Idris Elba is a busy guy. He just hosted Saturday Night Live. He headlines two upcoming series with BBC America’s Luther (back June 2) and Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie (out Friday), which he co-created. He’s got big-budget films in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw and Cats coming later this year. Hell, he’s even taking his DJ act to next month’s Coachella. And yet, somewhere in there, he found time to make his directorial debut.
The Golden Globe-winning actor, best known for his time on The Wire and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stepped behind the camera for Yardie, a crime drama based on Victor Headley’s 1992 novel. It was the author’s work and the Hackney, London-born Elba’s personal connection to the material that made him determined to the tell story of D (Aml Ameen), a young Jamaican drug courier who goes to Hackney on business, only to grapple with his chance at revenge for his brother’s murder, all while reuniting with his estranged girlfriend and child.
“I’ve been working on that book for like five years before we made the film, so it was a long, slow process moving towards the directing,” Elba tells EW. “It’s a book that I had read when I was in my teenage years and I could relate to the character’s struggles. He was in London, there was gang culture, nothing like it is now, but back then Yardie (Jamaican slang term) confrontations with the police were a big thing, and really truly, it was something that all young teenagers who were black could relate to. And then, of course, the character was a young DJ, and that was a world that I was pretty much in from the time that I was 16. It just felt like low-hanging fruit, a story that wasn’t too dissimilar from my upbringing and one that I could probably put a very honest lens on; just being a storyteller and not having to overly think about directing and just tell the story.”
His relationship to the story and getting to shoot much of the film in his hometown (the rest being in Jamaica) helped the first-time director feel comfortable and bring the “authenticity” as he “shot stuff that [he] could relate to.” But it was still a learning process for the 46-year-old, who readily admits to committing an “oversight” when he premiered the film at Sundance with no subtitles, something he rectified for the U.S. release. In addition, he also came to see the relationship between a director and an actor in a new light, and in doing so, he found himself returning to future sets as solely an actor with a renewed sense of respect and appreciation for his filmmakers.
“I’ve made that part of my journey as an actor to collaborate with my directors and make them feel very secure in their choice to have me play the role and give them 120 percent,” shares Elba. “But after directing, I realized how important that relationship is that you have to have with your director. A willing actor makes your life so much easier, even if there are ideas that the actor doesn’t really understand or celebrate or agree with, if he’s willing to try it, it makes life easier. I’ve always been that way, but I’m much more sensitive to it now that I’ve been on the other side of it. I was very lucky, the majority of my actors were quite young and they were just absolutely ready to go for it. And it just made my life easier and gave me more choices in the editing process. And definitely now as I go into productions as an actor, I’m always conscious that I’m giving my director the best he’s ever going to need.”
Well, as it turns out, if everything goes as planned, Elba’s next director will be…Elba. With his rookie directorial effort now under his belt, the actor says the goal is direct himself. “What I’m doing next will hopefully include me directing and acting, which is an animal that one sort of builds up towards,” he reveals. “But I feel like I’m ready for it because I had this amazing journey as a director on Yardie, so I think my next project I can coup with me doing it as well.”
At the “ripe old age of mid-40s,” People’s Sexiest Man Alive now has his own production company and “the ambition to take things into our hands a little bit more,” leading to projects like Yardie and Turn Up Charlie, which coincidentally both come out on Friday, marking a big day in Elba’s already illustrious career. “America has been the marketplace that put me on the world map, so whenever I get to release things here in a major way it’s always like giving birth almost,” he says with a laugh.
Honestly, we’d watch that Junior remake.