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Idris Elba: From Street Boss To 'Office' Politics

Actor Idris Elba is best known for his portrayal of a drug dealer on HBO's The Wire, but he will play a very different role as Michael's boss on NBC's The Office.

44:10

Other segments from the episode on March 12, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 12, 2009: Interview with Idris Elba; Review of Bonnie Prince Billy's new album "Beware."

Transcript

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Idris Elba: From Street Boss To 'Office' Politics

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Fans of NBC’s “The Office” and HBO’s
“The Wire” have something to look forward to. Starting a week from
tonight, Idris Elba, who played Stringer Bell on “The Wire,” will have a
recurring role on “The Office” as Michael Scott’s new boss.

As Stringer, Elba played the co-leader of a drug organization that
controlled a lot of corners on West Baltimore streets. He was all about
business. If you opposed him or betrayed him, you were dead. And he was
smart. He studied business and was trying to go legit - or semi-legit -
in the real-estate business.

Elba will be intimidating again, in a more corporate way, in his new
role on “The Office.” Here’s a preview of next week’s episode, called
“The New Boss.” In this scene, he’s being introduced to the staff by
Michael Scott, head of the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper
Company. Michael is played by Steve Carell.

(Soundbite of TV show, “The Office”)

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (as Michael Scott) Everyone, please give it up
for Charles Miner.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. IDRIS ELBA (Actor): (as Charles Miner) Thank you, Michael, and thank
you for the C-shaped bagels.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Well, above and beyond.

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) That’s great. That’s great. Hey, you know,
we’re in tough times, and we’re not immune to this economy.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) That’s true.

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) But the goal is to, you know, fight our way
through this. Hey.

Mr. LESLIE DAVID BAKER (Actor): (as Stanley Hudson) Stanley Hudson. Are
there going to be layoffs?

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) No, absolutely not.

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) Hold on, Michael. Thank you. Stanley, you
know, we can’t make any promises, but we’ll try everything in our power
to avoid that.

Mr. BAKER: (as Stanley Hudson) Do you have specifics?

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) Well, Michael should have filled you in
last week.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Well, due to the economy, there’s a lot
of worry going around. I didn’t want to worry people.

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) You didn’t tell them?

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Well, why don’t…

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) Yeah. Well, what I told Michael is that…

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Charles is going to tell you.

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) Is that we are cutting three percent across
the board, which means we will no longer be matching 401(k)
contributions, and all overtime requests will need to come through the
corporate office.

Unidentified Man #1: Fantastic.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Well, it’s not official.

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) It is official. It is official, and
actually guys, I’m encouraging branches to consider a freeze on
discretionary spending.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Such as salary, benefits, etcetera,
etcetera, insurance.

Mr. ELBA: (as Charles Miner) Not salaries. Petty cash, supplies and, you
know, parties, things like that.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) What about your party?

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Okay, okay. You know what? I think this
has been great. I think this gives us a lot to think about, doesn’t it?
Charles Miner, ladies and gentlemen, he has a long trip home.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Steve Carell and my guest, Idris Elba, in a scene from next
week’s episode of “The Office.” Elba’s films include “American
Gangster,” “Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girl,” “RocknRolla,” “28 Weeks
Later” and “Obsessed,” which comes out next month.

Idris Elba, welcome to FRESH AIR. I’m a big fan. It’s a pleasure to have
you here. Since “The Office” with you on it hasn’t started yet, why
don’t you describe your role?

Mr. ELBA: Well, I play a character called Charles Miner, and Charles is
a - he’s been brought in from the head office of Dunder Mifflin to come
to Scranton and basically clean up shop.

You know, he’s kind of Michael Scott’s superior. And, you know, he’s
very rigid, he’s a very rigid guy, doesn’t have much of a sense of humor
with his employees, and he basically comes in and takes over.

The character was written - I guess they wanted to have me sort of play
a sort of corporate version of Stringer Bell, if you like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: But what’s - I’m having a lot of fun working with the
character, and he has quirks, you know. He’s a corporate guy, yes he is,
but he puts on a show.

Everything he’s sort of learned he’s learned from sort of self-help
books and stuff, and you know, in business manuals. And then when he –
you know, like when we do the sort of on-camera, what they call a
talking head, you know, you get to - he starts to reveal who his real
personality is.

