PLAYBOY: You were a working actor in London before you moved to New York and had some rough years prior to The Wire. How bad did it get?
ELBA: It was a wickedly tough time. I lived in a van for about three months. It was a gold and brown Astro with brown velour seats. I was going through a tough time with my then wife, and the money I made under the table as a DJ went to make sure she was okay. I’d had three or four years of unemployment, not getting acting jobs. I was watching Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes and saying, “I can do that. I can be right there with them.” My wife was about eight and a half months pregnant by the time I got the news I was going to be on The Wire. If I didn’t get it, I was going to leave the U.S. We knew that if I didn’t have acting work after my daughter was born we would be up shit street.
PLAYBOY: Do you think the hard knocks you took in those four years gave you a better understanding of Stringer Bell and The Wire?
ELBA: Yes. People I’d been raised with in London made money as a hustle, whether it was drugs or being a pool shark. Flash drug dealers went to jail, cool drug dealers didn’t. I had that embedded in my system since I was a kid. My dad was a pool shark. We’d go to pubs and he’d pretend he didn’t know how to play, put down a bet and win. The point is, Stringer was in my system. And when I got to America, I understood what was happening in the hood. I lived in Jersey City, which is a rough neighborhood, and in Flatbush for a while. That was my preparation for the role. [pauses] By the way, you know I’ve never watched The Wire.
PLAYBOY: It’s a good show. You should watch it sometime.
ELBA: I’ve seen a full episode at screenings but never at home. I’ve never watched an entire season. I’ve not seen any episode of season two, most of season three and none of seasons four and five. I’m supercritical of my own work. As an actor, if you’re being told how wonderful you are, what do you need to strive for? I don’t know if I’m good just because some critic says I am in the press.
PLAYBOY: So we shouldn’t tell you how good you are?
ELBA: [Smiles] The Golden Globe award told me that, thanks. And the two Emmy nominations. Just the small things.
PLAYBOY: You’ve often referred to yourself as an East London boy. What does that mean in terms of your personality?
ELBA: In the circumference of London, if you come from the east, people know you’re a cheeky chappy. You’ve got a bit of a mouth, a gift of the gab, you’re wheeling and dealing. My personality is formed by that. East Londoners speak cockney—if you’re born within a three-mile radius of the Bow Bells, then you’re cockney. That’s typically what my accent is, but it depends on who I’m talking to. Today I did a BET show and was like, “Yo, man, what up? How you feelin’, bro?” I’m a bit of a parrot.
PLAYBOY: Tonight you’re a guest on David Letterman’s show. Will you consciously speak in a more American accent?
ELBA: [Holds up a pint] It depends on how many glasses of Guinness I smoke down before then. I tell a better story in a cockney accent—I’m more cheeky, there’s more eyewinks and finger-pointing—but I’m always worried people don’t understand what I’m saying. East London language is quite lazy and laid-back, which makes it easier for me to speak American. When I hear people from Brooklyn, I can understand how they make those sounds, because my accent is similar. Our tongues work the same way.
PLAYBOY: When you were a kid in London you were sent to an all-boys school. Was it a punishment?
ELBA: It felt like punishment. My parents moved, and they signed me up for the nearest school to our house. It was lunchtime, and I asked, “So do the girls eat in a separate building?” And the teacher said, “Son, this is a boys’ school.” I was mortified. But there were loads of girls in the neighborhood. Trust me, I wasn’t short of girls.
PLAYBOY: At 14 you started hanging around with your uncle, who deejayed at sound system parties. What did you like about being part of DJ culture?
ELBA: My uncle played a lot of Nigerian songs, which were often 16 minutes long. Nigerian vinyls were thick like doormats. I think he played them so he could dance longer with the ladies. My cousins and I were gagging to just touch the turntables. I got into the world of pirate radio, which was illegal, and sound systems, which was sort of a heated atmosphere, with one sound system clashing with the other, so I didn’t spread the news to my parents about that. They were very strict, and I didn’t want to get in trouble. I was my mum’s only child, so she was very protective of me.
PLAYBOY: As a father, are you more like your mom or your dad?
ELBA: More like my mum, believe it or not. Man, what’s that about? I’m very protective of my daughter and who she hangs out with. Same stuff my mum used to do, when I’d tell her, “Mum, relax.” [laughs] You can drive yourself nuts as a parent, thinking about what boys do and what I got up to as a kid. If my kid got up to that same stuff, I’d be horrified.