At this point you may know Idris Elba because you're a really big fan of The Wire, and who can forget Stringer Bell? But no matter who you are, it's going to be hard to avoid the guy in the coming months. He had a major supporting part last year as the all-seeing Heimdall in Thor, in June he'll be part of the inter-stellar crew in Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and next year he'll be witnessing the clash of giant aliens and giant monsters in Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim. So if you want to catch him before he's really huge, take a look at Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance this weekend, where you can see Elba playing Moreau, the Albanian, slightly alcoholic monk who sets Nicolas Cage's Johnny Blaze on a quest when he promises to exorcise the demon from Johnny's soul.
I talked to Elba last week in New York about the physical requirements of a role like Moreau in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and he also surprised me by saying that not only were the crazy contacts he wears in this movie his idea, but they have a very specific connection to Thor's Heimdall. Check out that and everything else he had to say below, and see Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in theaters this weekend.
I want to ask your trend of crazy contacts in movie. It's the second movie in a role, after Thor, where you eyes have been this crazy color. Do you cringe having to do that again?
Believe it or not, Heimdall in Thor, that was by design because the character can see and hear all things, so we wanted to do something with the eyes. And because this character is in the same Marvel family, and it's by the same actor, I thought to myself, "Why not connect the two characters." In essence I'm saying that in the universe of Marvel, that Moreau or Heimdall or any other characters I might play will have these eyes, or some sort of variation on the eyes, and be connected.
So this was your idea?
Yeah, it was my idea, because it didn't make sense that I would play in another Marvel film as a different character completely. So I said, how about this, we'll just make them related. And the other thing is that Moreau in the script is described as someone who can see into someone's soul. I didn't want to do acting like this [He makes some serious crazy eyes] so the eyes became the solution.
It sounds like you dug deep into the Marvel Universe. Are you looking into the comics, or just your character's end of things?
Just my part really. In order to make this stuff make sense for you as an actor, it's better to delve in and create things. When I say "Why?" and everyone goes "Because its' a superhero movie," I say, "Nah, I need more than that."
When you're flying off the back of a cliff shooting a gun, as you do in the beginning of this movie, what goes through your mind?
What's going through your mind is, "This is stupid, what if the harness snaps, you'll die, what would they say about you, but it will be cool if it hits the news and everyone says "Oh my god actor dies while doing a stunt," maybe you should pull a cooler face because it's your last moment." [Laughs] I didn't do the actual jump--
But there's a shot of you in midair, you must be on a harness somewhere.
In that section, they did the stuntman with the real thing from the back, and I did it from the front and I jumped off some kind of catapult in the studio.
Do you like the stunts? What does that get out of you as an actor that you don't get to do elsewhere?
It's just an adrenaline fueled performance, and adrenaline fueled performances you never know where they'll end up. You cannot pretend that you don't have adrenaline going through you, because it feels like what it feels like. But a skilled actor can use that to make the audience feel like that actor's going through it, that character's going through it. A good example is Daniel Craig in James Bond, and I can tell he's fucking shitting himself, and so should he be, because he's jumping off a fucking cliff.
When you're doing Thor and this and Pacific Rim, all these big movies, does that adrenaline reaction change?
It really depends. The adrenaline feeling of jumping out of cliffs and bikes and all of that is very specific to the film. In Pac Rim I'm not doing that so much. There isn't that touch stonework for me in it, but there is a lot of action.
Around the time of Thor you talked about how hard it is to work with a green screen. Have you gotten more used to that?
Not really. It's not something you can get used to. It's like being asked to act with a robot and say "OK, this is your robot"-- if you're not there, why would I be there. It's tough to get used to. But it is about imagination. And I can use that quite freely.
Is that acting opposite nothing a muscle you hadn't stretched before these giant productions?
When I look at my body of work, I've played a lot of characters who are morally conflicted-- "I'm right, no I'm wrong, I don't know what to do!" I want to play more characters who don't care as much, and who aren't as measured. They are what they are, no apologies.
When we write about actors, we talk about the directions actors take their careers. But it does seem like you have more of that control now.
When you look at my career and the roles I've played, there aren't a lot of repeats. I've played a really big drug dealer, a really big cop. A little bit of action here and there. Not romantic comedy, but I'd love to do that. Once you win a Golden Globe, you can do whatever you want. [Laughs] No, that's not true. I wish that were true.
When you and Dominic West saw each other at the Golden Globes the Internet went nuts. Did you see any of that?
No, no. that's interesting, I didn't know that. It's always good to see Dominic, and the fact that we were in the same category was quite bizarre actually.
Is it hard to get used to that competition element?
No, I don't get nominated very often. I was nominated the year before, and I didn't think I was going to win this time. Being nominated twice was a good indication they liked my work.
A lot of people look at comic book movies or giant monster movies and write that off as mindless entertainment. But it feels like you're finding a middle ground, doing work that's worthwhile.
There's the argument that characters that are in big dumb films don't have to be big dumb characters. There's the argument that you can relate to someone who's completely unrelatable. In the way that a director shows you his imagination on a film, then I get to show you my imagination in a big dumb character. I definitely hear the outcry of people who loved The Wire and go "Why are you doing this?" but what are my alternatives? To play the same character over and over again? What kind of career is that?