, Idris Elba.” Five hours later, he totally confused everyone by posting, “don’t believe the HYPE”).

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Sound man: DJing at Glastonbury. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Part of this fondness is due to an outrageous creation myth that also happens to be true. That Elba grew up in east London, the only son of African immigrants. That he seemed destined to work at the Ford factory in Dagenham, welding side panels on to Fiestas on the night shift, as he did briefly and his father had done before him. That his first professional roles were Crimewatch reconstructions. That when he decamped to America looking for acting work, he was effectively homeless. It’s a pretty amazing tale that this same guy goes on to be awarded an OBE, to address the Houses of Parliament about diversity in film and television, and is invited to a royal wedding.

But being Idris Elba is also clearly really exhausting. You can tell he’s flagging a little this afternoon: the crisps are demolished and he goes back to the minibar for a bottle of fruit juice and some biscuits. “Yeah, I’m struggling to keep my eyes open,” he admits. But Elba being Elba, he powers on through. “Listen,” he goes on, “I could’ve stayed working with my dad at Ford and be my age now and dreaming about having a life like this. So here I am doing it… I don’t really complain that much.”

When the idea of directing Yardie came up, Elba didn’t think twice. “I was like, ‘Yes!’” he recalls. “Yardie, yes. I was immediately in.”

The story was already a very familiar one to Elba. The novel was written by Victor Headley, a Jamaican-born British author, and published in 1992. It followed the wild misadventures of D, a young Jamaican who lands in London and goes on a hyper-violent, revenge-fuelled tear through the city’s underworld. The cover showed a black face, cropped just below the eyes, a gun pointed straight at the reader; everything about Yardie seemed designed to make the maximum impact. And it did. Despite not being stocked in most bookshops, it was hawked outside nightclubs and in clothing stores and sold more than 30,000 copies.

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War path: in Beasts of No Nation. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Elba, who had just turned 20 when Yardie came out, isn’t sure where he picked up his copy, but he remembers the book being passed around his friends. Much of the action takes place in Hackney in the 1980s, which is where Elba spent his formative years, before moving to Canning Town. D joins a sound system – a crew typically consisting of a DJ, an MC and a selector who picked the reggae tracks – and that was how Elba spent all his spare time, too. “For me, my entry point was going to the sound systems, being a young DJ myself, pretending to be Jamaican when I get on the mic,” recalls Elba. “Africans didn’t really admit to being African – or I didn’t – because you would just get people taking the piss out of you.”

That, though, was where the similarities between D and Elba ended: “I was never a gangster, I never wanted to be a gangster.” This was partly because, as a teenager, he had started to act, but mainly because his parents – Winston, from Sierra Leone, and Eve, from Ghana, who arrived in London in the early 1970s – kept a close eye on their only child. “The first wave of Africans came silently, quietly,” he says. “Like, ‘We’re very happy to be here, we ain’t going to cause no trouble.’ The West Indians came as well, especially the Jamaicans, and gangs were formed quickly.”

Adapting Yardie would not be an easy task for any director, let alone a first timer, but Elba has made a powerful, immersive and stylish film. While the book has little in the way of light and shade, he has worked hard to make D (played with panache by Aml Ameen) a more empathetic and complex character, and not simply a hot-headed sociopath. The film’s not perfect, but no one knows that better than Elba himself.

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Hats off: as director on the set of Yardie. Photograph: William Richards/Studio Canal

“It was four, five years pulling it together and the process taught me a lot,” he says. “I really enjoyed directing, though, I think it’s the best of all my interests: from the technical aspects to the acting to the soundtrack, the photography. All of that stuff really intrigued me. The weird feeling is being the guy that’s first in and last out, and answering the questions and having that patience. Then you’re months in a dark room, trying to create magic from what you’ve got.”

Did it make Elba appreciate acting? He laughs: “It makes me appreciate directors a lot more, because there’s a lot of work goes into it.”

