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Idris Elba: master of all trades

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Actor, DJ, musician… and now clothing designer. Hamish MacBain steps into the non-stop life that is Idris Elba’s

[Main shot: Rankin]

Half an hour into our conversation, and Idris Elba is asking for painkillers for the headache he has. Fortunately, this is not because of me. Rather, Idris puts it down to the fact his last day or so has taken in “six planes, four time zones, two countries and a Mumford & Sons concert”.

And no, it’s not Mumford & Sons either, hater. You might remember that he directed and starred in the video for Lover Of The Light, and is, in his words, “a massive fan". He’d have to be, to fit watching the band’s London show into the following schedule.

“My head’s been down for four months,” he says. “I’m wearing a lot of make-up in this film, so I’ve been working 18-hour days in Vancouver. I literally got back yesterday, went straight to Mumfords, then just came here this morning. I’ve got a recording session tonight, and then tomorrow afternoon I’m back on a plane.”

The film job aside – Star Trek Beyond, if you’re wondering – you might note that all the other things that are currently filling up Idris Elba’s diary are not things that he has to be doing, but rather things that he loves doing too much to say no to. And to the DJ-ing, album-making and gig-going pursuits, you can now add the reason we are here: clothes designing.

Yes, in collaboration with Superdry, Idris Elba is dipping his toe into the world of fashion. Well, not dipping his toe, exactly. As with all the things he does – and certainly judging by the buzz of activity that is going on all around us on the top floor of Superdry’s Regent Street flagship store – Elba is throwing himself into the creation of his rather great new range wholeheartedly. And when he says that what he is after from an outfit is “something that I can wear for 24 hours, and not know I’m wearing it for 24 hours, and that doesn’t look any different 24 hours later”, you believe him.

So before we start, let’s get some questions about Star Trek out of the way. How has making the film been?
It’s good fun. They’re a good team, man, a really good team. The first two were massive big sci-fi films and this one’s gonna be much the same. It’s been different for me. I’ve been in Vancouver for about three months, and I’m in transition. I’m going to Dubai next, which is to finish the film. But I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve had a good time.

Are you a Star Trek fan?
I was a fan of the films, and of course the show was part of my upbringing, watching it on TV and that.

But you’re not a Trekkie…
I’m not a Trekkie. Although maybe I am now…

1

In Beasts of no Nation, playing a "horrible character, with no redeeming qualities."

So your latest extracurricular venture is a clothing label, with Superdry. Be honest: what have you thought in the past when someone famous has launched 
a clothing label?

It honestly depends on the clothes, and the way they’ve presented them. If I’m getting this big sort of marketing spiel shoved down my face – “Go on, wear these clothes, wear these clothes!” – I feel like it doesn’t feel genuine. In my opinion, I prefer the people who have gone, ‘Look, I’m an influencer, I like these clothes, I like this style, have a look’ and it feels kind of organic and real and natural. I think people see through it, if you turn round and say [adopts pretentious voice], “Oh yeah, I’ve been designing.” For me, I’m not saying I’m a designer, I’m saying, “If you like the way I dress, you’re gonna like these clothes.” That's it.

Who do you think is the most stylish character you’ve played?
Stringer Bell.

I’m glad you said that. I liked the way Stringer moved up from street gear into suits, as he was trying to move in business circles.
Yeah, and that was a conscious decision from both the filmmakers and me – as he’s stepping up into this world, his clothing should change. Clothing is a massive part of character building: like, for Luther, you know, the coat. That coat is a style icon! So I’ve definitely got this little soft spot for a nice coat. And Superdry is known for the coats – I’m definitely putting a coat in my collection, because it’s part of my fabric, and it’s part of one of the biggest characters I’ve ever played.

How did Luther’s coat come about? Do you remember? Was it always part of the plan?
There was a version of Luther where he just wore a suit, just wore different suits throughout. And I said, “Naaah. I want him to look like Superman. I want him to look like Columbo.” You know, same clothes every time you see him. They said, “Ain’t that going to be odd?” And I said, “No! As odd as it is him driving a Volvo?” It was a real design thing, and it was the one thing that I think people remember about Luther. It’s funny, because we just put out the first image from the new series, and he’s not wearing the coat in it. And the first thing everyone says is, “Oooh, new coat!”

What can you tell us about the new series?
We’ve done something different, we’ve not gone for a big season, we’ve gone for a special; it feels like a movie. Just two nights. We’ve been lucky, because the Beeb’s given us carte blanche for us to do what we want in terms of the way it looks and that. Sam Miller, one of the directors, who helped set the look for it, has just got an incredible eye – great eye for London, and for its architecture – and you really feel it in Luther.

And there’s going to be an album as well, is that right?
Yeah. Like my Mandela album I did, I’m doing a character album for Luther. I’ve nearly finished recording and I’m really excited about it. Unlike Mandela, it doesn’t have a musical influence: Mi Mandela had South African music at its core. But with Luther, the album’s called Murder Loves John at the moment, and the themes are… murder, and a murder detective! We’ve really got underneath how to make a song about John Luther without it feeling stupid, but also feeling like it does come from the show. It’s good man, I love it.

