Actor, musician, writer, producer, fighter – Idris Elba is a man in perpetual motion. But for the star of new film The Dark Tower, there’s no other way. “It’s hard for me to sit still,” he says. “When you’ve got a brain like mine – one that’s always building and grasping – to ask it to turn off is odd”
At first, Idris Elba says that he wants to conduct this interview standing up. He finally settles on the windowsill of the hotel suite, but studiously avoids the spacious couch. One thing is certain: the 44-year-old British actor is bristling with energy as we discuss fear, fighting, perfect sleep, lunar travel, and the power of the DJ…
THE RED BULLETIN: You act, drive fast cars, work as a DJ, practise Muay Thai, and now you’re directing your first feature film. Why are you constantly challenging yourself?
IDRIS ELBA: There’s a theory that just because we get tired, or because there are a certain number of hours in the day, you can’t fully experience what life has to offer. I’m not satisfied with that attitude: it’s narrow-minded. I can’t imagine the pioneers of human society thinking‚ “Hmm, we’ll do really, really well if we spend our whole lives in this village.” No. You have to go out there and try things; do things.
Still, there are only 24 hours in the day, even for you…
Time management really is everything. Because once you commit to doing things, your time has to be divided up really well. Which is why I’m able to do this interview for The Dark Tower [the new fantasy Western movie based on the book series by Stephen King], even though shooting for my own film starts next Monday.
But you need to set aside time for sleep. You had to take a nap just before this interview, we heard…
Obviously human beings need eight or nine hours of sleep. And I struggle with sleep at the moment. But you can design your body to have less, as long as it’s really good quality sleep.
Would you share your secret?
You have to do a certain type of meditation to clear your mind before you go to sleep, so that your body can really shut down. You just have to imagine sleep as a concentrated way of re-energising.
Is your method scientifically proven?
No, but I do a better job when I have less sleep but of better quality. Then my brain’s stimulated and I don’t feel so tired.
While we’re on the subject of stimulation, you’re an in-demand DJ, too. How do you get people amped through music?
A good DJ is a vibe-builder; an energy-shifter. I play house music and use the beats to energy-bend. When people go to a club, they’re primed and ready for that environment, but to get a whole crowd tuned into the right frequencies so that everyone’s going “Wow” takes a certain type of skill.
So practice makes perfect?
I started when I was 14. It started off just playing music for my mum and dad and watching their reaction. If I play this song, I get this environment; if I play that one, I get that environment. A DJ has to learn the attributes of a good song, then you put it all together into a nice little package, and people go, “Oh my God, we went there, we went there!”
You can’t always go wild. How do you handle downtime?
It’s really hard for me to sit still. Tomorrow I might have nothing to do, but I’ll go, “Now is a good day to write a song.” We view it as wrong if human beings can’t turn their brain off, but when you’ve got a brain like mine – one that’s always building and grasping – to ask it to turn off is odd. For me it feels weird. Even on holiday, I would probably get my computer out and write.
And what happens in your brain when you set a new benchmark, such as you did in 2015 when you broke the ‘Flying Mile’ land speed record on Pendine Sands in Wales, or when you master kickboxing?
It’s kind of like when you get a new update for your old phone. You go, “Oh, I couldn’t do that before, but I can do it now.” It’s the same casing, same phone, but suddenly it has new capabilities. I love that feeling.
Your pro kickboxing adventure was impressive. You had no real experience, a limited amount of time to learn, and yet you knocked out a younger and more seasoned opponent…
I had a year to train and mentally face up to all sorts of problems that were in the way – injury and whatnot. He perhaps didn’t train as hard because the odds were in his favour from the outset. Perhaps he thought I’d be an easier fighter. But I knew that this was one fight where I could get hurt, and I was dedicated to not letting that happen.
Is winning always simply a matter of putting in the hard yards?
With every challenge, you have to have a clear understanding of what the goal is. So if you see the goal and that there are one or two obstacles ahead, that’s not enough. You have to see the goal and know that you have to walk from here to there.
Does that require special skills?
You don’t need to be superhuman. I don’t sing, but I can, and sometimes when I am trying to hit a note, I have to picture it to do it. It’s a part of the brain that can materialise what it sees. The first astronaut was a child thinking that at some point he would be up there on the moon. And he did it. He found the steps towards becoming a NASA-trained astronaut. He got there. That’s the whole process.
So could you go for a stroll on the Moon?
No, and neither could you, because we never really thought about doing it when we would have needed to.
Are you ever daunted by certain challenges?
For sure. For example, the kickboxing. People asked me, “Was it a sort of a midlife crisis thing?” To some degree, probably. I’ve got a body and a brain that think that I’m younger than I am; age is just a number. So I felt it would be interesting to challenge my body again. But when I did it, it was so tough.
I remember kickboxing as a young man and never feeling any of that kind of angst. I sometimes imagined that if I’d continued to train as a kickboxer, I’d probably be a champion, because I really enjoyed it. When I really put my mind to it, no one was going to put me down.
That fight was a one-off, then?
I keep training, but I can’t afford to fight; it’s super dangerous. I’m 44 years old. There are certain things that happen to a man’s body at my age that are really detrimental if you fight.
In The Dark Tower, you play Roland Deschain, a gunslinger being chased by his nemesis, the Man in Black. Are there any opponents you dread in real life?
Only the inevitable: that we’re all going to die. My dad died three or four years ago. I remember looking at him and being really, really baffled. That’s it: the biggest influence in my life ends up in this box. There are no credits, no music, no fanfare. Your life is just gone. He was only 72, and there was so much he wanted to do. So I said to myself, “When it’s over, it’s over.” There’s no second chance. When the man calls you to go, it’s time to go. But f–k that. Up until that point, I’ll do whatever I want. I’ll have a good time while I am here.
Would you ever be interested in living for ever if that were humanly possible?
You can live for ever if you plant enough seeds in the soil. The most successful trees are the ones that spread the most seeds.
And your seeds would be?
My art, my films, my music, my literature – they’re my soul. When you watch a performance by a dead actor, you’re watching their soul again; they’re coming alive. Therefore, they live on in your consciousness for ever. To some extent, my children are another legacy. I love watching my son. He’s only three years old, but you can see things that you’ve planted in him. He’s so inventive. Perhaps he’ll pick up something that I’ve said in an interview, and he might go, “That’s why my dad was always working. Great. I’m going to do that and I can do that. In fact, I can do it smarter than my dad.”
How would you like to be remembered?
People should say, “This guy reminds me of so many things that I want to be doing and I’ve not done yet, because he never sat still.”