JUST last week Idris Elba nearly broke the internet by tweeting ‘my name’s Elba, Idris Elba’. Could it be that Elba had finally landed the coveted role of James Bond, ending almost a decade of speculation?
‘Don’t bother asking,’ is the friendly advice offered by his PR before I’m ushered into the actor’s funky Soho Hotel suite. So, obviously, it’s the first thing I do. ‘This Bond stuff is just a publicity stunt for your new film, isn’t it?’ I challenge him. Elba just laughs and looks naughty.
The film he’s promoting is Yardie, his directorial debut. It’s based on Victor Headley’s underground bestseller about a young man called ‘D’ (played by Aml Ameen) who’s sent from Jamaica to London’s East End in the 1980s by a crime lord/record label boss called King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) and struggles to choose the righteous path. It’s a story that has strong personal resonance for Elba.
‘Yardie was the first book I completely read,’ he says. ‘I could really relate to the character. I was never a gangster or Jamaican but I came of age in the 1980s. Coming from West African parents who are quite strict about certain things — like who my friends were and where I was — I felt very aware, particularly as an only child without a brother to guide me, that I could have gone one way or the other.’
Fortunately Elba, now 45, went ‘the other’ and today he has an OBE. Acting took him to the US, where he found fame as Stringer Bell in The Wire and became a Hollywood regular in blockbusters such as Thor and Pacific Rim. However, he still considers his birthplace, Hackney, his ‘home’ — he recently proposed to 29-year-old fiancée Sabrina Dhowre at Hackney’s Rio cinema, the venue for Yardie’s premiere. And he wears his roots on his sleeve — or rather his biceps. The tattoos peeping out from his tight olive green T-shirt include the black star of Ghana (where his mother, Eve, is from) and faces from the flag of Sierra Leone (birthplace of his late father, Winston, a union shop steward at Dagenham’s Ford plant).
Another guiding presence was his uncle, who started Elba out as a DJ. Was he proud to see his nephew DJ at Prince Harry’s wedding reception?
‘I haven’t spoken to him about it,’ says Elba, his smile tightening, ‘but he was chuffed to see us on the television.’
He instantly relaxes his toned yet hulking frame when talking about Yardie’s music. ‘I went through millions of tracks to choose the soundtrack. The early ’70s to the mid-’80s was such a rich time for Jamaican music. Bob Marley was like a god back then and later Shabba Ranks and Super Cat were too. There is this big tune called Mud Up by Super Cat I played in the early sound-system days that really takes me back.’
Behind the decks, Elba went by the DJ name of Big Driss. ‘Idrissa Akuna Elba just didn’t sound cool,’ he laughs. ‘There were three of us African boys and my best mate, Boogie, who is Asian. None of us are Jamaican but when you got to dance and got on the mic we’d always speak with a Jamaican accent. Now it’s trendy to be African. It wasn’t back then.’
Music has been a continuous strand in Elba’s life and career. As well as directing Yardie he’s recently set up his own record label and film production company [see box], designed clothes for Superdry, trained as a professional kick-boxer and become an ambassador for Purdey’s, the energy drink that helps keep him up and buzzing — he only sleeps for about five hours a day. He looks sleepy today, though, albeit still about eight times more switched on and articulate than anyone else around him.
‘Over the last five years there has been a lot of output from me in different mediums,’ he acknowledges. I suggest that seems to coincide with his father’s death. ‘Yeah, I saw my dad die young,’ he admits. ‘And you get to my age and realise if you enjoy this or that, you should just do it. I’m one of those people who believes life isn’t just for sitting around daydreaming.’
Forget becoming the next Bond. Idris Elba just doesn’t have the time.
Yardie is in cinemas from August 31
Becoming a music and film producer
I want to plant the seeds and offer people a chance to tend those seeds with my label, 7Wallace, if that isn’t a silly analogy. I love music and would love to see whatever I have spawned in my life continue to grow. I am never going to be a platinum-selling artist but I’d love to help people do that. My film production company, Green Door, is also about the seed planting. They are both designed for new talent. It’s easy to say we want to see new talent but how do people get there if you don’t have anything set up?
Having an OBE
I always forget that I am one until I see it on my envelopes! It sits comfortably with me because I am the most unlikely person to get an OBE because of my background.
Who he wants to impress with Yardie
The Afro-Caribbean legacy in England is a long one and it was very important to me that Yardie felt authentic to them and that the Jamaicans, particularly where we shot the film in the poorer parts of Jamaica, saw it as authentic. They are a very proud people.