At 40, Elba is one of the most sought-after and respected actors on either side of the Atlantic. And this week, BBC America has four nights of “Luther” that showcase his remarkable emotional range and dramatic power to an extent not seen even on HBO’s “The Wire.”
Elba returns for this very short third season of four episodes airing Tuesday through Friday. And while the story arc of the season leaves something to be desired in terms of narrative continuity, Elba’s performance as the embattled London police detective in the well-worn overcoat is stunning.
The London-born performer of parents from Ghana and Sierra Leone says he will always be grateful for his role as a Baltimore drug consigliere in “The Wire” because it put him “on the map” with viewers and industry executives. And he felt honored, challenged and inspired to play the anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African president in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” which will arrive in theaters in November. And, yes, he’s flattered by talk of him becoming Daniel Craig’s successor in the James Bond franchise.
But if forced to choose between starring in the next Bond flick or doing more “Luther,” it’s no contest: He’s sticking with the troubled Brit detective.
“I would definitely choose Luther or a role like it that I helped create,” Elba said last week. “There’s a lot more longevity in that for me. And, obviously, there’s the creative import that I’m really excited to offer into the next stage of my career as an actor. You know, writing, directing and actually creating the character that I will play is definitely the way forward for me.”
Even at the expense of roles like the one he plays in the eagerly anticipated film of Mandela, which is generating Oscar buzz for him in publications like The Guardian?
“For me, it’s a piece of history told by a film, and, honestly, as far as my performance, I’m just a vessel,” he said, selecting his words carefully. “I don’t know how to say it without sounding corny. But, you know, it’s a great massive opportunity and a great massive responsibility to play Mr. Mandela. But, you know, I didn’t write that. None of us wrote that. That’s the truth. What happened is the truth. So, for me, I'm just sort of like a tool in a tool box to make that story come out, to be honest.”
But it’s nice to have choices like that now, he added during a telephone news conference. And it’s nice to be working with partners like Neil Cross, the creator of “Luther,” who rewarded Elba’s creative input into the character with a producer’s credit. Cross is at work on a feature-film prequel to “Luther.”
The choices were not always so great for Elba.
Growing up in the working-class borough of Hackney where he got his start in show business by performing in nightclubs as a teenage DJ and hip-hop artist, Elba put in a decade of small parts in British sitcoms, soap operas and police procedurals before breaking through on “The Wire.” The pre-”Wire” parts ranged from a gigolo on “Absolutely Fabulous” to a lot of criminals and sidekick cops.
And then, in 2002, came his portrayal of Russell “Stringer” Bell, the cerebral No. 2 man in Baltimore drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s organization. Bell, who was created by David Simon, achieved such breakout status that the morning after he was gunned down in Season 3 of “The Wire,” The New York Times carried a feature story on the death of this fictional character who took classes at Baltimore City Community College and used Robert’s Rules of Order to run meetings of drug dealers.
“Well, yeah, ‘The Wire’ was really the opening of my career in America, so it’s very, very significant to me,” he said. “It completely put me on the map. It was some of my best work as a young actor. Doing that show for three years, I really got to sort of build a character slowly and home in on him.”
While spending several months during the filming of each TV season in Baltimore, he says, he also got to know the city.
“We entered the fabric of Baltimore,” he added. “We didn’t use Baltimore as a stage. We actually shot in and on the streets, and in and with the people. And so it definitely became a place I was attracted and attached to.”
Emmy Award-winning casting director Pat Moran remembers Elba from those days.
“I worked ‘The Wire’ with him, and I couldn’t believe how good he was as Stringer Bell,” she said. “And this went on for several episodes. And then, I walk past him one day on set and I hear this thick British accent. And I’m looking around, and it’s him.”
At first, Moran said, she thought he was “putting on” the accent.
“But he isn’t,” she added. “It’s him. He’s a Brit. And I didn’t know it. I make my living with my ears, and I didn’t even know. The fact that this man could come from another country with an accent that thick and assimilate the … politics of ‘The Wire’ was just remarkable to me. He’s one of the best actors in the game today — movies or TV.”
Elba has the same sort of rugged sexuality that Richard Burton had, as well as the kind of onstage power and presence of James Earl Jones.
“But he also has the charm and the appeal of a Clark Gable,” according to Moran. And she’s right. Check out his scenes this week with new love interest Mary Day (Sienna Guillory) and the ever-fascinating Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson).
Burton, Jones and Gable are big names, but those are the kinds of comparisons Elba inspires.
There’s a scene in the third hour of “Luther” that will make believers out of anyone who doesn’t think Elba deserves being compared to such giants. The scene features Luther reacting to the death of a colleague from a shotgun blast to the chest.
In the space of three minutes, Luther goes through a range of emotions as he alternately kneels on the wet pavement next to the bloody corpse and staggers about in circles from the shock and horror of what he sees. Denial, anger, rage, guilt and finally, in a brilliant acting choice that communicates the absolute exhaustion of true grief, Luther lies down alongside the body and appears to fall asleep as the camera looks down from an indifferent sky.
“What we wanted to do was get to know Luther a little better and figure out what he would do under pressure. We wanted to understand the legacy of everything he has to live with,” Elba said.
“At the end, when we say the last words, ‘Now what?’ we wanted the audience to also say ‘Now what?’ as well,” he explained. “We want them to literally look at Luther and say, ‘I don’t know where you can go from here, pal.’ ”
While the character might not know where he’s headed at the end of Season 3, the man who won a Golden Globe as best dramatic actor for playing him seems to have reached the age at which he knows who and what he is as an artist.
Elba says he has enjoyed working in the superhero and sci-fi genres with such films as “Thor” and “Pacific Rim,” respectively, but his passion is for roles like Luther. And even though it’s only British TV rather than a big-budget Hollywood film, following his bliss has been a good career move.
“At one stage of my career, and I think this goes for most actors, you want to get that Hollywood status and be up there with the greats, you know, the Premier League of acting, so to speak,” he said, referencing the top English football league.
“But from my perspective, it’s the work,” he added. “I turned down a couple of films that would take me toward Hollywood to do ‘Luther.’ And then, ultimately, ‘Luther’ sort of being a lateral step, if you like, ended up taking me further toward Hollywood.”
Elba says he chose the best roles rather than the biggest films.
“I chose the character I could sink my teeth into that would be very different from something I did before,” he said.
“So, as much as it’s nice to step into that massive world of Hollywood and be a big, famous actor, I think actually I prefer the careers of actors who have chosen smartly and done really amazing performances. And, maybe, they’re not as known or big Hollywood box office, but I think their careers are a bit more interesting, you know?”
“Luther” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday and 10 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday on BBC America.