To make his directorial debut on an adaptation of Yardie, the 1992 Victor Headley novel about the collision of Jamaican culture in London, Idris Elba put into it many of the pieces of his life and career. The career spans his seminal TV series turns Luther and The Wire, movies like Beasts of No Nation, American Gangster, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Thor: Ragnarok and Molly’s Game, as well as his second career as Big Driis the Londoner, an accomplished DJ. There is even the Hackney streets where he grew up in London, where much of the film is set. In Yardie, a young Jamaican (Aml Ameen) watches his peace-loving brother gunned down, and grows up torn between embracing his brother’s ideals, or immersing himself in gang and drug culture to seek revenge. Here, Elba discusses how he wrapped his own experiences into his directing debut, putting it on display tonight at the Ray Theater, where the film premieres as an acquisition title in the World Cinema category.
DEADLINE: You aren’t Jamaican, but there is a strong sense of authorship in this movie for a first time director. What sparked you to the subject matter?
IDRIS ELBA: It is a world that I was familiar with. In England, people are aware of the subculture between Jamaicans and Brits. The observation I’ve had when I was doing my research is that people at large don’t know that this is what it was like in England for a while. But it’s not a page out of the history books specifically about Jamaicans in London, but rather a smaller story about one character and his world. It would have been a very different movie if we were going to make it about Jamaicans and the Yardie phenomenon, when in the early `80s there was a huge increase of violence, drugs, and clashes between police and young Jamaicans. What they called the Yardie wars. I approached it as a love story set in that world.
DEADLINE: The book became a grass roots phenomenon, sold in hip clothing stores and clubs as it built a following. When did you discover it?
ELBA: It was on one of the reading lists of my school that we got as teenagers. I went to a boys school in Canning Town, Trinity Boys, and this book became popular among teachers to give to young students, male students especially, to have a read because it had a protagonist that was relate-able. I read it at about 14 and it was a real page turner.
DEADLINE: The book chronicled the criminal rise of a Jamaican in London. You could have used this to make a Jamaican American Gangster or Scarface. Your story is more about young man who straddles the line between good and bad. How much did you veer from the book?
ELBA: The book is very dense, and turning the novel into a screenplay was about trying to keep the framework alive, while giving artistic license to visuals, and character arcs and dialogue. If I’m really honest I would like to, as an experiment, re-read the book once all this is done and dusted. To see if I recognize my film in the book. Because it did take on some changes. There were arcs within the book I did not want to bring into the film. I really didn’t want to make a grotesquely violent film. I wanted the violence to have purpose. I didn’t want all the violence of the book because at its heart there is a deeper and more relate-able story, untypical for a film that looks at a subculture. I was adamant about not making a carbon copy of the book, which would have resulted in a very different film.
DEADLINE: You make your directing debut after a long career of great roles, from The Wire to most recently Thor: Ragnarok and Molly’s Game. What touchstone movies were in your head as you were deciding how to make this work on screen?
ELBA: Specific to this film and the genre, there was Babylon, a terrific film made in 1980 that was definitely a big pin up on the Yardie development wall. Smaller films like Rockers and The Harder They Come, gave me Jamaica and the visuals I wanted to emulate. In terms of story? Goodfellas was a real influence for me, specifically the way Scorsese got us to understand who Henry Hill is.
DEADLINE: Ray Liotta’s voice over was a mechanism to quickly convey exactly how that criminal enterprise worked.
ELBA: I certainly used that as a way to understand who my main character, D, is. The idea came later in the process; the script didn’t have him as the narrator. My first or second edit, I thought about what Mr. Scorsese was doing there. I remembered how, when you step into that world in Goodfellas, you are immediately and completely immersed because your hand is held as an audience member by the voice over. It was a big touchstone and I hope Mr. Scorsese isn’t offended by that, but it was very much an influence for me.
DEADLINE: It worked because Ray Liotta was a newcomer with a compelling voice. You found a lead actor who brought much the same thing.
ELBA: Thank you, I agree. Aml Ameen is a really fantastic actor, great voice, and the film really did get a shot of life when we decided to have D narrate his own story. It allowed for really beautiful shortcuts through the visuals, and allowed D’s character to be likeable, more personable. And by the end, you have a little bit more sympathy in the resolution of what that character goes through.
DEADLINE: Sundance is all about discoveries, and Ameen and your female lead, Shantol Jackson, jump off the screen in a way that makes you feel you will be seeing more of them.
ELBA: I was very fortunate with the casting. I didn’t really do a big search. Aml was the first actor I spoke to and I offered him the role and he took it immediately. Shantol was more of a process, actually. There were some amazing actors in England I saw for that role but what was missing for me was the authenticity of being Jamaican. I felt like although Aml is half Jamaican by heritage, he grew up in London but had enough grit. I needed authenticity to create that relationship between D and Yvonne. We went to Kingston, Jamaica and looked at actors there. As soon as Shantol came through that door, it was a done deal. She was so beautiful to watch, such a good actor, and so compelling. I had a thing with my actors. I told them, whatever you do, don’t lie to the camera. She took that very seriously and wouldn’t say or do anything unless she felt the truth of the moment. It worked. Tell me the truth, I told them, even if it doesn’t feel dramatically correct. I think it brought some of these performances to a place where you really cared about their characters.
