Take the coolness of James Earl Jones and the charisma of Denzel Washington, and you get some of what makes Idris Elba so dang watchable. The man always makes a statement on screen, be it as memorable drug dealer Stringer Bell on The Wire or the controlled Charles amid the buffoonery of The Office. He’s taking that presence — and his natural British accent — to the action film Takers, in theaters today. Co-starring with Hayden Christensen, Paul Walker, T.I., Chris Brown and others, Elba plays Gordon, the head of an upscale team of thieves who are planning to $20 million and avoid pesky cops along the way. “It’s a good character. He’s a slick, well-presented guy,” says Elba, a part-time musician in his off-screen life who’s planning on starting a radio show on his blog site. That is, if he finds the time: He’s executive-producing a psychological thriller called Legacy, appearing in a four-episode arc of Laura Linney’s new Showtime series The Big C, and premiering the BBC drama Luther, which he produces and stars in, on BBC America Oct. 17. In addition, he was just named as the next Alex Cross (taking over from Morgan Freeman) in upcoming movie adaptations featuring author James Patterson‘s signature character. I talked with Elba recently for an item on our Who’s News page, but read below for his thoughts on crime dramas, comedy and playing a comic book character in next summer’s epic Thor. Also, check out this clip of him in Takers.
Photos courtesy of Screen Gems, BBC America
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So if you lead the group, are you the father figure of Takers?
Not really. We’re similar in age, but I’m like the leader and the founder of this little clique.
You’re cast with some pretty good guys. Of your team of bank robbers, which actor would make the best criminal?
[Laughs] The best criminal? Oh, man. It would be the head of the studio, Clint Culpepper. He’d be the best.
Do you have a preference between playing British or American characters?
I don’t have a preference. The process just gets a lot more complicated when I’m applying an accent of course. I want the accent to be authentic, but when I don’t have to apply an accent, it’s a little bit more straightforward for me to bring the character to life. I don’t have a preference, really.
You’ve done the crime thing before, with The Wire and RocknRolla. Do you like the mood and the action set pieces that are inherent in those projects?
That stuff in actuality is some of the hardest things to re-create and make look real. Crime isn’t half as exciting as we make it look like in films. Some people might be in a high street chase and wouldn’t even know it. They’re very difficult to achieve, that level of intensity. They’re the more difficult and challenging roles. A role where it’s more set around a human story about people, that’s a lot easier thing to achieve.
Your stint on The Office garnered you a lot of fans.
I had a great time doing it. In actuality, the producers and I have spoke about possibly returning that character, bringing that character back. I look forward to the day that it happens. I love comedy. I just don’t get a chance to be funny.
You know, Steve Carell is leaving, so they might have a spot open for you.
I heard Steve was leaving. I’m sure he’s gonna miss it because it’s been his family for a long time. But I don’t think they’ll have Charles take over.
Would you want to lead a sitcom like that?
No, not really lead one, not for long term. But it’s nice to dip in and out of it.
I know you also have a musical life. Have you found a balance so you can do the music as well as act?
Music is a very jealous lover. If you don’t spend time at it, it goes away. I do try and spend a lot of time around music. But I’m looking forward to the time when I can actually dedicate a few months in the studio and put out some music. I’ve got a good ear for music, I’ve been DJing for a long time, I can produce pretty well. That’s something I’ve always had a passion for. I’ve put out a couple of EPs and a bunch of stuff that’s on the Net. I just have fun with it.
Which was your first love?
My first love was music. I was DJing since I was 14, and eventually I wanted to be a radio host. That was like the first thing I did. I did pirate radio when I was in London, and I realized I like acting as well. I did DJing on the side and acting full time.
What was your favorite part of pirate radio?
In the early days of mobile phones, the early ’90s, it was a really big deal for us to be able to put a microphone to the phone and have live callers call on. We had this little microphone thing you could plug into the system and then switch it on your phone, and you had live calls. It just made it sound so professional. [Laughs] We used to do pranks and call up the local Chinese restaurant and order Jamaican food on the radio. That was my favorite part.
Do you have a favorite artist of the moment?
I have to say it’s Janelle Monae right now. She’s great and I want to work with her. [Laughs]
You just finished your stint filming Thor as the Asgardian warrior Heimdall. How was that?
It was dope. It was an interesting genre of film to make. I had never done comic book stuff, so that was really great.
What was the coolest part?
Just the bigness of the show. It’s so epic, these huge sets were just amazing to look at. And they really pat attention to detail. When you read the comics, you see all the drawings, and to actually see them in real life, it’s like, “Whoa!”
Do you see yourself doing another superhero character or are you good with the crime dramas?
I have a deal with the Marvel Studios team, a four-picture commitment. I’m sure I’ll be back in something cool.
Your BBC series Luther premieres on BBC America in October. It’s too bad it’s taken this long to get to us.
It’s a return to a genre that we love, which is our dysfunctional detective genre. You’ve got someone who has a really messy life, but is really good at catching horrible criminals.
Do you enjoy the producing and behind-the-scenes work?
Yeah. It’s a process but it’s something I like. Eventually, directing and producing is where I really want to be.
Do you have a timetable for directing a feature film?
Hopefully in the next six months. I’m working on a script as we speak and it’s looking good.
Do you have a director that you emulate or who inspires your own filmmaking juices?
It’s not so much directors as it is directors of photography and photographers. I love looking at photography and how the DPs put their images together. I like watching movies with the volume down and seeing if I can get what the story is from the pictures. You can learn a lot about the process of filmmaking by just looking at the pictures that they’re doing.