The television academy was very kind to Idris Elba this year, bestowing him two nominations for two very different roles. He received a guest actor in a comedy nomination for playing Lenny, Laura Linney‘s very romantic love interest in “The Big C,” and a mini-series lead actor nomination for his searing work as the troubled DCI John Luther in the BBC America series “Luther.”
Elba spoke to Zap2it from his native England about the Emmy nods and how he approaches such different roles, and why “The Wire” never got any Emmy love. He also talks about the second season of “Luther,” which has already aired in the U.K. and is set to debut on BBC America in September.
Zap2It: Which of the two nominations was the more pleasantly surprising to you?
Idris Elba: The one for “The Big C.” They were both surprises, but “Big C” was more surprising, just because I didn’t expect it. I hadn’t seen the performance, and I wasn’t sure that even… I don’t know, I just didn’t expect to get nominated for just a guest appearance. It was four episodes; I didn’t even know I was eligible.
Did you know about the guest actor Emmy category?
No I didn’t. I didn’t know that. And it’s for comedy, I think, right? So that was a real surprise.
How familiar are people in England with the Emmys?
Some people in the industry know, but generally, I don’t think they know much about the Emmys.
At least did your fans or people that you knew in the industry there know you were up for an Emmy for “Luther?”
No. In general, no. I just got back to England; I’m here now, and I went out yesterday and saw some actors I knew and they knew, and I told my parents, but generally, no, it’s sort of gone under the radar.
What drew you to the role in “The Big C?”
I never get to play romantics, and my character was a real romantic. He wasn’t a hard man or a man who was anxious, he was just a lover, and it was kind of refreshing to play. And I just wanted to work with Laura Linney, as well; it was a joy to do that.
Do you tend to get roles that lean more towards the intense, like Stringer Bell or John Luther, or is it more of a mix?
I aim for a mix with acting. I assure in my life’s work [that] I want to have the range of different characters that I play: comedy, straight, intense modes, whatever it is. But I don’t particularly target one type of role, just to keep me on my toes, I think. So it’s quite ironic that in this year’s Emmys that two different spectrums of performances happen to be nominated. Which for me, win or lose, it’s a sense of achievement that’s incredible for me, so I’m excited by that.
Do you approach a role like the one in “The Big C” the same way as you do a more intense role?
It’s actually the same. There’s always some [consideration of] what they do and how I bring them to life, but there’s not much difference there. Luther is a bit more physically demanding of a character, so there’s definitely sort of a desire to get myself into shape to play him. Cosmetically he has a look. But by and large, the approach is the same.
Luther’s look to me seems like he’s a beaten down man in a lot of ways.
Right, he’s a man that definitely carries a lot on his shoulders, and that definitely takes a lot of dedicated work, when you read scripts and doing the scene. A lot of emotional investment goes into it.
How do you as an actor get to the point where you’re conveying that message that Luther’s got a lot on his shoulders?
Honestly, it’s the script and the scenes and all that. So for me, it really is a just a matter of applying myself to whatever the scene is. Some scenes are lighthearted, some are a bit more procedural, and some are full-on emotion. So I really take my beats from what the scene requires. It’s the rules of engagement, if you know what I mean, and I take it from the script.
Do you know which episode of “Luther” you’re going to be submitting to the academy?
I’m not sure exactly, to be fair; my agents and I have discussed it. But I’m probably going to do the second or third episode… no, no, no… probably the third or fourth episode of “Luther.”
Any particular reason why those episodes?
I would suspect that there was full-on… you know, there’s no re-introduction to the character. In those episodes, Luther is in the middle of a really, really high-pressure situation in London, chasing these guys, and it’s has some great scenes in it, some great moments. So I think if we’re going to send anything it’ll probably be in that area.
Without giving too much away, where does the story of “Luther” pick up in the second season?
It sort of gives you a little bit of a time jump, but not too much. Luther is back at work, basically, and has been repositioned at work, and he’s carrying a lot of the angst from last season. It’s not in the too distant future, but it’s a little bit of a time jump. Basically you see him trying to get on with his life, back to work doing the thing that he loves, and that’s where we pick him up.
Are there any leftover effects from the first season’s storyline?
When you pick him up, we don’t continue exactly, but the residue of that season starts to seep in, and you start to see traces of what happens in the new season. But we jump time so we don’t have to explain “this is what happened next,” because it would be boring and obvious. But you do start to see the residue of what happened.
Does any part of the case of Ruth Wilson’s character of Alice come to the fore or is she still just serving as the “serial killer whisperer” to Luther?
I don’t want to give away a lot, but she definitely comes back, and her journey picks up after she… if I tell you, then it gives it away. Do you want me to tell you?
Go up to the edge of where you think you’re going to spoil it, then stop…
She comes back and she’s certainly meaningful in Luther’s life. You see a bit of that in this season; not as much as maybe you might think, but you do see Luther’s attraction to her.
Coming back to that role, especially after doing some of the other lighter stuff, was it tough to get back in John Luther’s shoes again?
It was familiar territory coming back, and it is like an old friend, because I know the character really well. So it wasn’t too difficult to get back into the swim of things. Luther’s evolved a bit from the last [season], so I just sort of had to bring him back from where he left off, play a new strand of angst, if you like, for this character.
When you’re playing a heavy role like Luther, is it tough to leave work at work? I’ve spoken to actors who say playing intense roles like that is physically tiring for them.
Yes, it is very exhausting, definitely. It’s a very emotionally draining character to play. Luther is in practically 80 percent of the show, so I’m in every day as an actor, first thing in and last thing out. And the range of emotions you go through can definitely drain you.
Was it the same when you were on “The Wire”?
I can’t even remember [laughs]. I just know that that wasn’t the same because I wasn’t a lead character, I was just sort of in scenes and out of scenes.
Why do you think “The Wire” never got any Emm
There must be a multitude of possible reasons why. I guess it was… not ignored, but it just slipped under the radar. “The Wire” isn’t popular in terms of [it being] a spoon-feed of a television show. You had to invest in it. It’s like a really thick book; you really have to want to read it. I don’t know anything about the Emmys, as I’ve said quite clearly, but I suspect that the popular shows, the shows that are easy to digest, are the ones that get circulated more. I’ve heard stories of people that love “The Wire,” and it took them forever to get into it, and there was others that just got it immediately. So again, I wouldn’t want to speculate as to why it got ignored, but it’s not a coffee [table]-book kind of show; it’s a show that you want to invest in.
You mentioned a year ago that the writers of “The Office” might bring back your character Charles Miner, but that didn’t happen. Is there still a possibility you might come back?
There’s definitely the want to… I’d love to go back to the show and do some more. But it is all about scheduling, and whether the character fits into what they’re doing there. So the possibility is always there, and the producers and I have always sent e-mails back and forth saying “When? How? Could we? We’d love to have you back,” that type of thing. So the possibility is definitely there, just a matter of really “if”… if we can make it happen.