The 44-year-old serves as EP, star, and mustache-wearer extraordinaire in Showtime's compelling '70s-set civil rights drama 'Guerrilla,' debuting April 16 at 9 p.m. ET.

By Amy Wilkinson
April 14, 2017 at 09:30 AM EDT
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While Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks became symbols of the civil rights movement in the U.S., a similar — albeit lesser-known — struggle raged in the U.K. That forgotten story gets some much-deserved attention in Guerrilla, a new Showtime miniseries from Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), which follows a young couple (Babou Ceesay, Freida Pinto) as they form an underground cell to fight oppression. Idris Elba is an EP and costars as a fellow activist. Here, he talks about that dual role…and his wig work.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Guerrilla unfolds during the early 1970s — around the time you were born. Do you have any recollections of this more divisive England, or were you too young?
It didn’t really sink in until much later, probably when I was 13. What was going on in the ’70s was relevant to my parents, for sure. They had just gotten to England (father Winston, now deceased, hailed from Sierra Leone; mother Eve is from Ghana), so I grew up listening to stories and witnessing my dad — more than my mom — having frustrations about England. Well into the ’80s there was major racial conflict. Obviously at that age I was shielded from it, but you could sense the wave of tension.

As a producer, you ostensibly had your pick of roles: Why did you gravitate toward Kent?
Truly, I didn’t have the choice. John really wanted me to play Kent, and I liked the role. It’s a very different type of character than I’m used to playing. It’s not a huge character — he fits between the gaps in the story, and he’s one of these people that doesn’t quite commit to the struggle but was there. His complexities interested me.

Which helped you get into character more: Kent’s bushy mustache or his groovy clothing?
The wig. [Laughs] It really is a look.

Dean Rogers/SHOWTIME

Immigration is a theme that looms large in the miniseries, and it’s interesting to watch in light of current events in the U.S. Did it feel timely when you were filming?
There are parallels with history, obviously. When we were making it [in the fall of 2016], that wasn’t really our intention, to draw those parallels. It goes to show that no ideas are original. Things have happened before — we go through cycles of upheaval.

Guerrilla was originally set in the States, right?
It was going to [be in] California, and [Ridley] transferred it to England. He had to soak up a lot of the culture and history, and he did it really well. It’s a pocket of time…that not many people know about.

You addressed Parliament last year about the need for more diversity in media, and a cool online project resulted last month: “The Idris Takeover.”
Yeah, BBC Three, a great channel that’s innovative, cutting-edge — cutting-edge, I hate that phrase — but they’re a great team [and have a] really interesting perspective on content. What started off as a meeting just to see if there’s any synergy between us ended up being me taking over the channel for a whole week. That meant I put my lens on various content — from drama to documentary to music. That speech to Parliament was sort of the spine of the curation of BBC Three. I was talking about diversity of thought and about giving opportunity where it’s really, really, really not there.

You’re currently working on Yardie, your big-screen directorial debut, based on Victor Headley’s novel about a Jamaican moving to London. Will you have a role in it?
I’m not sure yet.

Well, it seems you like to multitask. I get that sense from you.
[Laughs] I’m a little bit of a multitasker. Yes, indeed.

To wit, you also produce and star on the BBC crime series Luther, the future of which is a bit up in the air. Any clues you can offer?
I’ve been told I’m not to speak on it too much, but I can say that I think the fans will be happy.

Guerrilla debuts April 16 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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