DEADLINE: It sounds like advice given you as a young actor. Who helped you most as you were figuring it out?
ELBA: Ridley Scott. I got to work with Ridley on American Gangster, and the first time I met him, he was such an observant person, very smart and articulate. He asked me to play a particular role, a Brooklyn/Harlem gangster. Neither he nor I were from that part of the world, and yet the trust between us became immense. He asked questions of me as a director that made that performance as good as I could make it. I worked with Ridley twice and learned a lot both times. And from Sam Miller, an English director who jumped into the trenches with me as we pulled together the look and feel of Luther, as we figured out that character. The Yardie crew was most of the crew from Luther’s first season because we had built such a good rapport. That included having John Conroy as my DP. They guided me through that process and what ended up being this film.
DEADLINE: It felt evident that your second career as a DJ lent a sense of authenticity to those scenes of Jamaican rap battles that felt like a reggae-tinged 8 Mile. How much of your own experience informed those scenes?
ELBA: That was part of the reason I took this film on as a director, because the music component was going to be a big part of it. I simultaneously was learning that I wanted to be an actor the same time I was becoming a DJ. I remembered the nerves, the texture, the vibe. What it feels like when you’re in that world so early in your life. D is 13 when he starts DJ-ing with his older brother, and it felt very much like when me and my uncle went through when I first started DJing. And me and my best friend Boogie, when we first started DJing, we were that age. The excitement of that first needle drop, the equipment and wires, and the idea of wow, we get to play music for a bunch of people. It was all source memory for me. I wanted the audience to feel the excitement, the live element, in this film. My production designer, this Irishman named Damien Creagh, became an expert on sound systems, because of me. I was very particular about the authenticity, down to how how you plug the sound system in, what it sounds like, what it feels like, what the room looks like. These were treasured childhood memories for me. I remember the fascination that came with buying equipment to play in a dance hall, or play in a wedding, and that feeling that you get. I hope you feel all that in the film. I just came from a screening in 4K, the best quality it could be and it sounded pretty incredible to me.
DEADLINE: What’s the biggest thing that you learned about yourself, directing a movie for the first time?
ELBA: That I have no patience for actors. I know it’s outrageous to say. I really like doing the things I’m working now, and I’m back doing Luther as an actor, but Yardie really changed the way I approach my craft as an actor. I’d gotten to work with Aaron Sorkin before I got to my set on Yardie, and Aaron, Jessica Chastain and I had a very limited time to pull it together because our scenes were sort of compressed into 10 days for Molly’s Game. I remember thinking at the time, what would I want my actor to do if I was Aaron? And the answer was, come prepared, come prepared, come prepared.
That didn’t always happen for me on my set. If there was ever a moment where I was frustrated, it would be because an actor wasn’t sure of his own world, and that isn’t fair to a director who has 199 questions to answer. The one question he doesn’t want to answer is, what socks do you think I should wear? The actor should know that, not the director. It was a good reminder that it’s great for a director to come to into a forum with an actor who’s prepared to make 16 choices because he’s thought about them all. Then, that director gets on set, and he and the actors get to play, and find it in the edit. What I learned about myself as a director is that I really want an actor to be the master of his craft, that’s what’s most important.
DEADLINE: You recently made a documentary chronicling your training to be a kick boxer, down to getting in the ring where you beat an established fighter. What can we draw from your recent career moves, getting out of your comfort zone to get in the ring as a fighter and a director?
ELBA: The only way I can really summarize it is this way: the day I was born I was given the most incredible computer, with license to every program for anything I want. The question becomes, how much can I take advantage of that. Without sounding overly pretentious, that is what I’m doing. I’ve got this brain and massive amounts of accessibility to things, based on my experiences as a 45 year old man. I’m a storyteller by trade. I feel that I should know things. In order for me to make a movie about boxing, or about a DJ, I should test run it through this computer I’ve got. There’s no real ego attached to the sense that I want to be seen. I’m very publicly identified and that’s great, part and parcel of the job, but I don’t do it for that. I do these things because I know that 85 percent of the capacity of my computer isn’t being used, and I’m endlessly fascinated with what I can do with it. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious, but that’s really it.
DEADLINE: What does a punch in the face teach you?
ELBA: Well it hurts at the time, it’s not a nice feeling, but a year on, it didn’t teach me anything apart from next time I do it, make sure I keep my guard up. What this amazing journey on Yardie taught me is, I love making movies as a director. I want to do more of it, and I’m open to trying other things as an actor, playing characters I haven’t before. I recently started doing comedies, and it is as hard as training for a fight. Fighting comes naturally for some, comedy comes natural for others. I am not natural at either, but I learned.
