If you’re a fan of Idris Elba’s no-nonsense alpha male characters like Stringer Bell (The Wire) and DCI Luther (Luther), it’s safe to assume you’ll only love him more as badass Marshal Stacker Pentecost in the sci-fi blockbuster Pacific Rim (out tomorrow) about giant robots (led by Pentecost) fighting giant monsters—the plot is simple; the action, far from it.
We spoke to Elba (and his British accent—swoon) to find out more about his disciplined characters, why he hated sporting a bowl haircut for the movie, and why playing Nelson Mandela is a massive achievement for him.
ESSENCE.com: Let’s talk about how your character Stacker Pentecost is no-nonsense like so many of your characters. Is that who you are as a person?
IDRIS ELBA: Me? No, I’m not as disciplined a person. I wish I could be. I think in this particular film [director] Guillermo Del Toro wanted to have a character that was very much in the center that’s more like, ‘Look, I’m the last man standing. All questions come to me.’ I was surprised that he called me because I’m really not like that in real life. It was a great challenge to pull that off or at least attempt to.
ESSENCE.com: I felt like I was with DCI Luther or Stringer Bell. I know you don’t like to talk about race, but I just love your characters are always strong Black men on screen.
ELBA: It’s not that I don’t like to talk about race, but I don’t understand why we have to talk about race when we’re talking about actors. Actors are actors. We don’t talk about race when its white actors but we do when it’s a Black actor. I don’t mind talking about race; I just don’t want us as people to get categorized. You’re not a Black journalist, just a journalist.
ESSENCE.com: I read you didn’t love the haircut you wore as Stacker. And I have to say that moustache was particularly exciting.
ELBA: You did not love that haircut. Here’s the thing: I didn’t mind the haircut for the film. It looks good but I had to walk around Toronto for five months like that. With no fade. I had people grabbing me on the streets.
ESSENCE.com: You’ve made a few sci-fi films recently. Is it a conscious effort to move into the sci-fi space?
ELBA: I don’t think I am moving into the space. Prometheus and Pacific Rim are in that space, but that was only because I wanted to work with Ridley Scott and Guillermo. I think that it’s cool to have a diverse palate of work. So to go from something like Luther to Prometheus for me is exciting in a career. It’s less exciting to play the same roles over and over again.
ESSENCE.com: You’ve said you felt like this film was a big moment in your career.
ELBA: A lot of sci-fi and fantasy films are coming from a reboot or sequel. Nothing’s really original so for me to be on a film like this, which is completely original, is an honor. It feels like a massive achievement for me. I did this film about a year ago and then I went off to do Mandela. You couldn’t have asked for two different roles or scenarios. That was the achievement.
ESSENCE.com: I imagine that film is also a tremendous moment for you.
ELBA: I’m very proud of it and having become a part of his life forever. He’s very much a part of my life, and our lives. The film is based on his words and his story. We as filmmakers choose which parts make a more dramatic arc for a film, but ultimately, we made the man’s story. And so, it’s a very big and proud moment for me.
ESSENCE.com: Have you met Nelson Mandela?
ELBA: No, I didn’t meet with Mandela personally. I met with Winnie [Mandela] and Zindzi and the family. They had chosen who was to play their father. So before anyone has even seen the film, my sense of achievement is high.
ESSENCE.com: You took up boxing while making the film. Have you kept it up?
ELBA: I used to kickbox for a long time. I had to stop when I started acting for obvious reasons, but I had to get back into it when I did Mandela. So now I’m back to kickboxing a little bit more.
Pacific Rim opens in theaters tomorrow, July 12.