Idris Elba has back-to-back movies opening this month: “Beast,” on Aug. 19, and “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” on Aug. 26.
In “Beast,” Elba plays a widower with two teenage daughters who has to do battle with a rogue lion during a family vacation in South Africa. Sounds a bit Liam Neeson-ish, doesn’t it?
In “Three Thousand Years,” Elba plays a genie in modern-day Istanbul who grants Tilda Swinton’s character three wishes. Sounds like . . . not anything else, does it? The fact that the director is George Miller (the “Mad Max” movies) makes things even more unusual.
Those contrasting roles, and films, are a reminder of what a varied and extensive career Elba has had since making his debut, in an episode of a BBC sitcom, “2point4 Children,” in 1994. Baltimore drug dealer, British police detective, Norse god, even, ahem, a role in “Cats”: They all have one thing in common, Elba, Idris Elba.
Speaking of whom . . .
You could argue that Elba’s most famous role is one he hasn’t played — yet. Since 2014, he’s been talked about as the successor to Daniel Craig as James Bond. The physicality, the sexiness, the star power, the British accent, the suavity (the man looks great in a tux): Elba would be a natural. He also turns 50 next month, which means it’s unlikely to happen. Add Elba as 007 to the list of Great Hollywood Might-Have-Beens.
Odd as it is that a very active movie star’s most famous role is one he’s not played, it may be even odder that that same very active movie star’s most famous role came almost 20 years ago and was in a television series. Elba played the drug dealer Stringer Bell on the first three seasons of “The Wire.” Elba wasn’t even the star, but it’s a tribute to what an indelible impression he made in that landmark series that he remains so associated with it.
An amusing example of that association comes in, of all places, the Pixar animated feature “Finding Dory” (2016). Who should voice the two sea lions, Fluke and Rudder, but Elba and another Britisher who went full-Baltimore in “The Wire,” Dominic West.
It also seems odd that so physical a star should have done as much voice work as Elba has, but why put that magnificent baritone to waste? Also in 2016 he was heard in “Zootopia” and “The Jungle Book.” That one was a particularly nice bit of casting, with Elba as the tiger Shere Khan. Earlier this year, he voiced Knuckles, in “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.″ A couple of video games feature his voice, too: “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3″ (2011) and “NBA2k20″ (2019). In the latter, his voice belongs to a coach. As if you’d ignore a play called from the bench by him.
It’s not just “The Wire” that Elba’s done on television. In his first decade of acting, nearly all of his credits were on TV. That includes guest shots on shows you might not expect: “Absolutely Fabulous” (1995), “Law & Order” (2001), and “CSI: Miami” (2003). Later there were seven episodes in the 2009 season of “The Office” and four in the 2010 season of “The Big C.”
Elba has had his own series, and highly successful, too, starring as the title character in five seasons of “Luther.” John Luther is a British police detective, investigating particularly nasty cases. The character “is carrying literally the evils of the world on his shoulders,” the film director Guillermo del Toro has said. “He’s doing penance for all humanity.” That’s a tough assignment, but Elba does have awfully big shoulders. A “Luther” feature film for Netflix, costarring Andy Serkis and Cynthia Erivo, is set for future release.
Outside of his television characters, the part that Elba has played most often is the Norse god/superhero Heimdall. He shows up in four Thor movies (”Thor,” 2011; “Thor: The Dark World,” 2013; “Thor: Ragnarok,” 2017, and, barely, in “Thor: Love and Thunder” 2022) and two Avengers outings (”Avengers: Age of Ultron,” 2015; and “Avengers: Infinity War,” 2018).
Let the record show that Elba is the rare actor who inhabits both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC one. He’s Bloodsport in “The Suicide Squad” (2021), not that that’s anything to brag about.
Superhero movies are one form of fantasy. Sci-fi is another. In “Prometheus” (2012), Elba is a spaceship captain. The aplomb with which both actors handle the scene where evil industrialist Charlize Theron hits on the captain makes it extremely funny. In “Star Trek Beyond” (2016), Elba plays Krall. Krall, a former Starfleet commander who’s mutated into an alien (these things happen), may be the best “Star Trek” movie villain since Ricardo Montalban’s title character in “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan” (1982).
Can you picture Elba on a horse? You get him on one in “Concrete Cowboy” (2020), playing a modern-day rider in Philadelphia, and as a mean, mean, mean villain in the Old West, in “The Harder They Fall” (2021).
It’s only fitting that an actor with a name as cool as “Idris Elba” should play a character with a name as cool as “Stacker Pentecost.” That’s in del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” (2013). Pentecost has a job worthy of his name. He commands the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (don’t ask). It hardly matters. He could be a game-show host or orthodontist and the effect would be the same, so long as the name stayed “Stacker Pentecost.”
Elba is 23rd billed in “American Gangster” (2007). Granted, the cast is stacked (not to be confused with “stackered”): Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, John Hawkes, Cuba Gooding Jr., you get the idea — but still, 23rd, really?
Playing the title role in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013) puts Elba in impressive company. Actors who have portrayed Nelson Mandela include Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Danny Glover, Dennis Haysbert, Laurence Fishburne, and Clarke Peters. That’s right, Clarke Peters as in Lester Freamon, from (where else) “The Wire.” Truly, that series is the gift that keeps on giving, and not just Idris Elba.
Yes, Elba’s in “Cats” (2019), playing Macavity. Well, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s not as if there isn’t anyone to share the embarrassment with: Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Rebel Wilson. Maybe “Cats” is why he took on that role in “Beast.” It lets him work out some residual feline issues.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.