Interview: Idris Elba, actor

THIS year, Idris Elba is up to his neck in trouble.

Coming soon is Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated, ferociously cloak-and-dagger prequel to Alien. “I can’t tell you anything, they’d kill me” he protests. Only slightly less life-threatening is Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, starring Nicolas Cage as Marvel Comics’ flaming skeleton biker who burns up the streets chasing demons. It is also cloaked in secrecy until it opens on Friday, so it’s up to Elba to start dropping clues.

The movie is more of a reboot than a sequel to the original 2007 film, with Elba along for the ride as a French alcoholic warrior monk who recruits Cage’s light-headed helldriver to save a young boy (Fergus Riordan) from the devil (Ciarán Hinds).

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“What are my weapons? Wine and bikes,” laughs Elba in his rich Hackney accent as he relaxes in the bright LA sunshine. “If you’re up against a flaming skull, you have to have something cool, so my bike is a vintage Ducati. Riding it round Romania with Nic has been a definite highlight in my life.”

Is he a big bike fan then, like Tom Cruise and Ewan McGregor? “It’s been a long time since I rode one,” he says. “I used to love them and used to own one when I was younger, but I fell off, and that was the end of my biker days for a while. But I did the riding stuff and a lot of my own stunts here, which was pretty cool.”

Ghost Rider 2 is the latest from the directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, known for their hyperactive, hyperbolic action sequences in films like Crank And Crank: High Voltage and Gamer. By all accounts, Ghost Rider 2 could be the kind of movie that is great stupid fun if you love watching actors combining mimicked fear with the real thing as they judder along eastern European motorways, and have a burning desire to see Nicolas Cage with his head on fire.

“Nic’s a smart actor, very polite to the crew, and very involved,” says Elba of his Harleyman from Hades. “He makes sure the cast is comfortable. I found him inspirational actually. He gave a fantastic performance in Lord Of War then goes off and does comic book characters. That shows a man who has real range. What would Nicolas Cage do? That is the question that I’ve asked myself.”

Elba’s first dive into comic books was a controversial one. In Kenneth Branagh’s Thor he applied yellow contacts and a divine bouncer’s bearing to Heimdall, guardian of Asgard. I sat through Thor twice, just to watch other people react to Elba’s majestically funny line readings, but before the film’s release, comic books fans were apoplectic about casting a black actor as a Nordic god.

At the time, Elba observed testily that Branagh “just needed an actor who has presence and command, and felt that I fitted the bill. It was so refreshing – and a testament to him as an actor and director that his casting was genuinely colour blind.” Now I wonder if the film’s success feels like vindication, but Elba doesn’t want to refuel any race rows. “To be honest, I think I’ve said enough about that. I’d like to move on.”

These are the two sides of Elba: he’s good at promotion, polished and sometimes a little wary but he gets goofy and giggly about his Golden Globe win for Luther last month. When I tell him that it was nice to hear him pay tribute to Luther’s writer, the suspense novelist Neil Cross, he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. “Did I? That’s good. It was mad, a blur. As an actor, you’re practising your acceptance speeches all your life, but after they called my name, all I remember is a sea of faces. What I said was made up on the spot, and from the heart. But I have absolutely no idea what I said.”

A third series of Luther, the TV detective with a messy personal life, a history of instability and a serial killer for a groupie, is in the pipeline, and Elba is keen to make Luther – The Movie. The BBC show has been a critical and commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. More importantly, Luther means that at last there’s something to counter his other big popular police drama, The Wire.

Stringer Bell was a handsome, charismatic businessman who wore classic suits, wire-rimmed spectacles and ran a very successful drug empire. His sudden, violent death in the third series shocked fans, and the actor. “I knew it was going to be dramatic, and in the end I embraced it, not least because I left the role before I got branded as him.” Yet although The Wire tied up the rest of its loose ends seven years ago, he still has to counter shoutouts of “Stringer!” with “No – Idris.”

Elba, 39, is hardly an overnight sensation. His father was unhappy when Idrissa Akuna Elba announced that he wouldn’t be working shifts with him at the Ford Dagenham plant any longer. One of his first jobs was a reconstruction on Crimewatch playing a killer who’d chopped up his girlfriend and put the bits in a freezer. On Absolutely Fabulous, he was a gigolo called Hilton, and brief appearances in Midsomer Murders and The Bill followed. Deciding he’d hit a wall, he moved to the US at 26, and went from jobbing actor to being unemployed for four years.

The Wire proved the game-changer, and after he came out of the show, the script offers went global. In Sometimes in April, he played a Rwandan soldier caught up in the Tutsi murders, and for Ghost Rider he opted for a very specific French Algerian accent. “What accent do I use in Prometheus?” he laughs. “Yeah, nice try, nice try. Actually many people out here think I’m American, which is good. When I first came here I spent all my time practising my accent on bus drivers and in shops to see if I could convince people I was American.”

Recently he’s been branching out into lighter fare such as a recurring role in the US version of The Office, where he played a suave boss who is revealed to be a career toady. The part was written especially for him.

On set, Steve Carell used to improvise extra insults to make his poker-faced co-star crack up during filming. “So did John Krasinski. He said to me, ‘My character hates your character so much in the show that I should hate you in real life. Is that OK?’ ”

Elba’s sidelines include rapping and DJing as Big Driis, and he’s keen to go behind the camera as a producer and director. He produced as well as starred in the indie movie Legacy, playing a soldier returning from a botched tour of duty who holes up in a New York apartment for a mental breakdown. The part of New York was played by Glasgow, which also hosted the film’s premiere. “I loved that film,” he says. “And I would have liked to have gone out more when I was in Glasgow but time was so tight. I had one good night out and the people were very friendly. You have a good social life there: I’d love to come back.”

Maybe leave the motorbike, but bring the wine? “Yeah! You got a deal.” «

Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance is in cinemas from Friday