When he tested positive for Covid-19 in March 2020, Idris Elba was in New Mexico, just about to start shooting a western called The Harder They Fall with an all-killer cast that included Jonathan Majors, Regina King, and LaKeith Stanfield. Jay-Z was producing and lending a hand with the soundtrack; Netflix was footing the reported $90 million bill. Elba posted two live videos on social media from isolation in Albuquerque—one eight minutes long, the other almost eighteen—and they are notable for their lack of the composure and breeziness we have come to expect from him. He seemed, as the British say, to be bricking it. No offense to Tom Hanks, but it was when Covid-19 went after Elba—a man credible as both Nelson Mandela and the Norse god Heimdall, tipped at various points to be the first Black James Bond, an actor who seemed untouchable—that this shit got very real.
Elba, who is forty-nine, admits now that he sincerely believed his time might be up. But beyond the existential threat, he could see his world, which he had built from nothing, starting to unravel. The Harder They Fall shut down the day before it was due to begin shooting; no date was given for a return. “Having Covid at the time I got it, it was very, very early in its cycle,” says Elba. “So it was like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m going to die.’ I could have easily been a statistic: went to a hospital and lungs failed and that’s the end of it. Very easily. I’ve had friends whose families have died”—Elba snaps his fingers—“like that.”
Although he’s long recovered from the virus, Elba is still rattled. On an early-August afternoon, he is speaking to me during another period of enforced isolation: day one of a ten-day quarantine, spent in solitary confinement next to Heathrow Airport following a shoot in South Africa for a Baltasar Kormákur movie about a recently widowed man who has to defend himself and his two teenage daughters from a killer lion with PTSD from poachers. In the background of his camera view are the telltale signs of the midmarket chain hotel: art that inspires no emotion whatsoever, myriad variations on beige. Elba wears a snug black T-shirt and a black beanie perched jauntily on the top of his head while he holds his phone, which he will go on to do for almost two hours.
For such a revered guy, one of the more unsettling aspects of his announcement that he had Covid was the backlash. Ellen DeGeneres and Wendell Pierce, his costar from The Wire, sent their love on Twitter, but in the darker recesses, the trolls and conspiracy theorists went in. How had he snagged a test when he didn’t have symptoms and even frontline workers couldn’t get them? Why was his wife, Sabrina Dhowre Elba, who hadn’t tested positive yet, standing behind him? A number of posters made comments along the lines of: “Blink twice if white people paid you to say this.”
It would not be accurate to write that Elba has never known public opprobrium: He was in Cats, after all. But during a long, prolific career, he has proved resiliently beloved. Having played The Wire’s Stringer Bell, the greatest character on the greatest TV show ever, confers a lifetime pass. This, believe it or not, is his 475th appearance on the cover of Esquire. He is aware of this cherished status: He calls it his “credit card of goodwill.” And due to Covid-19, that goodwill was rapidly depleted. Overnight, the Untouchable had become an untouchable.
“The good favor that some people in the public eye get—which I definitely benefit from—was gone in an instant. In an instant,” he repeats. “People that loved me one moment absolutely fucking hated me the next.” A wry laugh: “It was like, ‘You’re fake; you’re being paid.’ No one really believed. It was really a tough time. So where I am now, you’re looking at a man that’s very thankful. You’re looking at a man that’s very reflective of what’s happened over the last eighteen months. You’re looking at a man that doesn’t really have time to waste on pretending to be anything but what I am. Who I am and what I am.”
This article appeared in the October/November 2021 issue of Esquire
So who is Elba? What is Elba? Those eighteen months have given him plenty of opportunity to reflect on the disparity between reality and public perception. I’ve met him once before, in 2018, when he was enduring the pre-Covid version of enforced hotel quarantine: a junket to promote his directorial debut, Yardie, an ambitious, mostly successful adaptation of a cult novel about Jamaican gangsters in London. Today, he comes across as more raw, even bruised; certainly more questioning and introspective than he was even two years ago.
“The last year for me was very, very difficult,” he says. “I wouldn’t put it down to a lack of work or anything like that. I’d put it down to a real mental strain that I couldn’t put my finger on, and where it came from. It manifests in waves of anger and, perhaps, depression. A little bit of a lack of, I wouldn’t say optimism, but just a lack of joy, sometimes. And I haven’t sat down and spoken to a therapist or anyone about it, but I suspect it’s very linked to that time period.”
Elba can only compare the experience to the death of his father from lung cancer in 2013. “The biggest loss I ever had was watching my dad die,” he says. “I remember a profound feeling I had after that, which was like, ‘Wow, oh, there is nothing after the day you die.’ Looking at my dad, I don’t know where he’s gone, but the man that was lying there is gone. Not there. It was so final.”
