At age 39, British thespian Idris Elba is steadily emerging as the heir apparent to Denzel Washington, stepping out from the villainous shadow he cast as drug lord Stringer Bell on HBO's "The Wire" to make heroic stands in genre flicks like "Thor" and "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance."
We're not sure where his allegiances lie as the mercenary captain of the titular starship in "Prometheus," director Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi and the "Alien" universe; but we know it'll be another notch on Elba's cinematic belt.
We sat down in New York with Elba to discuss "Prometheus," his role in Guillermo del Toro's big-budget monster mash "Pacific Rim" and his return to the hallowed halls of Asgard in "Thor 2."
Making a comparison to "Alien," your character Captain Janek seems like a cross between the blue-collar surliness of Yaphet Kotto and the authoritativeness of Tom Skerritt. Did you look to your doomed predecessors for inspiration?
Naw. I started to watch one then said, "No." I got thrown by it, because the film isn't that. I didn't want to redo that. That's a great observation for you in terms of a comparison between the two, that's right, but my character's functionality in the film is to represent a working man. Yes, we're going to space, but so what? Usually I take monkeys, today I'm taking scientists, so what?
You've got your Christmas tree, your cigars, your bomber jacket. You're like an old sea dog.
That's right, which is what Ridley wanted me to be, very matter-of-fact, this is who I am. But by the end of the film my character has to make a really big decision that questions everything you've seen ... he has to go one or the other.
That's represented by the Shaw character and the Vickers character. Science versus pragmatism?
That's right, exactly. There's a twist that I think will surprise. It's a commentary on humanity and who we've become -- from where we've started, if you think of the story of Prometheus and who we are now.
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And where did the good ol' boy accent come from?
[laughs] Good ol' boy! I guess it was just a choice based on some of the history, looking at who would choose this type of profession. It wasn't boys from Chicago who could play the piano. These guys were working seamen, lived by the shore, didn't have much going on in their lives. I brought the Southern thing into it, nothing specific, but, good ol' boy! [laughs]
It was thick! You could cut that accent with a knife.
I know, I know. I hope it works.
But that was your choice?
That was my choice, yeah.
You worked with Ridley Scott before on "American Gangster." How does the otherworldly weirdness of "Prometheus" affect Scott's direction, compared to how he handled the grounded '70s atmosphere of that movie?
With the advent of new technology, Ridley is like an old boy who's got his hands on some new toys. It's kinda like Rick Rubin making a hip-hop beat on Fruity Loops. It's kinda like, "Wow, I can do this with short cuts." He shot it in real 3-D. 3-D conversions are what they are, but when Ridley Scott says he's gonna do 3-D, you're looking at an opportunity to see a new way of doing it. He threw his full imagination into this picture.
He studied at the Royal College of Art, he knows how to handle perspective and depth. He comes at it with a painter's eye.
That's right. One thing I learned from him is, I'm looking at you now, and then I'm looking at your hair, and I'm looking slightly behind your hair, at the pole behind your hair, then the shadowing on the pole behind your hair, then I'm looking at the two people behind you and how they're sitting. That's what Ridley does, this picture of you and me talking right now is painted to that very last wall. When you consider that he's taking on this epic storyline in a new environment ... you know the big head you see on the poster? It's real, made to scale on a stage. We didn't see it until we were filming it. Action, reveal, "Oh f**k me!" It was like seeing a pyramid for the first time.
You went from piloting a giant futuristic spaceship in this to piloting a giant futuristic mech for "Pacific Rim." You just wrapped that, right?
Yeah, I wrapped that about six weeks ago.
Knowing Guillermo del Toro's near-pornographic monster lust, did that experience meet or exceed your expectations?
Exceed. His detail ... he is a student of Ridley, if you like. I'm sure he loves Ridley Scott, but he came after, and he grew up with all the new, fresh tools. He knows how to make fake robots look real, and blood look great. His layer cakes are so detailed that it's incredible. Guillermo is an amazing communicator of his ideas. Every shot in his head has already been played. He has these amazing sketchbooks and he draws every single shot in them. There will be Film Class 101 studying Guillermo's books from "Pac Rim."
Can you give us a taste of the tech that will be populating the world? Is it Jules Verne whimsical, or more "Star Wars" and anime inspired?
More "Star Wars," anime. The robots are quite incredible, powerful. The robots will distort the screen because of their power. The aliens, they're called kaiju in the film, they are what they are. They're so huge you may see a limb roll through frame with all its beautiful detail, and that's big enough to be like, "F**k me! This is how big this thing is!" But the robots will distort, you'll feel the heat coming off these things. F**king incredible. The robots are man-driven, and the inside of the robot's head is where you will see human beings running these machines. We made that, actually made that in detail.
You weren't in "Avengers," but how does it feel to see your fellow Asgardians kicking ass at the box office?
First of all, I haven't seen it. I'm probably one of the only people in the world who hasn't seen it, but I heard it was dope. I know a little bit about the new "Thor 2" now coming up. For people that loved "Thor" and what was going on in Asgard, the history of Thor and the family, they will love "Thor 2." It's gonna be deeper.
Heimdall remains ever watchful?
Yeah, but you get to know him a little more.