For Elba, though, he’s mainly pleased that directing pushed him far outside his comfort zone. And he’s already working on his next film – an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “reinventing it somewhat”, though he doesn’t want to give away more than that. “My ambition is boundless, I’m forever reaching,” he says. “It’s left me with no sleep and you have to be unafraid to fail. I’m not planning to fail, but I’m not worried if things don’t work out how they should have.”

The night before we meet, England beat Colombia in the World Cup after a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out. Elba is a die-hard Arsenal fan, but just about managed to overlook the fact that Gareth Southgate’s team was half-full of Spurs players. “This is England, I do it for my country,” he says. “But, of course, I’m like: ‘Urgh, fucking Tottenham’.” More seriously, though, Elba couldn’t help being moved by the youthful dynamism of the squad. “I feel it, I see it,” he goes on. “You look at that team, it’s a multicultural team, and you think, ‘Yep, I’m from them’.”

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Royal assent: with George and Amal Clooney, and fiancée Sabrina Dhowre at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Elba lives all over, these days – Los Angeles, France, wherever he’s acting, DJing – but he’s enjoyed being back home in London for much of the summer with the relentless sunshine, World Cup and royal wedding. “It just feels like it’s really opened up the spirit of the country,” he says.

How was the wedding then? “I try not to talk too much about it, because it was a private day, but it remains one of the highlights of my life, for sure.” Did the invite come from Harry or Meghan? “Harry’s a friend of mine.” From where? “Just from round the way, haha! He’s a neighbourhood lad!” Were there any requests for your DJ set? “It was a beautiful experience,” he says, “like all weddings are.”

Elba has another reason to be cheerful: in March, he became engaged to Sabrina Dhowre, a model and Miss Vancouver 2014, whom he met while shooting a film in Canada. The proposal – he went down on one knee before an early screening of Yardie – came as something of a surprise, mainly because Elba had been outspoken, quite recently, about not wanting to get hitched again. He was first married in his 20s to make-up artist Kim Norgaard and they had a daughter Isan, now 16. They separated under the strain of Elba moving back and forth between Britain and the States, scrabbling for work.

“Yeah, it broke us apart,” says Elba. “I moved out to New York with my life savings, just waiting for the phone to ring. It didn’t for three years. That was a tough time. I ate some humble pie, massively.” After they split, Elba moved into a Chevy Astro van, making money as a bouncer and from selling bags of weed. “I was basically homeless for a long time. I used to sleep on people’s sofas, in my van, you know, just out. That’s when The Wire came. That’s when my life changed.”

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Breakthrough role: as drug lord Stringer Bell in The Wire. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

The Wire, in which he played the drug lord Stringer Bell, is one of the most revered television series ever made. Not that Elba noticed that at the time. “I thought, ‘OK, OK, I’ll take the job because I need the money.’”

Elba subsequently had a second, brief marriage to a lawyer, and then a son named Winston, now four, with another make-up artist, Naiyana Garth. When that relationship ended, he swore off marriage.

So what changed? “I fell in love,” says Elba. “That’s it. No long-winded answer to that. I just feel in love and want to be with that person for the rest of my life.”

He smiles, “And marriage is a nice commitment to someone, especially when you’ve said, ‘I’m not getting married again.’” One last try: will Harry and Meghan be invited to the Elba wedding? “Haha. I get misquoted all the time, so I had better keep quiet.”

Elba has to go: in a just world, it would be for a lie-down, but it’s probably for another interview. He rubs his eyes with his knuckles and says, “I’ve got flaws, I’m human, I’ve made mistakes, I will make mistakes. But at the same time, I feel like, ‘Hey man, I could do a lot worse.’ If I’m appreciated for what I do as an actor or as an entertainer, then I wear that with pride and I’m thankful. Long may it continue.”

Yardie is out in the UK on 31 August. Preview screenings including a live satellite Q&A with Idris Elba on 23 August(yardiefilm.co.uk/previewevent)

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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