I’m having so much fun. I never get to do comedy, so Charles Miner is
my…

GROSS: That’s what I thought, yeah.

Mr. ELBA: Yeah, my comic relief.

GROSS: Well, let me just interrupt here and say that people who know as
Stringer Bell on “The Wire” are going to be so disoriented hearing your
voice because, you know, you’re British, but to hear the person who many
of us know as Stringer Bell with a British accent, I just wanted to
acknowledge how disorienting that’s going to be for a lot of people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So are you British or American in “The Office”?

Mr. ELBA: I’m American in “The Office.” And you know, it’s funny. They
called and said we’d like you to do, you know, do this show. And I was
like yes, can I play English? And they were like yes, play English. And
then like two days before we started filming, they’re like, you know
what? We don’t think the audience is going to get the English thing.
Let’s go American.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: Which was disappointing. You know, I really was looking
forward to sort of working in my own accent, and you know, but…

GROSS: What a cruel irony, because “The Office” started as a British
show, but you have to play an American.

Mr. ELBA: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So are you doing the same American accent that you did on “The
Wire,” or is it a different American accent?

Mr. ELBA: Oh, it’s different. Yeah, it’s different. This guy’s from –
where was he born? He’s from D.C., but he’s sort of, you know, very
corporate. And so it’s not - you know, he’s not like Stringer, who was
sort of street-corporate.

This guy’s very clipped. He speaks quite well.

GROSS: Now how did you get the part on “The Office”? Were the people on
“The Office” a big fan of you as Stringer Bell on “The Wire”?

Mr. ELBA: Yeah, believe it or not, believe it or not, huge fans of “The
Wire.” And I think what really got them was “RocknRolla,” I think.

GROSS: That’s a movie.

Mr. ELBA: Yeah, the movie, “RocknRolla,” with Guy Ritchie. And, you
know, there was a comedic twist to my character, if you like, and I
think that - made them think oh, maybe, maybe he can do some comedy. So
I got the call.

But they’re huge fans of “The Wire.” Like, every day, it’s like oh, my
God, it’s Stringer Bell on our set.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: I’m like…

GROSS: Are there any Stringer Bell in-jokes?

Mr. ELBA: No, no. Don’t kill me. I think that one is good. What are you
going to do, have me whacked? You know, they say stuff like that, but…

GROSS: So in “The Office,” is there much improv within it?

Mr. ELBA: Yes, there is. The great thing about “The Office” is that they
allow you to explore with your character. So what they’ll do is they’ll
give your scripted version, and then they’ll say, okay, so why don’t we
do one where you just have fun with it? You know, they apply that in the
talking-head sections a lot.

So a lot of Steve - you know, Steve is an improv king.

GROSS: Steve Carell, uh-huh.

Mr. ELBA: Steve Carell, yes. Steve Carell is an improv king. So he’ll
get on and do his talking head as scripted, and then he’ll just do his
version, and they allow everyone to sort of do that. It’s a lot of fun.
I’m having a phenomenal time working on it. I love it.

GROSS: Is there a scene that you remember improvising within it?

Mr. ELBA: Yeah, we - Steve and I did this one scene where, basically, he
loses it for a second and starts to repeat everything I say just to try
and embarrass my character in front of the rest of the team.

And so, you know, I say, what? He says, what? I said, how old are you?
How old are you? You know, and then that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: …that scene we ended up improvising. So my character was like
oh, really, you want to improvise me? Okay, repeat after me. I want to
get fired. I want - no, I don’t want to get fired. It was so funny. We
were just going back and forth.

And then I ended up doing, like - just doing some body-popping, and he
started body-popping, too. And it just went wild.

GROSS: My guest is Idris Elba, and he’s best known for his part as
Stringer Bell on “The Wire,” and he’s about to join the cast of “The
Office” for six episodes, playing Michael’s new boss. Is that the fair
way of putting it, new boss?

Mr. ELBA: Yeah, the new boss, yeah. You’re right on it.

GROSS: Now, you are best known for your role as Stringer Bell, and I
want to play a scene from “The Wire.” So let me kind of set up the whole
thing. So as Stringer Bell, you ran a drug operation with your partner,
Avon Barksdale. And you guys, you buy the drugs and have kids on the
corner selling them. And your character, Stringer, is more ambitious
than his partner, Avon.

