Idris Elba on Takers and life after The Wire.
“If I’m not in the mood, I’m not in the mood. I don’t pretend,” says Idris Elba, shrugging his shoulders. He’s talking about signing autographs, but he might just as well be talking about dutifully enduring the phony intimacy of a roundtable interview, fielding familiar questions from a room full of strangers about a movie he shot almost two years ago.
Anyone who saw Elba’s career-making turn as Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire already knows that he’s an imposing fellow. Tall, gruff and all-business in his bearing, this doesn’t seem to be a man who suffers fools gladly. There’s not a lot of enthusiasm in the room for Takers, a Michael Mann knockoff starring Elba, Chris Brown and T.I. as fashion-conscious bank robbers with a distinct straight-to-video whiff that recycles cops-and-robbers clichés for the urban market. (Chris Brown does parkour!)
A brief conversation is peppered with subtle acknowledgements of the film’s shortcomings and swift dismissals of silly queries. He’s friendly and professional, but would obviously rather be somewhere else. “I love heist films, and I wanted to be a part of one. The script was, you know, a good read.”
“The director, John Lussenhop, was really passionate,” Elba continues. “He wanted to see Heat . Like a cool, younger version of Heat. We were told that everyone’s gonna wear suits … Actors! Suits! Good-looking men! That was his whole business. Which was fine, as one of my first jobs when I do a film is I speak to the costume designer. That’s how I define who the person is, I put on the clothes. Then I go to work.”
When told that women in the preview audience squealed aloud during his shirtless scene, Elba is flummoxed. “It’s a compliment, I guess, but what do you say about all that? I don’t know.”
Such intelligent questioning continues when the actor is asked if he became friends with co-star Paul Walker. “Paul and I got on pretty well and had a chemistry that worked. But offscreen? No, I never see the guy. He’s always on a surfboard somewhere.”
If there’s a reason to see Takers, it’s for Elba’s scenes with Marianne Jean-Baptiste. She’s got a few surprisingly moving scenes as the suave bank robber’s troubled, drug-addict sister, temporarily throwing off the movie’s too-cool-for-school vibe and showing a more vulnerable side of Elba’s badass. He perks up and politely takes credit for the subplot.
“The script was in development, and a lot of changes happened after my input. I really wanted that storyline to be an anchor for my character. There had to be something to hang on to. There had to be a reason for why he was trying to get out.
“I thought [that storyline] was quite a departure when I saw the film,” he continued; “all of the sudden you’re in the middle of an EastEnders episode. I think all the characters could have done with a bit of that.”
But how did they get an Oscar nominee like Marianne Jean-Baptiste for a small role in such a testosterone-heavy action picture? Idris Elba smiles. “She wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t asked her.”
Elba has worked almost nonstop since wrapping Takers, alternating between big-budget Hollywood films (The Losers, Thor) and television series both here (The Office) and abroad (Luther).
“It’s been my existence for ten years now, going back and forth. I’m quite good at doing it. It’s weird, though; in my personal life I can’t really find any anchor because I’m traveling around so much. Where am I living? What accent am I using today?
“I’ve been an actor for a long time, and the next few stages seem to be production, directing and writing. There’s a film I did called Legacy , it’s a very small film. I was the producer and that fulfilled me as an artist. I’m leaning toward producing, because a lot of the roles I’m getting just aren’t exciting.
“Some directors take time with the character, and others take time with the picture. If you get a character-builder, it’s great.”
And now, back to the critic: Takers has some really pretty pictures.