Talking to Idris Elba can be disorienting. No matter how often he references his acclaimed roles as Baltimore drug lord Stringer Bell on The Wire ("That part spoiled me and catapulted me onto the radar," he says) or Dunder Mifflin big boss Charles Miner on The Office ("I can't believe I got paid to have so much fun"), it doesn't jibe with the East London inflection coming out of his mouth. Can this be the same actor?
That's the feeling Elba's American fans experienced last year when the native Londoner stormed on screen as John Luther, a brilliant but unstable London detective on BBC America's dark procedural Luther, for which he earned an Emmy nomination. (He was also nominated for a guest role on Showtime's The Big C.) Four new episodes kick off tonight.
It wasn't just the accent that jolted people. The detective Elba brings to life is one of the more compelling TV cops to appear on either side of the Atlantic recently. Consider the scene coming up when Luther is forced to conduct a complex negotiation with a nail driven through his hand. "It's surprising in a gorgeous way how Luther has caught on in America, but it's all about Idris," says exec producer Phillippa Giles. "He never holds back, his face conveys a thousand sentiments, and he even does his own stunts."
Luther is as psychically tortured as he is gifted at catching London's psychopaths. He is obsessed with saving lives — like the young prostitute, Jenny (Aimee Ffion Edwards), he takes in — even if he has to break laws to do it. Yet he's never far from thoughts of suicide thanks to last season's murder of his wife, Zoe (Human Target's Indira Varma). When in doubt, Luther falls back on cheery quips like, "Do you ever wonder if you're on the devil's side without knowing it?"
As Elba says, "He's gone through a lot. The aim for the second season is to see what he feels like. He lost his wife; he's a different man. We want to get to who he is beyond the heroic cop. Where does that anger and intensity come from? His extreme violence?"
His sex appeal is pretty extreme, too. Luther swaggers around London with enough testosterone to light up Piccadilly Circus. Luther's primary flirtation is with Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a radiant redhead who, oh, yeah, happens to have killed her parents. Luther can't quite prove it and Alice has the hots for him, so viewers play along.
In last season's finale, Luther and Alice teamed up after he was framed for murdering Zoe. To clear his name, they confronted the real killer, the "dirty" detective — and Luther's supposed best friend — Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), who wound up dead.
In Season 2, Luther is an outsider in his own squad, mistrusted as a violent rule breaker. Alice, meanwhile, has been locked up in a high-security loony bin for Reed's murder. It takes a vicious serial killer in a grotesque mask to bring Luther back to form. "We like our story lines with a bit of 'Hey, what's going on here? What's driving this person?'" Elba says.
That's also what comes to mind when talking to Elba. He's polite enough answering questions about TV and film (he'll soon appear in Ridley Scott's Alien prequel, Prometheus), but you get the sense he has other things on his mind.
In fact, Elba, 39, who divides his time between London, New York and Atlanta, is better known by some as DJ Big Driis, a musician, producer and all around mix master. He's produced songs for Jay Z and Macy Gray and spent time this summer spinning records for club kids in Ibiza, Spain. "We'll catch him mixing music at his deck between scenes," Giles says. "That's when he's not talking about the road races he does in his spare time." (Elba took part in the Gumball 3000 Rally through Europe last year.)
Elba, whose parents immigrated to England from West Africa, got into entertainment by helping his uncle DJ weddings as a teenager. Soon enough he had his own DJ career, which he supplemented with factory jobs and occasional acting gigs. One of his first TV roles was as a gigolo in the cult British comedy Absolutely Fabulous. "I've never gotten stuck doing one thing," he says. "Comedy, romance, drama, music — it's all part of who I am. I work best when I'm working outside the lines."
No wonder then he was drawn to Luther. These four episodes find the detective chasing crazies outside and personal demons within. One intense scene brings London practically to a halt and only Luther is brave (or nuts) enough to confront the psychopath responsible.
"We get closer to figuring out what makes Luther so angry," says Elba, who adds he'd love to make a Luther movie one day; four more TV episodes are in the planning stages. "We're getting closer to knowing where his intensity comes from. But what's cool is, the more you get to know the man, the more mysterious Luther is. He's got a lot of layers. I really do relate to him."
Luther airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on BBC America.