From the outside, Elba appeared to respond to his father’s death in the most Elba of ways. He signed on for a documentary that would follow him from kickboxing novice to his professional debut in one year. He won that first fight, against an experienced Dutch kickboxer more than ten years his junior, by a knockout in the first round. Not long after, he met Dhowre, a Canadian model and activist of Somali descent, at a jazz bar in Vancouver. Elba had been adamant he would never marry again after two divorces, but Dhowre made him reconsider, and they tied the knot at a three-day festival in Marrakech in 2019.
“It looks amazing from the outside, but there’s a lot of stuff that happens in the public eye that’s not fun,” says Elba. “I’m not allowed to just go out and get drunk and have a rant and get kicked out of a pub and then feel bad the next day. Part of your duty is to be an example. So what happens is there’s a suppression of stuff coupled with grief. People might think, You’re all right; you got loads of money. But it doesn’t work that way. You’re still human. I can’t spend my money in my mind. I can’t spend my money in my grief.”
What saved Elba after his father’s death, and helped again during the past year and a half as Covid rolled on, was his job. That’s to say quite literally pretending to be anyone except Idris Elba. “You close your eyes and you’re in a void,” he explains. “A bit like a 3-D space, you look around and there’s every single memory, every single experience for you to draw upon, while—while—you’re playing someone else. I’ve always found a way to close my eyes and find myself in that void and go, ‘Ahhhh! On aisle number 34, there is that experience I went through that made me feel like that.’ And virtually grab that and throw that into my work. It sounds pretentious, but it’s definitely how I can keep working even through stuff that’s really hard to deal with. I use my work, I throw it into my work.”
The work is coming fast right now. You perhaps saw Elba as Robert DuBois, aka Bloodsport, in The Suicide Squad, the best big movie of the summer. Netflix and British first-time feature director Jeymes Samuel decided, to no one’s surprise but Elba’s, to hold off shooting The Harder They Fall until their star had recovered. “Me and Idris have been speaking about this film for 177 years, so I wasn’t shooting the movie without him,” says Samuel.
Acting is what he’s known for, but (slightly gallingly, if we’re being honest) it’s probably not even Elba’s first love. He had a famed residency in Ibiza under the name DJ Big Driis and has played sets at Glastonbury, Coachella, and his friends’ weddings (if you’re Prince Harry and Meghan Markle). This past summer, he recorded a remix of Paul McCartney’s “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” which the former Beatle himself pronounced “indubitably groovy.” In June, he launched a podcast with Dhowre called Coupledom, on which they grill other notable double acts, such as Kim Kardashian West and Kris Jenner. They want the Obamas for the next season. He collaborated on a shoe collection with his wife and Christian Louboutin, and he has a first-look deal to develop new projects with Apple TV+. Oh, and he has petitioned world leaders about climate change and encouraged them to support rural farmers in countries throughout Africa. He had a meeting in January with French president Emmanuel Macron that he described as “solid.”
Even in quarantine, stuck on his own in what must be the worst hotel room he’s known in twenty years, Elba has no plans to stop. “I’ve got all my recording equipment because I always take it with me on the road, so I decided to make a project,” he says. “I’m going to document my time here on this wonderful thing called a GoPro and make some music attached to this time. And I’m going to make a weird piece of abstract art. Now, the world may never see it. But there’s just no way that I can sit still.”
Elba has little doubt where his ambition and work ethic come from. In fact, he can pretty well put a date on it: 1984, when he turned twelve. Until then, he’d had a mostly stress-free, if not idyllic, childhood. His father, Winston, from Sierra Leone, and his Ghanaian mother, Eve, had moved to London in the early seventies. Idris was born soon after and was their only child. They settled in Hackney, a multicultural neighborhood in the east of the city. Winston worked for almost thirty years at a Ford car plant, mainly on the factory floor, before eventually being elected as a shop steward. His mother was a clerical assistant. Elba’s friends were white, Black, Turkish; he got along with everyone.
That changed when his parents, looking to move up from an apartment in a tower block to a house, relocated to Canning Town, an area to the far east of the city mostly leveled by bombs in World War II. The new place was only a little more than three miles away but felt to Elba, who was a teenager by then, like a different world. Canning Town was a heartland for the National Front and the British National Party, on the extreme right, even neo-Nazi wing of UK politics. The mid-eighties were also the heyday of English soccer hooligans. One of the most notorious groups was the Inter City Firm from West Ham United, who played just up the road from Canning Town. They would beat you up and then pop a business card in your pocket: “Congratulations. You have just met the I.C.F.” “If you were Black or Indian, you’re getting it,” recalls Elba. “You’re getting it! Spat at, bottles, you name it.”
