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THE SUNDAY CONVERSATION

Not wired to one role

October 12, 2008|Choire Sicha | Special to The Times

IDRIS ELBA plays the small-time crook Mumbles in Guy Ritchie's new film "RocknRolla," which opened Wednesday. ("I'm very proud of it -- not to plug it shamelessly," he says.) The British-born actor has also appeared in "American Gangster" and "28 Weeks Later," and he portrayed Russell "Stringer" Bell on HBO's "The Wire." We caught up with him while he was on set for the upcoming heist film "Bone Deep."

The team heist movie is the new thing.

It's been re-energized, that genre. The "Wild Bunch"-type thing -- and "RocknRolla." I think that's interesting. Everything goes around the block once or twice in Hollywood.

And you're there with T.I.?

Yeah, T.I.'s in this film. Matt Dillon, Hayden Christensen, Michael Ealy, Chris Brown and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who is a phenomenal actress.

She came to the U.S. shortly after you, right?

I think, yeah, I think so. I got here -- well, I've been coming to the U.S. since 1989, and I moved here in 1999.

Did you ever cross paths in Britain?

No, not at all! Though I used to work as a doorman in New York, at Caroline's Comedy Club. I was on my lunch in Times Square, I was walking around Virgin Megastore, and this person said, "Are you Idris Elba?" And I said, "Yeah, and you're Marianne Jean-Baptiste!" She said, "You're a fantastic actor, what are you doing now?" I said, "Um, I'm being a doorman right now." She said, "Oh! Well, you know, everyone has their up days and down days, you'll be back up." I didn't see her forever -- then we're both on TV.

That's hilarious. And before this, you finished shooting "Obsessed"?

Yeah, I shot that in the summer this year. That was a pretty exciting film, it was pretty good. One of my bigger leading roles. I worked with Beyonce Knowles and Ali Larter. It's this three-hander thriller.

Do you ever look at what they say about you on the Internet?

No. Never.

Bossip.com recently called you "the epitome of sexual chocolate."

Wow. Uh, that's a compliment!

You put out an EP a couple of years ago, you DJ, you write songs. Do you have bigger plans?

Yeah, I'm working in the studio now. Next year I'm gonna put a single out. In the next six months, I'll release music, start gearing up. It's very tough to do music when you're an actor -- some have been successful at it, some have failed. I'm not a fan of actors doing music because they want to make more money. I'm a musician as well as an actor! And I want to respect the struggle, the road taken. . . . I want to take my time.

How did you end up living part-time in Atlanta?

You know, it's really nice, it's quiet, it's away from the land of Hollywood. I have family there.

You're not accumulating too many houses, are you?

No, no! Now wouldn't be the time to do that. Definitely not the time.

I worry about people and their money now.

Yeah! I think I'm concerned more now with young people getting the opportunity to vote. I'm a permanent resident, not a citizen, so I can't vote. But I'm encouraging you people to vote.

Are you ever going to become a citizen?

I dunno, actually! I really don't know. I'm British, I go home, I have family there. Know what I mean? I love where I live -- I've been a part of American culture a long time. But I'm also so attached to my roots.

We always talk about the flood of British actors. We got the good end of the deal.

Yeah, yeah. English actors have been gracing the silver screens for eons. It's interesting, in England, a majority of the better television was American TV. So my home would always have "L.A. Law," if not "CHiPS," if not "The Rockford Files," if not "Dukes of Hazzard." All these shows we grew up on. I had no clue -- "Dukes of Hazzard," what's that about? Confederate flag, running around, who knew?

OK, how much do you miss "The Wire"?

I had a great time when I was on the show. I miss the fact that it's not on TV anymore, because it's a people's-choice type show. But I had a great run. I had a great character. . . . For a long time I kept saying I don't want to talk about "The Wire." I think people were getting the wrong message about why I didn't. They thought I was fed up with the people at HBO. But to move on to a different character, you want to be seen as you, as opposed to Stringer Bell. That's very tough to do. Anyone who's had a long stint in television finds it very hard to shake off your character -- for a long time, the transition from TV to film actor was almost impossible, laughable.

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