Idris Elba career took off in America when he was cast as Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell on HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire, which led to roles in Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, The Reaping with Hilary Swank, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and the horror thriller 28 Weeks Alter.
Returning to England, he is now starring in, and co-producing, BBC America’s drama Luther, a gripping psychological thriller. As a brilliant and self-destructive detective, John Luther is as dangerous as the depraved criminals he hunts.
Ruth Wilson portrays Alice Morgan, an extraordinarily intelligent key witness in Luther’s first investigation, with whom he becomes locked in a lethal battle of wits.
Can you talk a little about what The Wire brought to your career and how you were seen by filmmakers and TV executives following your performance as Stringer?
I was in The Wire for three years, and I left at the highlight of Stringer Bell’s popularity. And as my character died, I got offers to work.
After The Wire was done, what was the decision to do a BBC series?
I left England before I had reached the pinnacle, which is working at the BBC at the head of one of the top dramas. It is a tradition of great actors to have been in that position.
So I was here in America, working as hard as I could. The Wire gave me an international springboard, which the BBC picked up on. We came together at a perfect time because the BBC wanted to do perhaps something a little courageous with their drama. And I wanted to step into an area where I also could produce some work. So it was a perfect marriage, and it also gave me the opportunity to do the one thing that I wanted to do for a long time, head a drama at the BBC.
Was Luther created as a vehicle for you?
No. It existed. It wasn’t created for me. Neil Cross has had this character in his psyche for a long time, and I suspect that a meeting of the planets put us together. There was no actor attached to Luther when they sent it to me.
Do you think Luther’s detective skills are tied to his rage, or can they be completely separate?
No, no. His rage is tied to his emotion and his compassion for his victims. His rage is tied to a frustration within himself, which we haven’t really unearthed yet. We’ve touched on what that frustration is, but we don’t know.
He’s quite a brilliant detective. In this storyline and in reality, Luther would probably have been fired plenty of times by now, but in our film Luther uses his intellect, thinks like the perpetrator, so to speak, to win.
So he could conceivably still be a great detective if he works through his rage?
Yes, he would be a good detective.
Does Luther want to die?
No, I don’t think he wants to die, but I don’t think he wants to live with injustice. I know that sounds really corny. I don’t know that he can live with the bad guy getting away.
In the first episode, you see Luther confronting someone he’s been chasing for five months, someone that’s been burying children alive, and it completely sends him and his relationship with is work into the cosmos. Luther’s flaw is that he just gets too involved. But I don’t think he wants to die. I think he has a love for life.
Can you talk about the interesting relationship between Luther and Alice?
Luther’s fascination of Alice is that it gives him an opportunity to understand himself a little bit. He’s fascinated how well she constructed her crime, but obviously not well enough to elude him. But she eluded the law, which for all intents and purposes, Luther has to do in terms of trying to break down the procedural acts in catching bad criminals. Luther has to break the law as well.
Ruth’s character is very contained, but yours is more out there. Can you talk about playing all that violence?
Yeah, John doesn’t have a mechanism for containing his anger. So he smashes things. John still has that sort of impulse to let himself out and smash stuff. Is he violent? I don’t know if he’s a violent person. I just think that the only way he can really express himself is by smashing something.
Is Luther’s fascination with Alice completely genuine, or is he playing that somewhat to get her close enough for him to see or make a mistake, or are we supposed to be wondering that?
I think the fact that you are asking the question means I clearly can’t tell you too much more. But that’s a great question in terms of what Luther’s motivation is with this relationship, and that starts to reveal itself as it plays out, which then reveals a lot about who Luther is towards the end.
You’ve done six episodes but if there is a second series, how would Alice and Luther’s relationship evolve do you think?
If there was another series, I think this relationship is an integral part of the franchise, if you’d like, but I think it would be back to business for Luther. There’s a clue in there somewhere!
I understand you are doing The Big C, Laura Linney’s new series, as well. Is that a recurring role?
I did four episodes of The Big C playing Lenny, Laura Linney’s character’s lover. There are no plans to go back into it long-term. It was actually a request from Laura for me to come and kiss her for four episodes, which I said yes, but I’m not sure I’ll be going back.