DEADLINE: Watching Luther each time you make new episodes feels like putting on that leather jacket that always fits comfortably and feels right, as you watch this world weary noble detective who’s so good at solving brutal crimes even as his personal life is such a mess. What does returning to that character give you after all these years?
ELBA: It’s all about Neil Cross’s writing. The fans love Luther and love what Neil and I have achieved. That’s what keeps them, and me, coming back you know. It’s the thrill ride. It’s a great performance character as well because he’s very articulate and gets to say and do some cool shit, but he’s also dark in a way that I, as a person, relate to. I can’t live that way, generally, but through John Luther, I can.
DEADLINE: When you starred in The Dark Tower, it felt noteworthy because Stephen King wrote the character as a white gunslinger. In Yardie, Stephen Graham playing your main Jamaican crime lord in London. I recalled seeing him play Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire. He seems very much a white guy, and maybe that makes him the most badass white Rastafarian screen criminal since Gary Oldman in True Romance. But he’s white. What was going on there?
ELBA: Yeah. Unbeknownst to me each time I spoke with Stevie Graham, this was part of his heritage. His dad is biracial, of Jamaican descent, and Stevie was desperate to showcase his upbringing. His dad raised Stevie in a way that a part of his family life was based around his Jamaican heritage side. He was very accustomed to Jamaican customs and culture. But Stevie Graham looks completely pure Caucasian. You wouldn’t know that he was of mixed heritage. We used to hang out as friends he would always jump into this Jamaican accent. And I would be like, fu*king hell Stevie, how are you doing that? He would just start saying this stuff but he would never tell me. That character, Rico, wasn’t written to be biracial, but I remembered Stevie and when I said, why don’t you have a go, Stevie dropped the bombshell about his heritage. It was music to my ears and we went on this journey and sculpted Rico. It was beautiful to watch Stevie do what he does for a living, but also come from a cultural biracial side. He didn’t want to water it down. Some people said he’s the most difficult character in the film to understand and that’s okay because Stevie wanted it that way.
DEADLINE: He was a bit reminiscent of Brad Pitt in Snatch. I don’t think I understood a single word he said in that movie.
ELBA: I remember. Steve was like, I know guys like my character, who look white and they could do a proper Jamaican accent and you wouldn’t even know what the fu*k they were saying. I loved that about him, really, because he really wanted that authenticity.
DEADLINE: A complicated thought about The Dark Tower, and Beasts of No Nation. Your performance was so overwhelming in Beasts that I believe if Academy voters had been more accepting of Netflix’s first real prestige film, you would have won the Oscar. I watched Dark Tower around the time I saw Bright, and thought, if Dark Tower had been on Netflix, it would have been celebrated as a smash and sequels would already be in the works. You’ve worked in different platforms, including Luther, where you can do a four episode season in between your movie work. What do you think about all this, and the changing way that we’re consuming content?
ELBA: Well my first thought is that it’s inevitable, this evolution of technology that is growing faster than we are as human beings, and is definitely skewing the way we watch films and how we look at film productions. Who made it, why they made it, where they made it is as important to us as what the film’s about and whether it’s any good. But you’re right in what you said. There are performances, films, scripts that don’t get a look because of the way they have been presented, or what forum they are presented in. It’s the residue of change. When there is evolution, there are going to be gaps, moments where not everyone is ready for the next phase and I think Beast of No Nation got caught between a rock and a hard place. If that movie had been made when Cry Freedom was and released that way, it might have been considered to be just as good. If it was made under different circumstances, who knows, but I think awards voters didn’t see Beast of No Nation, plain and simple.
It doesn’t dilute my passion for making movies. I don’t make movies for awards, but it does make me question sometimes if the way movies are digested means that some movies that are great will not get recognized in their full capacity, and some that aren’t as great are overly celebrated because they are ranked in distorted ways that somehow reflect the marketplace. But I am happy that in all this, there is more production, and a lot more creativity and the introduction of new talent across platforms. That’s okay by me.
DEADLINE: Where did you end up on Dark Tower? They’ve talked about continuing on television. Will you be part of that?
ELBA: I took Dark Tower going, oh man, here is this great source material, a great character and a franchise-able movie. So when it didn’t happen, for many reasons, yeah I was disappointed. I’m not sure where they are with the television version, but it is still an opportunity, given how television surpasses film in many ways. It might be a way to realize its potential there.
DEADLINE: Yardie premieres at Sundance as an acquisition title. When was the last time you’ve gone to a festival to be judged by the buyers and the reviewers? What does that feel like?
ELBA: I’ve never been in that situation. The last time I was at Sundance was as an actor, and when you go to a festival as an actor, you’re there to show up and wave. There’s a lot more at stake for me here. I know that what I’m doing as a director will be judged, and that perhaps it will help guide what happens next for me as a director. I think I have a healthy approach for a first time director; I’m going in as an actor that’s directed. So I’ll still wave. And if they love the movie, I can say oh yeah, yeah I directed it, and champion that. And if they hate the movie, I’ll just say well fu*king hell, I’m just an actor.