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David Simon on Idris Elba and the last days of Stringer Bell

Sun media critic David Zurawik emailed “Wire” creator David Simon seeking an assessment from him of Idris Elba for a feature story on Elba. Simon’s generous and thoughtful email reply seemed too good not to publish on its own.

Here’s what Simon has to say about the actor who helped him bring Stringer Bell to life — and then death:

“From the very first episodes, Idris demonstrated the abilities and dynamics of being a breakout star. It was all there in the first dailies, actually. The first scene we saw was his confrontation in the pilot episode when D'Angelo reports to the towers only to have Stringer demote him to The Pit. The presence, the fluidity of the performance — the authority of the character. It was all there in those first lines.

“The writers would often joke that in an extremely strong cast of actors, Idris was the future film star trapped within an ensemble drama. Maybe not in ‘The Wire,’ but in whatever followed, he was about to become a male lead, if not a full-blown feature career.

“It was a delight working with him. He never threw his weight around, or let his notices go to his head. He was generous with all of the other actors, including the day players. He was utterly professional and always prepared. I remember that he never gave us his Hackney accent until after his audition, so that my initial assumption is that he was a New York actor like all the others we were hiring. I never had cause to worry about his accent thereafter. And he doesn't get enough credit for his comic timing; check out his frustration in the Robert's-Rules scene in the funeral parlor, if you don't believe me. The funny line goes to Tray, but Idris is feeding him beautifully. Just as Idris makes the comedy of the elastic-inelastic dissertation in the copying shop work as comedy.

“We knew that the character was set to die at the end of season three as all reform had to die at the end of that season. As with other deaths of characters, it was never a function of any internal discipline or displeasure with the actor. We knew we were killing off an extremely engaging, well conceived character who was delivering for the show magnificently. But story required it.

“Normally, television producers don't like to let actors know they are going to die until the relevant script is published. Why? Because unlike a feature film, where everything is known in advance and where the performance can be contemplated in total, actors in a continuing series need to modulate their performance over the long term and over many hours, depicting months and weeks of time. An old Irish proverb says that God used to tell men the day of their deaths until he realized that men, in their new knowledge, were letting the fields go unplowed and the animals untended, and they were spending too many days ruminating and drinking.  So it is with long-form television. Actors are trained professionals, but foreknowledge of an untimely death can make every line of dialogue fraught and every gesture more than meaningful. It is dangerous business taking a portrayal out of the here and now.

“The script that had Stringer's death was published and distributed midway through the filming of the previous episode, and on a day when Idris was scheduled to film scenes, his copy was waiting on set. I planned to be there to cushion the moment and tell him, truthfully, that we would never miss an actor more on this show. As it turned out, the script made its way to him before his call time so that he read it cold. I owe him for that lonely moment, and for the amazing scenes he played in that episode, on the rooftop with Avon and later, in the final moments with Omar and Mouzone.

“At the time, he was upset to be losing the work, but I remember telling him, Idris, you of all people have to know what is about to happen. No, he said, what? You're on a drama out of Baltimore that no one is actually watching, except for everyone in this industry. They're watching your work and they're going to see this coming episode and after Stringer Bell dies, you're going to have all the work you can handle. Not just in television, but in films as well.

“Idris shook his head, dubious:

“ ‘From your mouth to God's ear,’ he told me.

Of course, no divine intervention was required. All that was necessary was for the rest of the world to catch up to how good this actor actually is.”

(Read Zurawik's piece on Elba here.)

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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