Stringer’s been investing his money in real estate, and in season three,
he’s organized an agreement between the major drug dealers in Baltimore
that they would jointly buy drugs from New York at this kind of group
discount price instead of going to war with each other. And Stringer’s
partner…

Mr. ELBA: Ingenious.

GROSS: Ingenious.

Mr. ELBA: Wasn’t that ingenious?

GROSS: And Stringer’s partner, Avon, who’s just gotten out of prison, he
wants things the way they used to be on the street, the kind of street
thing he’s familiar with, and he wants his corners back, the ones that
were taken by this newcomer named Marlo while Avon was in prison.

And you’re trying to convince your partner Avon not to worry about the
corners because this cooperative deal is going to be very profitable.

So before we actually play this clip, I should mention again this is a
scene from “The Wire.” There’s a lot of, you know, explicit language in
it. So here’s the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show, “The Wire”)

Mr. ELBA: (as Stringer Bell) The thing about turf, man, it ain’t like it
was. I mean, you ain’t got to pay no price for buying no corners.

Mr. WOOD HARRIS (Actor): (as Avon Barksdale) Since when do we buy
corners? We take corners.

Mr. ELBA: (as Stringer Bell) Man, you’re going to buy it one way or
another.

Mr. WOOD: (as Avon Barksdale) (unintelligible) the bodies we done lost.

Mr. ELBA: (as Stringer Bell) Or you’re going to lose. Time in the joint
is behind us or ahead of us. I mean, you’re going to get some (censored)
in this game, but there ain’t (censored) for free. I mean, how many
corners do we need? How much money can a nigger make?

Mr. WOOD: (as Avon Barksdale) More than a nigger spent.

Mr. ELBA: (as Stringer Bell) I mean, we ain’t going to be around to
spend what we done made already.

Mr. WOOD: (as Avon Barksdale) (censored). I didn’t think I was going to
be around this long.

Mr. ELBA: (as Stringer Bell) Yeah. Well, we here now. And the fact is,
we got every mob in town, east side, west side, ready to pull together,
share territory on that good (censored) that (unintelligible) putting
out there. We take that (censored) downtown, and we get in the money
game, then niggers ain’t going to jail.

I mean, we past that running guns (censored), man. Like we find us a
package, and we ain’t got to see nothing but bank, nothing but cash. No
corners, no territory, nothing. We make so much goddamn straight money,
man, the government come after us, man, ain’t (censored) they could say.
(unintelligible).

Mr. WOOD: (as Avon Barksdale) Businessmen, huh?

Mr. ELBA: (as Stringer Bell) Let the young ones worry about how to
retail, where to wholesale. I mean, who gives a (censored) whose
standing on what corner if we’re taking that (censored) off the top,
putting that (censored) to good use, making that (censored) work for us.
We can run more than corners, B, period. We can do like Little Willy,
man, back in the day, with all that number money, and run this goddamn
city.

GROSS: A scene from “The Wire.” My guest, Idris Elba, played Stringer
Bell. So, Idris Elba, how did you get the part of Stringer Bell? And was
it hard for you to get it as somebody who’s British and had to convince
them that you could convincingly do American street?

Mr. ELBA: At the time, you know, I was sort of like three years here in
the States, and I was auditioning all the time for work and couldn’t get
a job. I mean, I couldn’t catch a cold.

I think I did “Law and Order,” like a bit part on “Law and Order,” but I
was auditioning all the time for great, great parts, but they weren’t
coming my way.

Alexa Fogel, who is the casting director of “The Wire,” told me to come
in, and I was cast in a film called “Brown Sugar.” And she said to me,
you know, thank you for coming back and back to all the callbacks. I
have this other show I’m working on, and I like you to audition for it.
It’s a small part, but if you’re interested, it’s for HBO.

So she said, just come in and read for us. And do me a favor, come in
with your American accent. Cool. So I walked in, and I see David Simon,
Ed Burns. And I, you know, auditioned for Avon Barksdale.

