From his hypnotically sinister breakout performance as Stringer Bell on The Wire, to his turns in big-tent blockbusters such as Thor, Prometheus, and Star Trek Beyond, to his Golden Globe-nominated performances in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Beasts of No Nation, Idris Elba has been on a remarkable rise to becoming one of the planet’s biggest (not mention most charismatic and most handsome) A-list movie stars. Now, on the eve of three splashy — and very different — fall films, EW sat down with the 45-year-old British actor in his native London to get the inside story on his latest projects, how race is talked about (and not talked about) in Hollywood, his boundless ambitions in the industry, and the unlikely career that only took off when he was living out of a van and on the verge of giving up.
The first of those films to hit theaters is The Mountain Between Us — a sort of Harlequin romance by way of Jack London in which Elba and costar Kate Winslet play the lone survivors of a plane crash in the Rockies, fighting to beat the elements. Elba had nothing but praise for his costar, even though they couldn’t work more differently. She comes to projects after relentless preparation, whereas he goes more by instinct. Charlie Hunnam was originally approached to play Elba’s role, and in the book on which the film is based, the character he plays was white. So when he’s asked of he can think of another recent studio film that centered on a black-and-white love story, he says, “It doesn’t happen, mate. If I’m really honest, they were probably like ‘We want a great actor,’ and I think I was on a list. But I’m sure they’ve had conversations saying, ‘Well, marketing thinks there are certain areas this might not play.’ But that’s never been brought up to me.”
Next, on Nov. 3, comes Thor: Ragnarok, the latest installment in the Marvel series featuring Elba as the Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall. And last, but by no means least, on Nov. 22, is Molly’s Game – the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, the insanely gifted writer of The West Wing and The Social Network. The film is based on the true story of a Mob-connected poker-ring felon (played by Jessica Chastain) and Elba plays her reluctant attorney with his typically flawless American accent. Sorkin’s film and its rat-a-tat dialogue challenged the actor like no other. And he’s still stumped, albeit pleasantly, why Sorkin cast him.
“I was like, ‘Does he know who he’s asking?’ I’m not known for articulation. I’m a London lad with a lisp.” Molly’s Game emerged from last month’s Toronto International Film Festival as a serious Oscar contender – something Elba is just getting used to wrapping his head around. “That would be massive,” he says.
Elba, who just celebrated his 45th birthday by undergoing ACL surgery, also allowed Entertainment Weekly to shadow him in the editing room of his next film, Yardie. It’s a gangster flick about Jamaican drug runners in the ‘70s that will mark his first film as a director. He’s been developing it for six years, and he sees it as the next step in his constantly evolving career. Additionally, Elba opened up about his personal life (sorry, ladies, he’s dating someone at the moment and in love), his double-life as a club DJ (a passion that started when he was a 7-year-old making make-believe turntables out of empty cereal boxes in his East London bedroom), and his almost philosophically upbeat take on the failure of this summer’s wannabe franchise launcher, The Dark Tower. In short, it’s a rare and exclusive glimpse into the inner life of one of the most dynamic and exciting actors working today.