PLAYBOY: When you were spending time in London clubs, did you take ecstasy?
ELBA: Drug culture is a big part of the house music scene that I deejay now. Loads of DJs get smashed. But then you end up playing shitty music. At first I bypassed drugs. I didn’t start smoking weed until later in life. Am I allowed to say that? I mean, I’m not gonna lie—I’ve tried everything, just between you, me and the people who read this magazine. I’ve tried it all. I played one of the biggest drug dealers in the world on TV, so you think I’d know what I was talking about.
PLAYBOY: You’re also a rapper. This lyric from “Sex in Your Dreams” is particularly interesting: “Bone-hard diamond cutter, dick thick like homemade butter.”
ELBA: You have been listening. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: “Show you parts of your pussy that you ain’t discovered.” Has your mom heard the song?
ELBA: When it’s read back to me like that, I’m mortified that such trife could come out of my mind. [laughs] Let me tell you, some fans hate it, some love it, some can’t stand the idea that I’ve got the audacity to rap. But under the guise of being a rapper, I can say what the fuck I want, and until some journalist reads it back to me, I’m getting away scot-free. Maybe I’ll go on Letterman tonight, saying, “Hey, my dick’s as thick as butter.”
PLAYBOY: On the great BBC show Luther, which recently aired its third season, you play a badass reckless cop. The author Neil Cross, who created Luther, describes him as “a feral Columbo and a bookish Dirty Harry fighting in a sack.” Why does Luther do so many stupid things?
ELBA: He doesn’t care about the mayhem he leaves behind. We’re going for escapism. It’s well-done, it’s well-shot, it feels like a quality British drama. But let’s be honest: Men have been slapped on the wrist for a long time for being too manly. The days of the gruff “Fuck you, I’m going to tell you how I feel” kind of man have gone. Luther is escapism for people who miss that type. He goes for the bad guy and doesn’t apologize while he’s doing it. The Guardian called Luther one of the daftest shows on TV, and that made me laugh so much. It has ridiculous plotlines.
PLAYBOY: Would you like to be as gruff and fuck-you as Luther?
ELBA: In real life I’m a shy person. As soon as the spotlight’s on me, I feel awkward. Idris feels like he doesn’t have much to offer. That’s why I end up plowing myself into these characters. With Luther I get to play a guy who can be grumpy all day long and doesn’t give a fuck about it. I’m not allowed to be that grumpy! As an actor I have to be friendly and super-accessible.
Elba in the title role in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (top), with co-star David O’Hara on the BBC cult hit Luther (middle) and in the part that made him famous: Stringer Bell on The Wire.
PLAYBOY: At the risk of seeming obsessed with your song, would a guy who’s truly shy sing about having a thick dick?
ELBA: Those are the words of a shy man putting on a rap persona. Did you see the video for that song? No, because there isn’t one. I’m really fucking serious; I’m a shy man. I’m great at hiding in characters. When I deejay, I’m great at standing behind the turntables. If I go to a club, I’m awkward. Should I stand there? Should I dance? You’re not going to see me dance. I end up standing by the DJ.
PLAYBOY: When you took the role of Nelson Mandela in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, you said it was important to figure out what kind of man he was. So who was he?
ELBA: This is one of the most courageous and selfless men you’re ever going to meet. If I said to you, “Listen, there’s a whole generation of people who are suffering, and if you give up 27 years of your life and spend that time in prison, you could help them,” the likelihood is you’d say, “No, I’m all right. I’m kind of comfortable here.” What I found out from him is, he was that guy. “Hey, ask the next guy. I’m good.” The film looks at his younger life, and it’s interesting because the audience knows where he’s going to end up. You don’t want the film to be shoveling shit down your throat about Mandela, good or bad things. It’s not propaganda.
PLAYBOY: What was the biggest challenge of playing him?
ELBA: The difficult part was inventing who he was as a young man, when nobody knew him. I’m five shades darker than he is, so the audience is going to be challenged by the fact that I don’t look like him. When I played him as an older man, with prosthetics, there was more of the Mandela we know, and I could hide behind the costume. I had to wear a wig for a lot of the film. I admire actors like Daniel Day-Lewis who do only so many films and are unrecognizable because they plow into a character. That’s a lane where I think I’m going to end up, and Mandela takes me closest to that.
PLAYBOY: You had some great episodes on The Office as Charles Miner. When he shows up at Dunder Mifflin it’s almost as if he’s disgusted at how stupid the employees are.
ELBA: Miner was a prick. I was really fucking excited to do that show. I wanted to be funny. I was going to do my impression of Ricky Gervais and use all these weird English expressions you’ve never seen a black man use. Then the producers decided they wanted me to play the character as an American. Shit. I was so disappointed, because it was my chance to be funny. Instead, Miner was the straight guy—to the point where he was a bit unlikable.
PLAYBOY: Your name is usually on the lists of the most beautiful people and the sexiest men alive. How does that attention change your love life?
ELBA: Look, when I wasn’t on TV or in films, I didn’t get any special attention when I went out. Some beautiful people always attract attention. I didn’t until I got on television. So I’m on these lists only because I’m on TV.
PLAYBOY: But what about in real life? Has stardom changed your relationships with women?
ELBA: It happens to me all the time, still. I’ll sit in a pub and nobody will recognize me. I might see an attractive woman, but she doesn’t recognize me, so I’m not getting any love. Then one person goes, “Oh, it’s you,” and suddenly they all overhear and start asking questions. It’s bullshit. I’ve been in and out of relationships, I’ve been married, and it’s hard to keep a relationship when you’re an actor. A girl I knew said to me, “My dad told me, ‘Never date an actor or a DJ.’” It was over, right there on the spot. I was fucked.