In his first class on his first day at his new, all-boys school, Elba was greeted by the class joker singing “Feed the world . . .” from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—a charity single recorded in 1984 by a supergroup of British musicians to support victims of the Ethiopian famine. “This kid was flash. I remember he had a Jheri curl at a time; everyone thought he was funny,” says Elba. “And I’ve walked in and I was a pretty skinny African kid, no Jheri curls, nothing flash about me, not much money. Everyone started laughing at me! And so I’m just like, ‘Right, well, fuck you, man!’ Pow! Hit him in his chest. And he smashed a test tube and tried to go for me.”
Boogie, the boy who tried to glass Elba, actually became a close friend—and still is. Neither told the headmaster who started the fight; more than that, they liked the same music and both became DJs. But there’s still a competitive spikiness, as was shown when Boogie had a cameo on Elba and Dhowre’s podcast this year. “Who’s done Glastonbury?” Elba taunted him. Boogie replied, “I don’t care if you’ve done my missus—I’m still the best DJ.”
Elba, partly because he wanted new sneakers, partly because he wanted a better life, knew he had to start earning. At fourteen, he took his first job, fitting tires on a Saturday. On a good day, with tips, he could make around forty dollars. The money came in handy after his family moved to East Ham, near the West Ham United soccer stadium, when he was sixteen. He bought a car off the books so that he didn’t have to travel to school on the bus, even though the legal age to drive in the UK is seventeen. “I looked way older than I was, so I didn’t get into trouble,” says Elba. “No one really fucked with me.”
In July, the English soccer team’s performance at the European championships saw these memories bubble back up to the surface. Elba wasn’t even born the last time England won a major soccer tournament, but hope arrived in 2021 with an exciting, racially diverse team that, against logical expectation, made it through to the final against Italy. England took an early lead in the match, but Italy prevailed in a penalty shoot-out. The three England players who missed their kicks happened to be young and Black: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. What happened next was ugly and embarrassing, as the players endured racist attacks, primarily on social media. The pain of watching it, for Elba, was far worse than the defeat. “I was devastated. Devastated for football. Devastated for my country. Devastated. England has this one shining moment where we nearly get there. And the moment we don’t get there, it boils down to that. Broke my heart, man. But at the same time, coming from where I come from in Canning Town, that was every day.”
Elba feels an affinity with Rashford, Sancho, and Saka. “A moment like that does not define you,” he says. “And being called a ‘monkey’ or a ‘coon’ does not define who you are. But fuck that, I’ve had it in many different shapes and forms. When I got the role as Heimdall in the Marvel universe, there was a real outcry from a sect of the fans.” Elba first played the watchman of the gods—also known as “Shining God” because of his pearly skin—in 2011’s Thor and has now reprised the character four times. “From one perspective, hey, there’s a logic: He’s Norse; he shouldn’t be played by a Black man. But from another sect, there was like ‘Idris Elba’s a cunt, he’s disgusting, he’s not fucking James Bond, he’s never going to be James Bond.’ It was hatred.”
Elba falls silent. “If you get to a level like mine, I can’t sit here and worry about some dickhead who’s got a pseudonym writing, ‘Idris is Black, he shouldn’t play. . .’ ” he continues. “I don’t care; I shouldn’t care about that. Plus, I’ve got a thick skin, man. I’m old and ugly enough to know that they love you, then they hate you, then they love you again.”
Canning Town was good for one thing: At school, Elba’s drama teacher, Susan McPhee, introduced him to acting. He jumped in with gusto to pretend he was in a car that had broken down or to improv being a fried egg. After school, he won a place at the prestigious National Youth Music Theatre, and this led to small parts on TV and then eventually a bigger one, on a British soap opera called Family Affairs. From there, he decamped to the U. S., landing at the YMCA near Union Square in New York City. The dream was to emulate his idols, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Don Cheadle. The rest is legend: working as a bouncer at the comedy club Carolines while selling pot as a side hustle; living out of a Chevy Astro; finally getting the gig as drug kingpin Stringer Bell (when he really wanted to be Avon Barksdale); an accent that was so tight that Americans mistook him for one of their own and some British folks didn’t even click that he was one of theirs.
For a new generation of young Black British actors, such as Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya, Snowfall’s Damson Idris, and Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page, Elba presumably is their Denzel. Or at the very least, he has shone a light on a path for them to follow. “I don’t know,” he says. “Denzel and those people were trailblazers in their industry and the first of their kind. If there is a generation that looks at me the way I looked at Denzel and Wesley and those guys when I was coming up, then great. If I’m that for others, then I’m very proud to take that.”
