The star of The Wire, Luther and Mandela talks about fighting his way to the top, why DJs get the girls, how to modify your accent to fit any situation and why he refused to watch himself on the best show on TV.
PLAYBOY: You were a working actor in London before you moved to New York and had some rough years prior to The Wire. How bad did it get?
ELBA: It was a wickedly tough time. I lived in a van for about three months. It was a gold and brown Astro with brown velour seats. I was going through a tough time with my then wife, and the money I made under the table as a DJ went to make sure she was okay. I'd had three or four years of unemployment, not getting acting jobs. I was watching Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes and saying, "I can do that. I can be right there with them." My wife was about eight and a half months pregnant by the time I got the news I was going to be on The Wire. If I didn't get it, I was going to leave the U.S. We knew that if I didn't have acting work after my daughter was born we would be up shit street.
PLAYBOY: Do you think the hard knocks you took in those four years gave you a better understanding of Stringer Bell and The Wire?
ELBA: Yes. People I'd been raised with in London made money as a hustle, whether it was drugs or being a pool shark. Flash drug dealers went to jail, cool drug dealers didn't. I had that embedded in my system since I was a kid. My dad was a pool shark. We'd go to pubs and he'd pretend he didn't know how to play, put down a bet and win. The point is, Stringer was in my system. And when I got to America, I understood what was happening in the hood. I lived in Jersey City, which is a rough neighborhood, and in Flatbush for a while. That was my preparation for the role. [pauses] By the way, you know I've never watched The Wire.
PLAYBOY: It's a good show. You should watch it sometime.
ELBA: I've seen a full episode at screenings but never at home. I've never watched an entire season. I've not seen any episode of season two, most of season three and none of seasons four and five. I'm supercritical of my own work. As an actor, if you're being told how wonderful you are, what do you need to strive for? I don't know if I'm good just because some critic says I am in the press.
PLAYBOY: So we shouldn't tell you how good you are?
ELBA: [Smiles] The Golden Globe award told me that, thanks. And the two Emmy nominations. Just the small things.
PLAYBOY: You've often referred to yourself as an East London boy. What does that mean in terms of your personality?
ELBA: In the circumference of London, if you come from the east, people know you're a cheeky chappy. You've got a bit of a mouth, a gift of the gab, you're wheeling and dealing. My personality is formed by that. East Londoners speak cockney—if you're born within a three-mile radius of the Bow Bells, then you're cockney. That's typically what my accent is, but it depends on who I'm talking to. Today I did a BET show and was like, "Yo, man, what up? How you feelin', bro?" I'm a bit of a parrot.
PLAYBOY: Tonight you're a guest on David Letterman's show. Will you consciously speak in a more American accent?
ELBA: [Holds up a pint] It depends on how many glasses of Guinness I smoke down before then. I tell a better story in a cockney accent—I'm more cheeky, there's more eyewinks and finger-pointing—but I'm always worried people don't understand what I'm saying. East London language is quite lazy and laid-back, which makes it easier for me to speak American. When I hear people from Brooklyn, I can understand how they make those sounds, because my accent is similar. Our tongues work the same way.
PLAYBOY: When you were a kid in London you were sent to an all-boys school. Was it a punishment?
ELBA: It felt like punishment. My parents moved, and they signed me up for the nearest school to our house. It was lunchtime, and I asked, "So do the girls eat in a separate building?"And the teacher said, "Son, this is a boys' school." I was mortified. But there were loads of girls in the neighborhood. Trust me, I wasn't short of girls.
PLAYBOY: At 14 you started hanging around with your uncle, who deejayed at sound system parties. What did you like about being part of DJ culture?
ELBA:My uncle played a lot of Nigerian songs, which were often 16 minutes long. Nigerian vinyls were thick like doormats. I think he played them so he could dance longer with the ladies. My cousins and I were gagging to just touch the turntables. I got into the world of pirate radio, which was illegal, and sound systems, which was sort of a heated atmosphere, with one sound system clashing with the other, so I didn't spread the news to my parents about that. They were very strict, and I didn't want to get in trouble. I was my mum's only child, so she was very protective of me.
PLAYBOY: As a father, are you more like your mom or your dad?
ELBA: More like my mum, believe it or not. Man, what's that about? I'm very protective of my daughter and who she hangs out with. Same stuff my mum used to do, when I'd tell her, "Mum, relax." [laughs] You can drive yourself nuts as a parent, thinking about what boys do and what I got up to as a kid. If my kid got up to that same stuff, I'd be horrified.
PLAYBOY: When you were spending time in London clubs, did you take ecstasy?
ELBA: Drug culture is a big part of the house music scene that I deejay now. Loads of DJs get smashed. But then you end up playing shitty music. At first I bypassed drugs. I didn't start smoking weed until later in life. Am I allowed to say that? I mean, I'm not gonna lie—I've tried everything, just between you, me and the people who read this magazine. I've tried it all. I played one of the biggest drug dealers in the world on TV, so you think I'd know what I was talking about.
