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Interview with actor Idris Elba

3 March 2015

Hackney’s pride and joy, Idris Elba, has become one of London’s most famous sons, and the 42-year-old boasts include acting, producing and DJing. Elba’s television accolades involve an unforgettable turn as Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire, and his role as Detective John Luther in BBC’s Luther. So what’s next for the Hackney boy?

The Golden Globe winning actor has taken Hollywood by storm, with appearances in American Gangster, Prometheus and Thor: The Dark World being capped off by his stirring portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. If that glittering list of achievements doesn’t quite encapsulate the star quality of Elba, just consider that he’s also the bookie’s favourite to be the next James Bond.

The Hackney of Elba’s childhood was a very different proposition to the trendy area it is now, and his upbringing was standard for the time. “You learn to defend yourself and not be pushed around,” he remembers. “When my family moved from Hackney to Canning Town I stood out because I was black and tall and I was immediately picked on by the best fighter in the school. It wasn't easy for me and you learn from those tough times.”

Despite his international appeal, Elba remains tied to London with Luther offering one of the darkest representations of the capital city in television history. The BBC show was one of the most critically acclaimed detective series of recent years, and London is a key character within each episode. Instead of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament or Buckingham Palace, a different side to the city is shown, as eerie streets meet even scarier people.

Away from television however, Elba celebrates the diversity and celebratory nature of London and its inhabitants with DJing. A fan of music mixing since he was 14, the actor played music wherever he could, from weddings to pirate radio stations. Eschewing the theory that celebrities must only excel at one form of industry, he has maintained his desire to share his beats and brilliance with anybody that will listen.

A seven week residency at Kilburn’s Love & Liqor nightclub in 2013 was a sensation, as Elba was joined each session by legends of the genre, including Pete Tong, and Roger Sanchez. His reasoning for a sojourn in Kilburn was a simple one. “I had an amazing year — an amazing seven years, really — and I wanted to celebrate,” he says. “I wanted to DJ at home, in London and the truthful, honest way to celebrate is to get on the turntables and have a party.”

Perhaps only in London could a genuine Hollywood A-lister be fully accepted on the decks, rather than critiqued, but that is a perfect encapsulation of both Elba, and the city - two open minded souls willing to try anything.

“It's my secret hobby and it's been a big part of my life. I supported myself working as a DJ while I was struggling to make it as a young actor and when I went to the States (in the late 90s) I was able to make good money to pay the bills until I start getting enough work in TV.

“Then when I did my album, people would see me as an actor making music and they’re like: ‘What do you think you’re doing, stick to what you know.’ I think a few people were surprised when they enjoyed it,” he remembers.

One of Elba’s latest ventures is a partnership with the most quintessentially British motoring manufacturer Jaguar, and he has made a film for their YouTube channel documenting a road trip from London to Berlin driving their new XE model. The 750 mile journey takes in four countries across three days, culminating with a special party in Berlin.

The journey begins in London however, and in episode one viewers can see Elba at the National Youth Music Theatre on Vincent Square auditioning young hopefuls in the very place where he began his own illustrious career. London’s lure is a strong one, and there are two key components of the city he enjoys immensely.

"I have supported Arsenal since I was a teenager. My earliest memory was when I was at school, we would play football in the playground and declare our teams,” he says fondly. “And I crave a kebab now and then. Not only that, but also giving a kebab man shit at 2am,” he laughs. “'Bruv, did I say garlic sauce? Sorry, you’re gonna have to take it off.' You can’t beat that Saturday-night banter."

Acting, DJing, kebabs and football – Idris might be a Hollywood star, but he’s still a Londoner first and foremost.

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