What is it about making music that you like so much?
It’s like my reset, man. It’s like the only place I can be me, be myself. I’ve got no pressure there, I’m not doing it for the money: if you don’t like my music, it does not make a difference to me one way or the other. But that said, the truth is I want people to go, “Ah, he’s got a music career, he likes making music” and then appreciate it. When you do things that you love, when you come back to your main schtick, you appreciate it more.

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On the original pitch of Luther: "I want him to look like Superman"

You’ve also got the film Beasts Of No Nation out, which seems to have gone down well…
I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t really expecting the reaction that the film received. We weren’t expecting a film about child soldiers to get that reaction. It is a good film, but it’s also a film that is quite dark. You’re not expecting people to go, “Oh I can’t wait to go to see that.” But it has got a really good buzz. It’s a good film. Difficult film, but a good one.

Why difficult?
Well, the subject matter’s obviously really sensitive. For me, I play a horrible, horrible character, with no redeeming qualities. People say I’m a likable fella, and I thought, “You’re not going to like me after you see this film, I’ll tell you now.”

Is that more draining, to do that kind of thing?
No. For me, it’s the most exciting journey to go on. To play someone that is opposite to me, if you like. That’s a challenge. If I was to play guys that had cockney accents, and are really nice and DJed a bit, I’d get bored.

It’s Netflix’s first original feature film. They seem to be quite good at letting people just do their own thing.
Yeah, like the House Of Cards team just did its own thing. And I think that’s good, because ultimately, this film: no studio would have ever made it. Now you’ve got an opportunity for 60 million people to see a film about a child soldier, which is mind-blowing. It’s a good model for the future, I think.

Is it the future?
I think it’s a version of the future, because I don’t think the traditional cinema experience is ever gonna go away. And it shouldn’t go away. But consumers are just changing the way that they digest media. And that should be part of the evolution. You’ve got phone technology now, where you can watch a film and it looks great, sounds great and you can consume it on the move. If I’m a producer, I’m not gonna say, “Oh, no, I don’t want you on there, I want you in my cinema” if I’m gonna lose someone that’s got a phone and can watch it in transition on a train.

It’s not ideal though, is it, someone watching a feature film on their iPhone?
It’s not, but it’s just part of the evolution of media. Cary’s [Joji Fukunaga] film, you wanna see on a big screen, because it’s beautiful. But if you can’t… I’ll take the sale if you watch it on your phone!

Your DJing thing has stepped up a bit recently, too, hasn’t it?
My DJ journey’s been interesting, especially the past year, because I had to really buckle into what my sound was. I’m playing house now, and I’ve always played house, but now I’m sort of staying in a lane. So I used to take a lot of different gigs where I’d play this, and I’d play that, but now I’m gonna stay in my lane a little bit more. This year I’ve done Pacha, Mambo Ibiza. Like a very dedicated house DJ career.

Has being in that DJ world been an eye-opener? It’s a pretty crazy world.
Yeah. It’s an elitist world, the world of really big DJs is a small club, and I don’t know if I deserve to be playing at clubs like Pacha with Bob Sinclar and people like that, but I’ve worked for it. It’s just been an eye-opener for me. I’ve been DJing since I was 14. To learn something new is a lovely thing: learning how to make 4,000 people in Pacha stay with you for an hour and a half. That’s not like DJing at a wedding, you know?

1

This year Idris has DJ'd Pacha, Mambo Ibiza

When you were DJing weddings, what did you play?
Lots of calypso. I used to play Feelin Hot, Hot, Hot by Arrow. Mate, that always worked. I played a lot of weddings. So that was a big tune. My uncle was a wedding DJ, and I was his lackey. So I played all these weddings professionally, and then whenever he got bored, I’d turn up and DJ for a bit. Reggae – we used to play quite a bit of reggae, Chaka Demus & Pliers-type tunes. Ain’t Nobody – can’t go wrong with that. Lionel Richie back then was always a killer. Let’s Stay Together, Al Green a lot. Big tune. That and Let’s Get It On.

So if you had to choose between acting, DJing, making music and making clothes, what would you choose?
My filmmaking is my heart. And I say filmmaking as opposed to just acting, because I want to direct. I’ve done a bit of directing, and producing, I’ve got a small production company… Any evolution of any actor – that’s where they want to end up, and I’m no different. Filmmaking is my focus, but the other bits – my entrepreneurism, if you like – I’m really enjoying. I’m 43, and I’m sort of learning about myself a lot, man. There’s a definite confidence that’s coming with believing in myself, that’s definitely been advantageous. I just believe in working hard, but I believe in treating people nicely, and I believe in staying humble. All of those things I’ve learnt over a long time. And they all actually work.

Idris Elba x Superdry is exclusively available at premium Superdry stores and online from 26 November. He will personally launch the collection at Superdry Regent Street at 12noon on 26 November; Superdry.com/idris #IdrisElbaXSuperdry

[Images: Rankin, Rex, Netflix, BBC]

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