Luther alum Idris Elba is featured in the August 2017 issue of Esquire.
The rumor that Elba is in line to play James Bond has endured for years. In 2014, in one of the thousands of emails made public when Sony Pictures was hacked, then-studio cochair Amy Pascal told a colleague, “Idris should be the next Bond.” Steven Spielberg said in an interview that Elba would be his “first choice” to fill Daniel Craig’s tux. Elba has long maintained that the conversation is moot; no one, so far as he knows, is seriously considering him for the role.
Almost immediately, Elba is the one doing the interviewing. “I think my life is pretty well documented,” he tells me. “If you look me up, you’re gonna find some shit.” He rests his hands on the table, fingertips pressed together professorially; his eyes are locked on mine. “And that must be—not disheartening but discouraging for a journalist.”
A seven-episode role on NBC’s The Office, in 2009, proved a turning point. Elba played the calculating nemesis of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. His comedic turn brought him to the attention of Sorkin and others, which led to offers on a wider range of projects. He landed the lead on Luther, which became a smash hit in the UK, and costarred in a series of Hollywood action flicks, including Prometheus and Pacific Rim. In 2013, he played the title character in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination.
Though Winston was pleased that his son had found work doing what he loved, he was never much impressed by Elba’s turns in Luther and the others. But the day Elba told his dad he’d be playing Nelson Mandela, Winston wept. “I cannot believe my son has been asked to play that great man,” Elba recalls his father saying.
After Elba showed him the film, in 2013, Winston said that his son’s depiction of Mandela reminded him of his own father, Moses. “It’s funny you say that,” Elba told his father, “because I was trying to be you.” As he tells me about this moment, Elba quietly lowers his head for a few seconds, then looks up and smiles. “I’m glad my dad got to see that.”
Winston, who was a smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer that year. At the time, Elba was dating Naiyana Garth, who, like his ex-wife, was a makeup artist. On Elba’s birthday, seven days before his father died, he and Garth visited Winston to tell him they were expecting. “If it’s a boy,” he replied, “you must call him Winston.” Seven months after Elba buried his father, Garth gave birth to their son, now three, and they did just that.
“He was seventy-two. Too young,” Elba says. “He had so much life in him. My old man wanted to do so much more. He just didn’t get a chance.”
Experiencing his father’s death, Elba says, contributed to the onset of a midlife crisis. “I got to a place where I wasn’t even living anymore. I was becoming a robot with my work. I have no fear of jumping out of burning cars or out of buildings on set, but in reality, I couldn’t run one hundred meters. I just felt out of touch with reality,” he says. His friends teased him affectionately, calling him Moprah—as in Male Oprah. To heal, he thought about another piece of advice his father gave him: “Fear nothing. Do what you want to do, but be educated and intelligent and confident about it.”
Photography: Victor Demarchelier