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Idris Elba: "I can be more honest via music than I can with acting"

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Idris Elba talks to ShortList about new Luther, playing Mandela and those pesky 007 rumours…

Nelson Mandela has now inspired an album, film performance and documentary for you. What is it about him that keeps you coming back?
Well, it’s not even coming back. Playing Mandela [in 2013’s Long Walk To Freedom] was such a big factor in my life, and the documentary wasn't planned, neither was the album. But as I got to South Africa I was so touched by the life, the music and that time period. When I got the job, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t realise it was going to be the fork in the road for a new Idris.

While you were filming Mandela, My Dad And Me your father passed away. Was the documentary a cathartic experience?
I didn't realise I was making a documentary about my life, to be honest. I thought I was making a documentary about my album. I was really interested in the stigma of actors doing music, everyone goes, “They ain’t got a clue.” I wanted to show how hard it is to make music, how much work you have to put into it. When the cameras are rolling, obviously, my life is on hold in front of me, but things started to happen that affected the music, and me. It’s a very personal film, and I didn’t expect that. 

Now you’re one album down, do you feel like you’ve managed to escape the actor-turned-musician trope?
No, because I think the test will be the next album I do. It’ll be whether people go, “Oh, all right, let’s have a listen” based on the music they liked from the first 
album. To be honest, I’m going to keep making music regardless of whether people love it or not. I can actually be more personal, and more honest to anyone that’s interested via my music than I can when I’m acting. 

Will you be hitting Ibiza this year?  
Definitely. I’m absolutely going back. 

How important is it to you that you can still DJ while working as an actor? Is it like Samuel L Jackson’s clause in his contract about being allowed to play golf?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t have a clause, but we do ask the production companies to allow me the chance to go off and spin wherever I am in the world. Most of them want to have a happy actor, so they’re like, “Yeah, go off, let him DJ if it makes him comfortable.” Which is really lucky. 

Do you think that Kanye being joined on stage at the Brits by the likes of Skepta, Novelist and Stormzy was patronising to grime music, or helpful? 
I thought it was a massive salute to the British industry. Someone like Kanye – who is known worldwide for rap music – acknowledging that Britain, this little island, has really good, wicked rappers just as good as him, at the Brits? That’s massive. Those rappers would probably never be at the Brits. And the likelihood that their music would ever become as internationally known as Kanye’s is also challenging. But with Kanye [bringing them on stage] it makes it easier. Everyone goes, “OK, let’s have a listen then.” It’s wicked. I give Kanye mad props for doing that. I thought it was visionary of him. 

You also did a documentary for Channel 4 about how clubbing changed the world. As a Londoner, what do you make of places such as Plastic People and Madame JoJo’s shutting down?
It’s a massive shame they’re being forced to close, especially Madame JoJo’s in the heart of Soho. But that is inevitable in a growing metropolis like London, and it means others will emerge. It’s important, especially if the industry is doing well, that people can go to places and hear music. Every cloud has a silver lining in my mind. There’s going to be more great venues, younger and fresher people coming in and rejuvenating their legacies. 

The Bond thing won’t go away, with Roger Moore’s “English-English” comment kicking up a storm. Are you sick of hearing about it? 
I try not to hear about it, if I’m really honest. The whole thing sits in the press quite a bit, but I’m not sure why. Apparently the idea of a black James Bond is controversial… I really haven’t been paying attention. I get asked about it a lot and the truth is it’s just a rumour. There’s no truth to me playing Bond at all. But it’s an amazing part – I don’t think there’s any actor who wouldn’t like to play Bond. 

You’re filming Luther at the moment. What can you tell us about the new series?
I can tell you that we've picked up where we left off. What you love about Luther is right back. We’re not changing it in any way, he is who he is. But we have changed the format. It’s two hours now, sort of like event TV. For two nights people are just going to have to go home and watch Luther. 

There’s also a US remake on the cards. Will you be involved?
I’m one of the executive producers, so I’ll be keeping an eye on it from afar. The plan is to keep it quite gritty; I don’t think they’re going to change too much, except for the actor, obviously. But the skeleton of the show is definitely going to remain. It’s Luther. You can’t change it for something else. Luther is Luther.

Elba is currently promoting his new feature film, Mandela, My Dad And Me

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