Blockbuster star Idris Elba talks new indie film, 'Mi Mandela' and romcoms
It’s a couple of hours before Idris Elba makes an appearance at The Oude Meester Tour taking place at Urban Tree in Sandton.
He is stopping off at the Warner Music offices first, where Carte Blanche, MNet and one or two other print journalists are waiting to interview him. Mail & Guardian has been granted a 20-minute face-to-face slot but by the time Elba arrives – just under an hour late – the allocated time has been whittled down to 15 minutes. No one’s complaining.
Presently, a booming Brit-accent and easygoing laughter fills the room when Elba enters the Warner Music offices, stopping to greet everyone as he strolls down the corridor.
He is a tall and looming man, dressed in a tight maroon pullover, dark pants and a flat cap (every bit the film star he is), but without the hype or the entourage.
We settle down in the small boardroom and begin by talking about music. We had been briefed that “Mr Elba” does not want to talk about his personal life – or politics for that matter.
So we stay on the subject of music for now, specifically focusing on his new concept album, Mi Mandela, which I reviewed last month.
‘No one picks my sets’
One of the most impressive things about Mi Mandela is the display of a commitment to root out and document the South African sound in an authentic way. Quite a mean feat for one born and raised in Hackney, and whose musical career started with being a wedding DJ and playing the nightclub scene. But perhaps not too difficult to comprehend for a man who has Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian lineage.
But much like he made use of artists such as Spoek Mathambo to put him in touch with the right South African musicians on this album, when it comes to sourcing new music for his DJ sets, he admits to sometimes “cheating”: “I get someone that knows what’s cracking. It’s just a timing thing and there’s so much new music coming out. When I DJ’ed in Ibiza this summer it’s great to get someone who knows what’s hot and I just go through it and pick what I like. No one picks my sets,” says Elba who’s fresh off the Ibiza summer circuit having played Ibiza Rocks House at various venues.
Listening to some of the thumping dance-floor house sets on Mixcloud recorded at Ibiza, you would never guess Elba’s musical influences are rooted in reggae.
“My dad used to listen to a lot of reggae,” he says when I ask what music made the most impact on his taste. “Every Sunday my dad would turn his system up and play lots of reggae. Culture was a massive band and my dad loved to play that. I still listen to Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, Elton Ellis, John Holt, Studio One … old crooners – really beautiful melodies, really beautiful production. I listen to a lot of old-school soul as well, like Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. Old-school soul is so well produced – the writing, the music …”
Writing process shared
The conversation moves to music collecting. The visual of a flat-capped Elba chilling at home on a Sunday morning with his newborn son in his arms, playing old vinyl on a well-worn record player easily comes to mind.
But for an in-demand DJ who also needs to stay up to date with the latest beats, what form does the bulk of his music collection take?
“Back in the day I used to buy a lot of vinyl. I used to be in the record shop every week. I kind of miss the CD [and vinyl] world a little bit,” he smiles wistfully, head in his hands.
“It went from vinyl straight into digital. I haven’t bought any physical copy for a long time. I just got a CD today – Unathi’s Alive. She gave me a copy of the CD and I was like, wow, it was like a gift.”
Elba describes the little home studio where all his CDs and vinyl fill up an entire wall.
He mentioned in the album teaser that he had a similar studio setup in the apartment he was staying in for eight months while filming Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It was equipped with a little keyboard and laptop so he could keep making music. It was then that he decided to return to South Africa post filming to work with the musicians here and learn something from them.
“What’s really interesting is that on this album, the writing process was really a shared process. Because it was my vision and I was trying to express certain things, sensations, feelings … it was conversational with everyone. And then the music with guitars and the band would come together when we’d sit down and put melodies to it.
“I’m really good with melodies. With lyrics I really think whoever is singing the song needs to write the lyrics. You feel it more when a singer has written it himself. So in the case of this album, although I co-wrote all the songs the truth is I let Maverick Sabre put his heart into You Give Me Love.
“I came up with the melody, he came up with some of the words – we shared that process. For example, You Give Me Love is about Johannesburg – and it’s about coming to South Africa and getting that sort of love from people playing Madiba. I thought I’d get booed off the set with people saying ‘you’re not Madiba, what do you know?’ but it was the opposite and I couldn’t express that ever and that’s how the song came about.”
Most challenging song
The album is an effortless fusion of a South African sound with an international musicality. Home, one of his favourite songs and the track that I feel binds the album together, was originally written by Mumford & Sons.
He says: “I was trying to express the relationship between Winnie and Madiba. When Thandiswa [Mazwai] heard this she wanted to embellish that with what she says is ‘my love coming back home’. The words he was saying … it just felt like this is what he might have said in his first meeting with Winnie after such a long time. And it’s a really personal thing; it’s about loss and appreciating home as opposed to this general thing about coming home to Africa.”
Elba says it was the most challenging song to arrange.
“When you hear the original, it’s so folksy that the band didn’t get it when I said I want to do this [the new arrangement]. They were like: you want to make this into a South African sound? It was a struggle, but I had to trust the band’s instincts and the rhythms and the sound and the instruments to bring that alive.”
In previous interviews, Elba said he was thinking of working on similar concept albums for some of the characters he has portrayed. One of the roles he’s best known for on South African television screens is Luther, the intuitive, complicated crusader cop he plays on the BBC detective series named for the character.
“All I can say is that it would be Bowie-esque because Luther is a big [David] Bowie fan,” he says of the character album he would produce. “And because Bowie is abstract in thinking and writing, I think that’s also part of Luther’s genius. It would be deep.”
The charm challenge
Along with the critically acclaimed Luther, Elba has been nominated for three Golden Globe awards for best actor in a mini-series or film, winning one for best actor and garnering four Primetime Emmy award nominations.
He has appeared in films such as American Gangster, Thor, Prometheus and, most recently, Pacific Rim.
From indie actor to blockbuster star, he says he still feels quite rooted in independent filmmaking and his first love is really for making good, small films.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a blockbuster star, it’s just the timings of how films have come out. I’ve spent time filming smaller independent films over the past two years that no one’s seen yet – and are still going to come out.”
Next year, he’s going back to London to direct a film adaptation about the explosion of “the Yardie” (Jamaican) community in London in the 1980s.
“The reason I want to do that story is because that’s where I’m from – that’s my home and I can relate. I want to see a film like this on London. You watch American Gangster or City of Gods … I want to watch a film about where I’m from.
“I’m making a film right now called Bastille Day – it’s actually a blockbuster [laughs]. It’s a big action film but I love it because I’m doing a lot action stuff I’ve never done before.
“I’ve done lots of different types of films. I’d love to do a romantic comedy … I don’t think I’d get one but I’d like do something like that because it’s just a different discipline to be funny. People take me serious. I like to pick characters where I don’t recognise myself ... The challenge is to be charming and funny in a film where I’m not just a scary big man.”
Idris Elba’s Mi Mandela is available on iTunes.