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Idris Elba: 'I don't use the N-word. I'm an African'

INTERVIEW: Idris Elba

I FIRST met Idris Elba two decades ago, when he was an aspiring model who wanted to get into the acting business.

I had just left the BBC series Casualty, and I remember him asking: “Eddie, how do you become an actor?”

Laughable now, right? My producer at BBC London had been trying to get him in to the studio for about three years with no success. Finally I thought, why not just say his old friend Eddie Nestor wants to talk to him?

His answer came back: he would love to. Result.

The news quickly spread and when the big day came, the women in the office were putting on their lipstick, high-heeled shoes and asking each other if he could possibly be as hot as he looks in pictures.

No sooner had Idris Elba himself walked into the studio, casually dressed and in dark glasses, they started turning up. I had to ask the ladies to leave and then locked the door.

There was a lot that I wanted to know.

“Ask what you like,” the star said generously. I intended to.

How does it feel to be voted one of the sexiest men on the planet, I asked.

“I came fourth,” was the matter of fact reply. Out of the medals then, I joked. He laughed. The ice had been broken.

I showed him the picture my wife had kept of the two of them from their “modelling” days. Cue uncontrolled hysterical laughter: “Lisa kept these?”

I asked him to tell me about the dreams of the boy in the picture. He takes a deep breath as if trying to draw back the time.

“At that stage, clearly, I was not focused. My focus was all messed up ‘cause I got finger waves in my hair,” he said.

“I was tall. I was never going to be a professional model but it was a step in the direction. I was in college doing a performing arts course. Two years of drama, acting, dancing, singing, directing and everything and the modelling was sort of like doing catwalk shows in, you know, Walthamstow Town Hall but they were good fun and I think my ambition grew.


RESPECT: Nelson Mandela will be portrayed by Elba

“After that I went to work night shifts with my dad for a year at Ford and that’s when I bucked up my ideas because…”

“Because that was real work?” I interrupted.

“Real hard work,” Elba agreed. “And I didn’t want to stay there for the rest of my life, so I had to focus.”

It took Elba four years before his first big break as charismatic and aspirational drug dealer Stringer Bell from HBO series The Wire.

I asked him if it was true he hated being labelled a “black actor”.

SHADOW

“You wouldn’t describe other actors by their ethnicity,” he said passionately. “You just describe them as actors. The word black always is associated with something negative so as soon as you say it, you’re casting some sort of shadow on whatever it is.”

I suggested his colour was vital for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the upcoming Mandela, a biopic of the South African icon’s life.

Elba becomes serious and intense. The glasses have gone.

“The call for Mandela was…I’ve never spoke about it, Eddie, so I really haven’t processed it in my mind, but it was definitely momentous. I thought it was a joke at first.

“I couldn’t understand why anyone would come to me. I didn’t think I was accomplished enough as an actor to play someone like Nelson Mandela and that’s the truth.

“Morgan Freeman. Denzel Washington - these are people that have time and time again given massive performances of this nature, but I didn’t feel like I was worthy of it. I actually didn’t respond for about two or three weeks.”

Then something startling happened. Elba got a call from Zindzi, Mandela’s daughter, who said that both she and her famous father were thrilled he had been offered the part.

“I was nearly in tears reading that email,” he confessed. “That’s an exclusive, yeah? I haven’t spoken to anyone about Mandela except you, Mr Nestor.”

Elba is undoubtedly a big star but a Hollywood movie is yet to be sold on his name alone. With Mandela, that could be about to change. Did the thought scare him?

He paused, shuffled in his seat and decided to let go: “It did, you know. Ten months ago when this was an idea and a script and a negotiation, I was terrified. And when I got on to set and faced six hundred Sowetans in Soweto playing Nelson Mandela without a mask…I was absolutely terrified. I don’t look like the man, so I had to bring his presence.


JUST THE TWO OF US: Idris Elba and Eddie Nestor

“But I put my heart and soul into that performance so I’m not frightened anymore because I did what I had to do. I don’t fear it. I don’t fear the reaction. I just want people to get the story and celebrate this man’s life.”

I asked him how it feels to have finally turned 40.

He said: “I was on the set of Mandela.

“I certainly felt I had arrived because here I was playing the greatest man on earth on my 40th. It’s encouraged me to prioritize what’s important to me, family, happiness, not so much wealth, but having a sense of owning something and not just leaving this earth with nothing.”

And now to clear up some rumours, what happened between him and Quentin Tarantino with regards to a starring role in Django Unchained?

“Tarantino and I had an eleven hour meeting; eleven hours at his house chilling, talking about film and talking about that character and I pretty much knew when I left that I wasn’t going to be playing that part,” he says.

How does he feel about the N-word?

“I’ve used it in the past,” he admitted. “But it doesn’t feel like a naturally good word to use.” I ask whether this is because he is a Brit.

“No,” he said. “Because I’m African, and the origin of the word is deeper than just some throwaway word so really I tend not to use it now. Ever.”

Twenty years ago I spent some time with a boy and here I was talking to a man, someone who was and still is prepared to work at his craft.

He didn’t come with the phoney American accent, the entourage or the airs and graces. He can still be found behind the decks at a party.

I am reassured that the old motto stands.

You can take the boy from Hackney but you can’t take Hackney from the boy.

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