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Stringer Bell, John Luther, Nelson Mandela -- Idris Elba is on a roll

Looking for good roles, not Hollywood gold working out OK, he says

August 31, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

“I worked ‘The Wire’ with him, and I couldn’t believe how good he was as Stringer Bell,” she said. “And this went on for several episodes. And then, I walk past him one day on set and I hear this thick British accent. And I’m looking around, and it’s him.”

At first, Moran said, she thought he was “putting on” the accent.

“But he isn’t,” she added. “It’s him. He’s a Brit. And I didn’t know it. I make my living with my ears, and I didn’t even know. The fact that this man could come from another country with an accent that thick and assimilate the … politics of ‘The Wire’ was just remarkable to me. He’s one of the best actors in the game today — movies or TV.”

Elba has the same sort of rugged sexuality that Richard Burton had, as well as the kind of onstage power and presence of James Earl Jones.

“But he also has the charm and the appeal of a Clark Gable,” according to Moran. And she’s right. Check out his scenes this week with new love interest Mary Day (Sienna Guillory) and the ever-fascinating Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson).

(See David Simon's assessment of Elba and his last day on set of "The Wire" with Stringer Bell here.)

Burton, Jones and Gable are big names, but those are the kinds of comparisons Elba inspires.

There’s a scene in the third hour of “Luther” that will make believers out of anyone who doesn’t think Elba deserves being compared to such giants. The scene features Luther reacting to the death of a colleague from a shotgun blast to the chest.

In the space of three minutes, Luther goes through a range of emotions as he alternately kneels on the wet pavement next to the bloody corpse and staggers about in circles from the shock and horror of what he sees. Denial, anger, rage, guilt and finally, in a brilliant acting choice that communicates the absolute exhaustion of true grief, Luther lies down alongside the body and appears to fall asleep as the camera looks down from an indifferent sky.

“What we wanted to do was get to know Luther a little better and figure out what he would do under pressure. We wanted to understand the legacy of everything he has to live with,” Elba said.

“At the end, when we say the last words, ‘Now what?’ we wanted the audience to also say ‘Now what?’ as well,” he explained. “We want them to literally look at Luther and say, ‘I don’t know where you can go from here, pal.’ ”

While the character might not know where he’s headed at the end of Season 3, the man who won a Golden Globe as best dramatic actor for playing him seems to have reached the age at which he knows who and what he is as an artist.

Elba says he has enjoyed working in the superhero and sci-fi genres with such films as “Thor” and “Pacific Rim,” respectively, but his passion is for roles like Luther. And even though it’s only British TV rather than a big-budget Hollywood film, following his bliss has been a good career move.

“At one stage of my career, and I think this goes for most actors, you want to get that Hollywood status and be up there with the greats, you know, the Premier League of acting, so to speak,” he said, referencing the top English football league.

“But from my perspective, it’s the work,” he added. “I turned down a couple of films that would take me toward Hollywood to do ‘Luther.’ And then, ultimately, ‘Luther’ sort of being a lateral step, if you like, ended up taking me further toward Hollywood.”

Elba says he chose the best roles rather than the biggest films.

“I chose the character I could sink my teeth into that would be very different from something I did before,” he said.

“So, as much as it’s nice to step into that massive world of Hollywood and be a big, famous actor, I think actually I prefer the careers of actors who have chosen smartly and done really amazing performances. And, maybe, they’re not as known or big Hollywood box office, but I think their careers are a bit more interesting, you know?”

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

“Luther” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday and 10 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday on BBC America.

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