PLAYBOY: You're also a rapper. This lyric from "Sex in Your Dreams" is particularly interesting: "Bone-hard diamond cutter, dick thick like homemade butter."
ELBA: You have been listening. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: "Show you parts of your pussy that you ain't discovered." Has your mom heard the song?
ELBA: When it's read back to me like that, I'm mortified that such trife could come out of my mind. [laughs] Let me tell you, some fans hate it, some love it, some can't stand the idea that I've got the audacity to rap. But under the guise of being a rapper, I can say what the fuck I want, and until some journalist reads it back to me, I'm getting away scot-free. Maybe I'll go on Letterman tonight, saying, "Hey, my dick's as thick as butter."
PLAYBOY: On the great BBC show Luther, which recently aired its third season, you play a badass reckless cop. The author Neil Cross, who created Luther, describes him as "a feral Columbo and a bookish Dirty Harry fighting in a sack." Why does Luther do so many stupid things?
ELBA: He doesn't care about the mayhem he leaves behind. We're going for escapism. It's well-done, it's well-shot, it feels like a quality British drama. But let's be honest: Men have been slapped on the wrist for a long time for being too manly. The days of the gruff "Fuck you, I'm going to tell you how I feel" kind of man have gone. Lutheris escapism for people who miss that type. He goes for the bad guy and doesn't apologize while he's doing it. The Guardian called Luther one of the daftest shows on TV, and that made me laugh so much. It has ridiculous plotlines.
PLAYBOY: Would you like to be as gruff and fuck-you as Luther?
ELBA: In real life I'm a shy person. As soon as the spotlight's on me, I feel awkward. Idris feels like he doesn't have much to offer. That's why I end up plowing myself into these characters. With Luther I get to play a guy who can be grumpy all day long and doesn't give a fuck about it. I'm not allowed to be that grumpy! As an actor I have to be friendly and super-accessible.
PLAYBOY: At the risk of seeming obsessed with your song, would a guy who's truly shy sing about having a thick dick?
ELBA: Those are the words of a shy man putting on a rap persona. Did you see the video for that song? No, because there isn't one. I'm really fucking serious; I'm a shy man. I'm great at hiding in characters. When I deejay, I'm great at standing behind the turntables. If I go to a club, I'm awkward. Should I stand there? Should I dance? You're not going to see me dance. I end up standing by the DJ.
PLAYBOY: When you took the role of Nelson Mandela in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, you said it was important to figure out what kind of man he was. So who was he?
ELBA: This is one of the most courageous and selfless men you're ever going to meet. If I said to you, "Listen, there's a whole generation of people who are suffering, and if you give up 27 years of your life and spend that time in prison, you could help them," the likelihood is you'd say, "No, I'm all right. I'm kind of comfortable here." What I found out from him is, he was that guy. "Hey, ask the next guy. I'm good." The film looks at his younger life, and it's interesting because the audience knows where he's going to end up. You don't want the film to be shoveling shit down your throat about Mandela, good or bad things. It's not propaganda.
PLAYBOY: What was the biggest challenge of playing him?
ELBA: The difficult part was inventing who he was as a young man, when nobody knew him. I'm five shades darker than he is, so the audience is going to be challenged by the fact that I don't look like him. When I played him as an older man, with prosthetics, there was more of the Mandela we know, and I could hide behind the costume. I had to wear a wig for a lot of the film. I admire actors like Daniel Day-Lewis who do only so many films and are unrecognizable because they plow into a character. That's a lane where I think I'm going to end up, and Mandela takes me closest to that.
PLAYBOY: You had some great episodes on The Office as Charles Miner. When he shows up at Dunder Mifflin it's almost as if he's disgusted at how stupid the employees are.
ELBA: Miner was a prick. I was really fucking excited to do that show. I wanted to be funny. I was going to do my impression of Ricky Gervais and use all these weird English expressions you've never seen a black man use. Then the producers decided they wanted me to play the character as an American. Shit. I was so disappointed, because it was my chance to be funny. Instead, Miner was the straight guy—to the point where he was a bit unlikable.
PLAYBOY: Your name is usually on the lists of the most beautiful people and the sexiest men alive. How does that attention change your love life?
ELBA: Look, when I wasn't on TV or in films, I didn't get any special attention when I went out. Some beautiful people always attract attention. I didn't until I got on television. So I'm on these lists only because I'm on TV.
PLAYBOY: But what about in real life? Has stardom changed your relationships with women?
ELBA: It happens to me all the time, still. I'll sit in a pub and nobody will recognize me. I might see an attractive woman, but she doesn't recognize me, so I'm not getting any love. Then one person goes, "Oh, it's you," and suddenly they all overhear and start asking questions. It's bullshit. I've been in and out of relationships, I've been married, and it's hard to keep a relationship when you're an actor. A girl I knew said to me, "My dad told me, 'Never date an actor or a DJ.'" It was over, right there on the spot. I was fucked.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Playboy. Read more from our complete archives on iPlayboy.com.
Photo by Gavin Bond