Idris Elba stars in "Luther." (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
In the opening scene of "Luther," the new British crime show, Det. John Luther is chasing a suspect into an abandoned multi-story building. As the suspect slips and hangs by his fingers over the building's edge begging for help, Luther extracts the location of his latest victim. But will he pull him to safety or just let him fall?
The six-part series, which debuted earlier this month on BBC America, seemingly treads a familiar path. Luther is a brilliant but troubled detective haunted by personal demons, driven to unorthodox even vigilante style justice. But what makes this British entry into the cop-gone-rogue genre so compelling is the central performance of Idris Elba as Luther, whom American audiences first discovered as the centrifugal drug lord Russell "Stringer" Bell in "The Wire."
"I like this character because he is completely unapologetic. He has no problem going after the bad guys with all his might and his brawn," says the British born actor. The murderer's identity is known from the start of each episode and it's up to Luther to dissect the puzzle. Elba agrees that some of the crimes portrayed are pretty grisly, such as the serial killer who first drains the blood from his victims and a cop killer urged on by an abusive father. "It can't be run-of-the-mill crimes. You need to elevate the shock value so Luther's approach is warranted," says Elba.
The series, created and written by suspense novelist Neil Cross, is not merely a "how to catch 'em" Colombo-style procedural but also a study in complicated relationships in which friends become foes and a killer becomes an ally. "I think what's refreshing about Luther is watching these characters slightly magnified from real life but steeped in emotion and tragedy," says Elba.
"We wanted someone pretty special to play Luther," says Cross. "Idris invested the role with whole new levels of complexity — channels of rage, tenderness and vulnerability — and made it utterly his own."
In person Elba cuts an imposing presence as he strides through the lobby of a West Hollywood hotel looking for an outside perch for an interview and a smoke (although he doesn't immediately light up because he feels it would be impolite). He is far more laid back than his screen persona and exhibits an easy relaxed charm. "I do miss being able to go to the pub after a long day and have a pint and chat," he says. "It's better than any fancy soiree you can go to here."
Americans are frequently surprised by his strong East London accent, he notes. "I get that 'Whoa, you're English!' " he says, laughing. "It throws them for a while but I think people are getting used to it, especially now they are seeing me in different roles."
He attributes his acting ambitions to "single child syndrome," which brought him from a working-class immigrant home in Hackney, London (his father is from Sierra Leone and his mother is from Ghana) stateside 12 years ago. "By the time I was in my 20s I was getting plenty of TV work. I wasn't famous but I was recognizable. Everyone thought I was crazy to move here, but I could see the glass ceiling for me in England and I wanted more," he says.
But it was four years of unemployment before landing the plum role of Stringer Bell in "The Wire." "In that time I was absorbing the culture, learning the accent and really understanding how to bring these kinds of characters to life so when I got Stringer I was so ready," he says. "It was like, give me a chance to rip this apart."
"Luther" has been a homecoming for the 38-year-old actor. "I was long forgotten in England," he says. "People had seen 'The Wire,' but many didn't realize that I was actually British. I'm so grateful that I am not hearing cries of Stringer Bell anymore on the streets of London. I'm hearing Luther."
With "Luther," BBC America is ramping up its presence. "We want to be known for edgy drama," says Perry Simon, the newly appointed general manager, channels, BBC Worldwide America. "And the fact that we have a lead actor familiar to American audiences makes 'Luther' a great focus for us."
American audiences recently glimpsed the lighter side of Elba when he played the no-nonsense boss Charles Miner to Steve Carell's Michael Scott in "The Office" (a role he may reprise later in the season.) He also became the hot romantic figure in the life of Laura Linney's cancer-stricken character Cathy in Showtime's "The Big C," playing a seductive maintenance man at the school where she teaches.
"We had a great time working together and I so appreciated Idris' easy manner and sense of humor," says Linney, speaking from New York. "He was always relaxed and generous and I loved acting with him."
Elba, who is returning to London to film a second season of "Luther," is also preparing to take on a movie role as forensic psychologist Alex Cross in a reboot of James Paterson's bestselling thrillers. The role was originally played by Morgan Freeman in "Along Came the Spider" and "Kiss the Girls."
"To play that character would be amazing," he says, finally reaching for his cigarettes. "I'm still trying to get my head around it."