Time Out Dubai sits down for an Idris Elba interview as DJ Driis prepares for his performance at DXBeach at Zero Gravity, Dubai Marina.
He’s the Hackney-born actor who hit the Hollywood jackpot thanks to his turns as menacing criminal Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire and the titular detective in BBC thriller Luther. When he’s not playing a cop or a criminal in a major TV series, you'll find him on the big screen in blockbuster movies such as Thor, Prometheus and the latest instalment of Star Trek, on which he’s just wrapped filming in Dubai.
What you might not already know about the Golden Globe-winning actor is that he's also a DJ – and a pretty darn good one – who goes by the moniker Driis. While Elba admits he doesn’t DJ as much as he’d like (understandable, considering he has six films coming out in the next year, including voicing Shere Khan in Disney’s live-action The Jungle Book), he's taking time out from his jam-packed filming schedule to play a set at Zero Gravity's DXBeach festival on Friday October 23.
“I’ve always loved music, from when I was a kid, it’s just been part of my DNA,” Elba explains, in his deep London accent. He’s just spent two weeks in Dubai filming his last scenes for Star Trek Beyond, and says he’s had a great time, even popping into UK garage event Kisstory at Nasimi Beach. “That was the first time I’ve been to Kisstory and it was a wicked laugh, a real trip down memory lane. I don’t get a chance to do that much. If I get free time and go out, I go to a really dark room with low ceilings and a really big sound system, and just veg out in the corner. That’s really more my speed.”
Elba has a lot going on right now – his latest film, Beasts of No Nation, which has just been released, is tipped for Oscars and then there is the constant Bond rumours he has to put up with – but he’s surprisingly relaxed and seems totally unfazed by all the Hollywood hullaballoo. “I’m pretty long in the tooth, so to speak. I’m 43 – it's gone past the days where I wanted to be a movie star and where it’s all about money and success, I just want to have a great time. It’s just about having my creativity celebrated and getting better at it,” he says, matter-of-factly. It’s easy to see why Elba is in demand. Aside from those rugged good looks, musical talents and an ability to truthfully portray one of the world’s most beloved icons – Nelson Mandela – and do it justice, he’s passionate and humble about his work. “Film and music are very important to me. I feel that there’s a world where I can bring them together, and they’re as good and profound as each other. I’ve started trying to step into that realm of making music that’s attached to the films that I’m doing. Not in a soundtrack way, but in a personal way."
Bringing his passions together, Elba’s latest project is a series of records that he calls “character albums”, taking the roles he adopts in film and writing songs about them. “It’s sort of an exploration of the activity based around the character. Music touches audiences in a very personal way. I love that, I’m a creative person. I love the creativity of music and all of the emotion that you can pull out of it.”
One of those characters is Nelson Mandela. Having played the real-life leader and hero in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Elba says, “I wanted to do something a little deeper and more impressionable. I just wanted to create his essence".
So, how does an actor follow a part like that up? “That type of role doesn’t come along very often, so once you’ve done something like that, you're looking for deeper and more meaningful work,” he says, thoughtfully.
These days Elba wants to be challenged, and music offers him an entirely different kind of experience. “DJing is one of my greatest reset buttons. When you’re an actor, you're running around being a different person, but when I DJ I get to be myself.” Having been raised on a healthy diet of reggae and African music, hip-hop and soul by his Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother, Elba’s sets are eclectic and range from house to rare hip-hop grooves. “A good DJ takes you on a journey.
I tend to play something that wakes up a crowd – that ping that gets their attention. Even though the audience will say, ‘Oh Idris Elba is an actor, isn’t he?' they at least know that I know what I’m talking about,” he laughs. But what song gets the smooth-talking man himself on his feet? “Oh man, Could You Be Loved by Bob Marley always does it for me."
Could Idris Elba be loved at DXBeach? You'll have to find out next week. DXBeach. Noon-3am. Friday October 23. Dhs200-400. Zero Gravity, next to Skydive Dubai, Dubai Marina, www.dxbeach.ae (04 399 0009).