Sitting in a Soho hotel suite, dressed in an army-green Tshirt, white trainers and light trousers, Idris Elba is looking calm and collected. Which is impressive, as the British actor famed for The Wire and Luther is facing what he calls “judgment day”. Yardie, his first film as director, is about to get its UK release. “I’ve never been afraid of judgment,” he says. “But I do worry about giving away my baby.”
He knows that the buck stops with him. “You can be in a s**t film and be good but you can’t be a director and make a s**t film. It all falls on your shoulders. That feels like the pressure cooker.” He’s already been through it once this year with the 1980s-set In The Long Run, a Sky sitcom he created based on his own upbringing in east London (he even played a character inspired by his father).
Now it’s the turn of Yardie, a vivid adaptation of the cult novel by Victor Headley about a young Jamaican wannabe gangster Dennis (Aml Ameen) who comes to east London in the early 1980s. When Elba came across the book, it made an impact. “I don’t like reading books very often and this is one I read cover to cover and was like ‘Wow!’ It was a descriptive, very violent, very visceral novel about a person that I don’t know but could’ve known.”
Elba says he related to its descriptions of parties, cars and clothes. The film also explores the “sound clash” culture, with rival crew members pit their sound systems and DJ skills against each other. “By the time I was 16, 17…that was us,” Elba reminisces. “That was me, Boogie, Dalton and Thomas. We used to have this little house. We had the sound systems in there. Get the new equipment, get the records, come and play them… that was my experience growing up.”
Yet Yardieis no mere nostalgia trip. In Jamaica, as a boy, Dennis —or “D” as he is known — witnesses the fatal shooting of the older brother he lionises and it sets him on a path of vengeance. Even if not everyone faces such extremes, coming-of-age is about making choices, says Elba, especially for young boys. “It’s like, ‘You coming with us or you going with them? What side you gonna be on? You Arsenal or you Man U?’ Do I have to decide? And you do.”
With a mother from Ghana and a father from Sierra Leone, Elba’s childhood wasn’t traumatic, like D’s (he chose Arsenal, incidentally, which may explain why the Arsenal Fan TV presenter Robbie Lyle is milling about outside waiting to interview him). But D’s resentment and anger over his sibling’s fall “was the part that was the most relatable to me,” he says. “That was the part that I amplified. That was the part that resonated with me.”
He then starts to talk about his father Winston, who worked at the Ford Dagenham plant. “My Dad died much, much later on in my life (in 2013). But I remember death being… bonkers. It threw me for a spin. My Dad died of cancer. F*** cancer. What do I do about it? Do I do anything about it? Do I sit on this side or do I sit on that side?” The script for Yardie came across his desk shortly after his father passed away. “So I could relate to D but not in the way that you would expect.”
Beyond Elba’s own personal connections to Yardie, it arrives at a time when knife crime in London is a constant in the headlines. Elba wants to quell the hysteria, arguing that the film shows such violent altercations aren’t anything new. “I think it might give some perspective to how long this country, this metropolis, has seen this type of violence. And what we’ve done about it in the past. That’s an interesting journey for a piece of entertainment to take.”
Does he have any idea of what can be done about violent knife crime among the young? “Far be it from me to know the answer to that. But I think we have to tackle it head on.” Rather than a stream of news reports on the subject, Elba calls for “constant messaging” to keep people vigilant about it. “We all know how to spread a rumour. We all know how to get into a frenzy about something silly on social media. Let’s do the same about knife crime. Let’s keep that going.”
Elba certainly knows a thing or two about social media frenzies. Last week he tweeted “My name’s Elba, Idris Elba”, sending the Twitter-verse into meltdown —that after years of speculation, Elba will become the first black James Bond when Daniel Craig hangs up his tux. As I begin quizzing him on the subject, a massive cardboard- backed poster for Yardie, leaning against the open window, blows right over. It’s as if 007 mogul Barbara Broccoli (who reportedly said “the door is open” for a black Bond) arranged it as a distraction.
After we pick the poster up together, I ask what this teasing tweet was all about. “In this world, we should have a laugh,” says Elba. “It’s about perspective. For me, of course I know that I’m geeing people up. But why not? We’re having a laugh.” It’s about all he’ll say, or can say, although he later replied a straight “No” to a Good Morning Britain reporter when she asked if he was the next 007. In the past he’s said he’s too old for the role (he’s now 45), although that hardly stopped Roger Moore.
For the moment, he’s got a plum part in Hobbs and Shaw to contend with. It puts him alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham, reprising their roles from The Fast and the Furious movies for a spin-off that starts shooting in September. “The Rock is an incredible performer; he’s done really well in his field and in the type of films he makes,” says Elba. “And so has Jason Statham. And I’m very privileged to be a part of that. I’ve not done their level of work in that sense.”
This may be true but Elba is hardly a newbie when it comes to massive- scale movies, having starred in Prometheus, Thor, Pacific Rim and Star Trek: Beyond. “There’s an audience for them,” he reasons. He even wants to step it up when he next goes behind the camera, with plans to retell the Hunchback of Notre Dame story. “There are some really interesting parallels that I want to bring to light,” he says. Like what? “Just the way people look at disability. It’s been in my mind for a long time.”
And he’ll always have Yardieas his first directorial outing. Elba, who has been married twice and also has two children, even got engaged to his American girlfriend Sabrina Dhowre at a screening at Hackney’s Rio cinema earlier this year. “The Rio was where I decided to be an actor when I was 10. My Mum used to let me go there,” he smiles. “This was a cast and crew screening —people I loved, people that knew my partner and I — and it felt very appropriate. I really didn’t expect it to go bonkers wild as a piece of news.” He should know by now that news about him travels fast.