Despite the deluge of rain that’s soaking this corner of New York, Idris Elba is in good spirits — and he has plenty of reasons to celebrate. Seven years after leaving The Wire, he scored a ratings success with cop drama Luther, turning what was, at first glance, the BBC’s standard detective series of the year into a must-see, with the second series leaving Twitter trending topics, multiple column inches and celebrity fans in its wake. Next up is the big screen — or more precisely, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus, which is set to be the point that Elba’s career goes stratospheric. But although he may be spending more time than ever on film sets, it’s clear his London roots are never far from his mind…
Posters of you fronting the ‘Tonight We Tanqueray’ campaign are all over New York. Ever get used to seeing huge billboards of yourself in the street?
No — it’s odd. The Thor ones were humongous. I was in London and I saw me on the side of a bus, which was almost laughable, just this big face going past. I might ask to take one home. It’s probably bigger than my mum and dad’s house, but I’d like to see it in there [laughs].
Luther’s second season averaged more than six million viewers per episode. Are you pleased with how well it was received?
I heard bits but I haven’t really been home for any of it. What’s been going on?
Well, Piers Morgan was raving about it and apparently Ronnie Wood’s a fan…
Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones? What? No, f*cking way! [Laughs] Are you serious? F*cking hell! Well, we eliminated the introduction element [on Luther] this year. There was no spoonfeeding or placating where it was like, “We’re not sure what we are but you can help us determine that.” What we realised was that the audience really responded to the unorthodox darkness of it, which is unlike the BBC. We wanted a film noir element and a larger-than-life Gotham City feel. London’s a big character in Luther and we wanted it to look like this monster...
As you’re a producer on the show as well as its star, are you even prouder?
There’s a huge sense of achievement with it. You’ve got to understand that I’m still an actor and being offered parts that are challenging, motivating and iconic is the greatest buzz. But also being able to say that I’m part of the team that put it together and helps keep its integrity alive is exciting in a different way. I love that.
Will there be a third series?
There’s talk. The audience was very, very loyal to us. We had a huge gap between Season 1 and Season 2. [Writer and creator] Neil Cross and I want to take it to the cinema. If there’s another season of it, that won’t be the final chapter — that will be a reincarnation of Luther as a film.
Your old Wire cast mate Dominic West once criticised UK drama. Do you think the BBC has improved recently?
The BBC has taken a leap of faith in the idea that its history could dictate what it does next. [It’s stopped] following everybody else’s history or anyone else’s trends. The BBC is world-renowned for making great dramas, so what it’s done is said, “Oh, do you know what? Of course we’re good at making drama. We’ll do what we do best.” Hiring great writers, performers and directors is part of its legacy, and I sort of fit into that, I guess.
And where do you stand on the new wave of ‘structured reality’ shows such as The Only Way Is Essex?
They’re already starting to wear out. It’s a genre that’ll eat itself. But what it’s actually done is train viewers to crave great actors, great writing and great performances. They want to see that. You think, “If I want train-wreck television, I’ll watch a reality show. If I want drama and heightened performance, then I’ll watch that.”
You used to be a pirate radio DJ. Did you have any run-ins with the law?
There were plenty of knocks on the door — ‘doof, doof, doof’ and we’d be out. And in those times we had to work with vinyl and CDs so we had to lug a lot of stuff away. But I was working for a pirate radio station called Paradise FM and we were pretty savvy lads. We’d move it around and if you got a place high enough, DTLR [the old Department For Transport Local Government And The Regions] just couldn’t be bothered. “They went up where? Leave it.” Any council flats, though, and they’ll normally get you.
Any other things you miss about the UK now that you live in Los Angeles?
I crave a kebab now and then. And not only that, but also giving a kebab man sh*t at 2am [laughs]. “Bruv, did I say garlic sauce? Sorry, you’re gonna have to take it off.” You can’t beat that Saturday-night banter.
Pestering the cab driver to change it to Magic FM…
[Laughs] Yeah, but not Magic. “You got Rinse FM on there, mate?” I miss pubs as well. Sticky carpets, velour cushions. There’s something about an environment like that where you can talk. In New York you’ll get to a bar and think, “What am I going to do, just stare at the birds that are walking by?”
It’s nearly 10 years since The Wire started. Do you ever get sick of talking about it?
I enjoy seeing the reach of it. I’ll go to a press junket and there’ll be a guy from London and a guy from Taiwan who are both hardcore Wire fans, and that to me is enjoyable. So I’ve always liked talking about it. I’ve faced criticism before from people who say, “Oh, you don’t really speak highly enough of The Wire.” I do, I love The Wire. It’s just it was a long time ago and I was written out of the show early, so it’s a different sort of journey for me.
What can you tell us about Prometheus?
It went well. I had an amazing time with the cast. Fass [Michael Fassbender], Noomi [Rapace], Rafe [Spall], who’s amazing, Guy Pearce… But there you go. I am sort of sworn to secrecy, but the point is it’s good — it really is Ridley’s return to the sci-fi genre. You’re going to be flabbergasted. He’s a genius and I’d love to work with him again.
Finally, what would be your ultimate role? James Bond?
Bond would be nice. I’d like to do a sports film. I’ve just signed on to do a fight for Sport Relief. I’m going to train as a boxer and then have a fight either at The O2 or in Las Vegas with someone comparable to me — not an actor — for charity. I’m going to be filmed between now and then while I’m training. I’m excited about it but I’m 38 years old, so “What are you doing?” springs to mind. But doing this has made me want to make a film about sport. Boxing, or even like my mate Tom Hardy in Warrior. I’d like to do that.
Luther is out on DVD now and you can buy the complete boxset here