Over the summer, Elba notched an odd, semi-meaningful milestone: his one hundredth acting credit (including a few times he played a version of himself). Not that he’d necessarily been keeping track; I was the one who pointed this out. He brought up his century with announcement that he would be joining Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as the voice of Knuckles. This seemed somehow appropriate: Always keen to stretch himself, he’d never played a pugnacious, short-beaked echidna before. “One hundredth, wow! That’s just mind-blowing,” he says, possibly humoring me. “But it’s not like I can never say no to working, because I’ve said no plenty of times. But I just never saw not working as an option for me. Never. I just want to work. I love what I do. I love it. Love it. It’s a fucking gem of a job.”
If he could pick a handful of his one hundred performances to keep for eternity, which would he choose? “Mandela would be in there,” Elba replies instantly, referencing his iconic portrayal in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. “Beasts of No Nation, Sometimes in April. Stringer Bell. John Luther. Robert DuBois in The Suicide Squad. They weren’t all necessarily overly successful as films, but for me personally, there are some very big moments, career-wise, that really I just cannot forget.”
Elba won a Golden Globe for the second season of BBC’s Luther; however, to date there have been no Oscar nominations. Perhaps the most glaring omission was his haunting performance in 2015’s Beasts of No Nation, the story of a child soldier in an unnamed African country and Elba’s charismatic commandant, who takes him under his wing. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga remembers the first day the actor came on set in Ghana. The production team had created a camp in the jungle, and for two weeks before Elba arrived, a pair of military advisors, veterans of conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, gave 150 men and boys a boot camp in guerrilla warfare. The extras were drilled to stand in formation and learned mesmerizing call-and-response chants of the child soldiers. “How the commander look?” their leader would beseech. “Good!” they would scream back in unison.
“You’d listen to these slogans and you couldn’t help being moved by the chorus of voices,” recalls Fukunaga. “So when Idris showed up, I knew it was going to be impressive. And it was funny to watch him just own it: step in front of these guys, nod his head, and be like, ‘Yeah, this is my battalion.’ Any other actor would have wilted a little bit. But Idris, anytime someone turns up the pressure, he steps up. Anytime someone raises the bar, he’ll jump higher. He owned the role so much that for our extras that were his battalion of soldiers, he wasn’t just an actor; he was their leader.”
Beasts of No Nation, the first Netflix movie to have a cinematic release—a controversial land grab that led to a boycott of the film by four of the major U. S. theater chains—received no Academy Award nominations. For what it’s worth, Elba believes that if it had come out in 2021, the response would be markedly changed. “The radar is different now,” he says. “To ignore a movie like that at this juncture, you could quite easily be called racist. The temperature of sensitivity is up. People just saw it at the time and were like, ‘Dark movie. Great.’ But now it would be a statement: ‘Oh, we’ve got to put a nod to that.’ And that’s partly a bit weird. Don’t give out awards just because it’s cool or PC to do it. Give it out on its merit. Don’t just give me an award because you feel guilty.”
Through much of his career, Elba has operated on a ratio of two for them, one for me. “That two for them is commercial, big—that’s them,” he explains. “The one for you, something you’ve nurtured, something you believe in, smaller, you’re not getting paid for it.”
But that’s not to say money jobs always mean selling your soul: For Elba, one such project was The Suicide Squad, the sequel to 2016’s no-definite-article Suicide Squad. Director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) was brought in to offer a new spin on the DC Comics supervillains who form a secret government task force to save the world. Gunn signed up Elba, and together, the actor says, they “handpicked” the role of Bloodsport, an overlooked occasional in the DC universe whose main claim to fame is that he once took down Superman with a kryptonite bullet. At no point, Elba is adamant, was there any discussion of him taking the part of Deadshot, played by Will Smith in the original movie, a rumor that swirled around the fan forums.
“In fact, when I signed on, there was a possibility that Will was going to be in it also,” says Elba. “But he publicly then said he wasn’t going to do that. And it’s exciting because I’ve always admired Will; he’s an incredible talent. I envision a world where Deadshot and Bloodsport live in a film. It would be great to play against someone that has such a legacy and such range. And there are similarities between the two characters, actually, that would be quite funny to explore.”
Margot Robbie, who plays the riotous Harley Quinn in both movies, says Elba brought a special talent to a deceptively difficult role. “Begrudgingly, Bloodsport is the leader of the Suicide Squad in this film,” she says. “And sometimes the leader of the gang has to give the expositional dialogue or he has to bring the stakes within five minutes of the movie starting. And I just feel like [Elba is] so good at that. He doesn’t seem silly when he does it. I’d look at the lines he had to deliver and I was like, ‘Fuck! He’s really good at this!’ ”
Next up is The Harder They Fall, the stylized, hyperviolent revisionist wester