Muscular & magnetic


Muscular & magnetic

I don’t know how to break it to Idris Elba. So I just say it. “Is Kate Winslet really the woman you want to be stuck with when disaster strikes in freezing weather? You do know that she didn’t move over to make room on that door and Leo slipped into the icy Atlantic?”

The British actor laughs. He is sitting atop the New York skyline in a dining room at the Mandarin Oriental. “Kate Winslet is surprisingly resilient to almost anything,” he says. “I mean, she is a bruiser. Tough. As. Nails. And if we were ever to fall off a real mountain, her and I, we would survive because she’s not like a slouch in any shape or form.”

The actor is starring with Winslet in the The Mountain Between Us, based on a novel about strangers who struggle, snuggle and eat roasted mountain lion in the frigid Utah wilderness after their small plane crashes.

Owning his roles

Elba often plays opposite very strong women, and he says that’s fine with him. Elba also portrays the New York lawyer who defends Molly Bloom, the audacious poker madam to the stars played by a fiery Jessica Chastain in the Aaron Sorkin movie, Molly’s Game. And the actor created one of the most memorable romances in TV history in the popular BBC series Luther, when his London homicide detective in the big tweed overcoat, known by his deputies as “his satanic majesty,” gets in an erotic and psychopathic entanglement with a latter-day Lizzie Borden, played with film-noir panache by the flame-haired Ruth Wilson. “I think powerful women are sexy,” he says. “But powerful, dangerous women? It’s like, woooo.”

Elba confesses that he got jittery during his sex scene with Winslet because he hasn’t done that many. “I was a bit nervous because it was Kate Winslet, number one,” he says, slyly, and her breasts were exposed. “Do I look, do I not look? Am I supposed to kiss?”

In a world where most movies disappoint and true stars are rare, Elba is magnetic. He is tall and muscular, and before he hit the big time as drug lord Stringer Bell in The Wire, he was a bouncer (and pot dealer) at the comedy club Carolines on Broadway, sometimes living in his Chevy Astro van. “Really nice velvety seats,” he recalls. “I miss that little thing. Honestly, if I found one, I’d definitely buy it and ship it back to France to my little house out there.”

He is leaner than he looks on screen, with a small hoop earring, a grey-flecked beard and elaborately tattooed arms. A tree climbs his upper arm. “I have a spiritual connection to trees,” he says. “I kind of use trees as a place to pray.”

I also ask for his response to the kerfuffle when Samuel L Jackson complained about black British actors getting leads in American movies, such as David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and Daniel Kaluuya in the Jordan Peele horror film, Get Out. Elba says: “I spoke on this and I spoke quite openly that I was disappointed.” He got a standing ovation when he made a speech to British Parliament last year urging greater diversity in film and television because he could only play so many “best friends,” “gang leaders” or “athletic types.”

He calls Jackson “a god” who gets respect “as an actor, black, white, whatever,” but adds: “It felt like a very stupid thing to say, if I’m really honest and in a time where people are being marginalised, why marginalise us even further by going on about black Americans and English Americans? And to his credit, he read that and apologised. He called and said, ‘Hey, man. I agree. You’re right, black is black.’ I respect him for actually acknowledging what I said and sort of rethinking it. Americans come into England to the theatre and play English characters all day long and no one pipes up and says, ‘Hey, you can’t do that,’ and no one should. It’s called acting for a reason.”

His father once advised him to look people in the eyes. It was the same technique Alfred Hitchcock used when he directed the great actor Eva Marie Saint in her sultry performance opposite Cary Grant in North by Northwest.

In our ADD planet, it works. Elba does not look away at his phone, at the waitress when he asks for a knife, at his publicists trying to hustle him along or at his steak salad and steak and eggs. His expressive brown eyes are always on you. His vibe is cool but his career is frenetic. When he’s not starring in movies and Luther, he’s directing movies, designing clothes, DJing in London and Ibiza, and producing his own music, as well as making documentaries about his adventures kickboxing in Thailand and car racing in Ireland. Maybe that’s why his personal life is so turbulent; he has vowed never to marry again.

Falling in and out of love

He has had two children — a 15-year-old girl and a 3-year-old son — with two makeup artists, one of whom he married, and a brief second marriage to a lawyer. He publicly stepped out with his new girlfriend, Sabrina Dhowre, a former Miss Vancouver, at the Toronto International Film Festival. He met her when he went to Vancouver and British Columbia to make The Mountain Between Us.

“Falling in love while falling in love,” he says, dreamily. He also experienced that “You are not the father” moment that can either be the worst or best moment of a man’s life. In a therapeutic moment four years ago, he told a GQ reporter the “tragic, punch-in-the-face” story of how he discovered that the son he thought he had had with a woman he was involved with in Florida was not his.

“It is definitely without a doubt one of the worst things to happen to any person, and I include her,” he tells me about his ex. “Because whatever she went through and did, she was hoping that I would never find out, and I did. So, for all three of us including the boy, it was. ...” His voice gets softer with each word until he finally trails off.

How did he find out? I ask. “My mom came and saw us and she said, ‘That’s not your son,’” he says, adding: “So, I just did a paternity test.”

I note that the lawyer has recently said in The Daily Mail that the marriage broke up because Elba’s handlers thought it would be better, given his sex-symbol status, if he were single. He shakes his head ruefully and says that was absolutely not true and that many stories about his relationships are “completely wrong,” but that he doesn’t like to fight back in public.

“I think I’m the most misunderstood partner ever,” he says, looking distraught. “I’ve had many failed relationships but not because I’m an ass, just because there are so many complexities to relationships and perhaps I’m very guarded, just like Luther’s guarded. And being guarded, people presume things and I often haven’t corrected them.

“They just have so much of who I am wrong, they feel like I must be a playboy. I must be non-committal. I must be the kind of guy that jumps in and out. And, you know, I suppose if you look at my history or you know anything about my history or you can read on Google who I was married to or what’s happened, you know, it might appear that way. But it’s completely misunderstood. People think they know about me and my past and my relationships and they don’t. There are very few people that can say they really, really know me and I can say, ‘Yes, you really, really know me.’ Very few people. Very few.”

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