Elba steps off 'Wire' into stardom

Idris Elba, a cast member in 'Takers,' arrives at last month's premiere of the film in Los Angeles.

WASHINGTON -- Idris Elba, who played a fictional Baltimore drug lord so memorably on the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire," looks cool and virile, but winces at the mention of the s-word.

"Sexy?" he repeats, shifting in his chair and wrinkling his brow. "I'm a little sheepish about it. Whenever I meet fans and they're like, 'Oh, you're so sexy,' I just don't get that. There's no way one man can be universally sexy."

Had he said, "Yeah, I'm sexy!" even in that British accent of his, it wouldn't at all jibe with the image of the sensually serious man whose face these days is all over magazine covers and TV and movie screens.

Right now, Elba's career as an actor is hot. And that is something he is not only comfortable with, but eager to talk about. Elba, through the character of Russell "Stringer" Bell, seduced a loyal following that crossed race, class and gender lines. He also has been the most successful acting alumnus of the series, appearing in a number of movies, such as "American Gangster" with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and several episodes of the TV sitcom "The Office."

His latest project is "Takers," a heist flick starring the rapper T.I., Chris Brown and Matt Dillon. Once again, Elba plays a cerebral criminal, the head of a high-tech, high-class ring of thieves who rob banks for big bucks.

He is also on premium cable, in a recurring role in Showtime's new series "The Big C," starring Laura Linney. He will play a love interest of her character, a suburban homemaker who decides to let loose after learning she has terminal cancer. Last year, he was praised for his starring role in a new BBC cop drama, "Luther," which U.S. fans can see later this year on BBC America.

The recent news is that Elba has been cast as the new Dr. Alex Cross, hero of the James Patterson novels. The role had been played by Morgan Freeman.

Nelson George, a writer and filmmaker, said Elba's talent and work ethic have positioned him to take advantage of a generational shift change among big-name black male actors. "There's a spot for a quality, leading-man-looking black actor," said George. Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, the black men who dominated the screen since the 1980s, are aging out of certain types of roles. Elba is "a big enough guy that he can play action, and he's well-trained and versatile enough that he can also do comedy like he did on 'The Office,' " George said. "Idris is in a position to have that kind of career work for the next 15 to 20 years."

It also helps, George adds, that Elba has sex appeal.

One recent morning, after a screening of the new movie and a nightclub after-party, Elba's aura was a bit dim. Still, he was cordial and engaging in a hotel-suite chat, even though he'd been doing back-to-back media interviews all morning. This is part of the job, and he is serious about his work.

Elba, 37, was born in East London, the only child of working-class parents from Ghana and Sierra Leone. As a teenager, he joined London's National Youth Music Theatre and landed bit parts on British television. His father was displeased when Elba announced that he did not want to work with him in the Ford factory and struck out for America to pursue an acting career.

As a result of his success in Britain and the United States, Elba says, his parents are "very proud now, overly so."

"It's weird because my parents don't really understand my business," he says. "I get fan mail all day long, but if a piece happens to get to their house, they're like, 'Oh, my God, you've got a fan! You have to write them back.' "

As a teenager, Elba would accompany an uncle who was a popular DJ on the party circuit. In time, he took over the turntables and went into business for himself. When he moved to the United States in his late 20s, he would support himself between acting gigs by DJ-ing at clubs in New York and Philadelphia. He still DJs, but mostly because he enjoys it, not to pay the bills. He also dabbles in music, singing, rapping and mixing, a characteristic he says he shares with Gordon Cozier, the gangster he plays in "Takers."

"Gordon is a career criminal, he's done it for a long time and he's obviously assessed the risk. I would do the same," he said. "If I was gonna go to jail, I don't want to go to jail for stealing a bottle of water. I'll steal that $20 million. At least then it was worth it."

He added: "I'm an ambitious person. I never consider myself in competition with anyone, and I'm not saying that from an arrogant standpoint, it's just that my journey started so, so long ago, and I'm still on it and I won't stand still. We have, on average, 80 years of our lives to live -- 80 years! Why not go to my grave saying, 'I did this human experience!' "

Stringer Bell, the popular character on "The Wire," was similarly ambitious. But he was also vicious, charismatic, smart and so silky that he seduced the girlfriend of a man on whom he'd ordered a hit. How was Elba able to portray such a complex character so well?

"I can only attribute that to the writing," he says. ... "I guess being menacing is a thing we all have in us, you know."

Elba said he thought Stringer deserved to die and, professionally, he thought it was time for him to move on. "I couldn't play that character forever and if I'd played it any longer, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now." "Interestingly enough, it was the pinnacle of my popularity as that character, and as I left, I got offered lots of work to do other things."

And so he takes advantage of every opportunity that comes his way and says he enjoys the variety of roles that he's played. His favorites, so far, he says, have been Capt. Augustin Muganza, a central character in "Sometimes in April," an HBO film about the Rwandan genocide, and the lead character in the upcoming independent film "Legacy." He is particularly excited about that project because he also is executive producer. The story, written by Nigerian British filmmaker Thomas Ikimi, is about a soldier who appears to be going mad after he returns from a failed covert mission. Most of the movie takes place inside a room with a solitary Elba, sweaty and wild-eyed, acting out his mental meltdown.

"I like roles ... that give an opportunity to delve into hidden emotions, different thought patterns."

Although he seems to be everywhere these days, one place he doesn't show up often is the tabloids. "That's by design," says Elba, who is divorced and has an 8-year-old daughter.

He says that he is not in a steady relationship and as for marriage, "Been there, done that, and I don't think I'll be doing that again."