Okay, so five auditions later, they say we don’t want you for Avon. We
think you’d be better playing Stringer. And like at that point, you
know, I knew the script. It was the pilot edition. I knew the script
inside out. And they said, you know, what do you think about Stringer?

And like, I was like Stringer? Like, he has like two lines. Um, yeah,
I’ll take it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: Because I was desperate to work. They didn’t know at the time
that I was English because I didn’t - you know, Alexa Fogel did, but
they, Ed Burns and David Simon didn’t know. I kept that away from them
because I really wanted to bag this job.

When they gave it to me, I then said you know, hey guys, you know, I
appreciate, and they were like wait a second. Where are you from? And
Alexa and I just let it out, and they were like, whoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA So that was how I got that job.

GROSS: My guest is Idris Elba. He played Stringer Bell on the HBO
series, “The Wire.” Next week, he begins a recurring role on the NBC
comedy series, “The Office.” We’ll talk more after our break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Well, if you’re just joining us, my guest is Idris Elba. He
played Stringer Bell on “The Wire,” and he’s about to co-star in six
episodes of “The Office” as Michael’s new boss.

What did you think of your character, Stinger Bell? On the one hand,
he’s really smart. You know, he comes up through the streets, but he’s
educated himself. He has a lot of business smarts, even though he’s
ultimately outsmarted by politicians who are more corrupt, or at least
as corrupt as he is.

But he’s really smart. He invests in things. He’s ambitious. At the same
time, he’s cold. He’s ruthless. He kills without thinking twice about
it. He betrays people without thinking twice about it. So what did you
think of this character?

Mr. ELBA: I mean, once I started to get to know who Stringer was, he
very much reminded me of some of the people I grew up with in London. I
mean, in England, you know, they would put you in jail for a bag of
weed. So, you know, selling drugs was like a covert operation.

Like, you know, you just weren’t riding around in flash cars and, you
know, what I’m saying, standing on corners and stuff like that. It may
be that way now, but it certainly wasn’t that way when I was growing up.

Drug dealers were very, very - were gentlemen, had offices. You know,
they have a very, very, you know, strict way of doing what they did.

So it reminded me of these drug dealers that I knew in England that just
had to be real smart about their business. They just had to be very -
they had to have a front. So they’d wear the suit. They’d have the
operation, the shop. They put their money into Laundromats or whatever,
and just have an operation that makes them look legit.

Stringer reminds me of that. I think that Stringer wanted to –

obviously, he wanted to be, you know, a businessman and exceed in
business. That’s why he went to business school. I think the drug thing
definitely was a temporary stop for him. I think he wanted to move
forward.

GROSS: The n-word is used a lot in “The Wire,” and it’s such a big issue
in the United States, like if - who has the right to use the word, and
if anybody should use it, if it’s different in hip-hop than it is in
another context, if a white person can say it, if a black person can say
it. You know the whole drill on that.

Mr. ELBA: Yeah.

GROSS: Is it an issue in England? Is it a word that’s much-used in
England?

Mr. ELBA: No. I mean, it became - it was a fad for a while. It was like,
you know, everybody was saying it because it was on the records. It was
part of hip-hop. You know, it was being said.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. ELBA: But no, nobody should use that word. And, you know, I’ve used
it and, you know, kind of always just kind of grimaced to myself, like
why are you saying that? It’s just not even - it doesn’t make any sense.

In England, you know, the word isn’t used like that. And actually, you
know, it’s like it’s very – you can’t – if you say it, like people stop
in a room. You know what I’m saying? It’s like it’s a bigger deal in
England to say it. It’s considered very racist to say that.

GROSS: Now your character, Stringer Bell, was killed in the next-to-the-
last episode of Season 3. Did you know that was coming? Like, when did
you find out that Stringer Bell was going to get shot?

Mr. ELBA: I knew that he was going to get shot maybe two or three
episodes before it happened.

GROSS: Was it upsetting?

Mr. ELBA: Yeah. I wasn’t going to get that check anymore.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you feel like the writers killed you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: No, I think the show made me, as an artist, for sure, and
established me here in the States. As far as Stringer was concerned,
like, it was inevitable that that character was going to die.

So it was inevitable. I think that - you know, to be true, honest with
you, I was celebrating the idea that Stringer was going to get shot
because I didn’t want him to go out on that sort of – on a bed of glory,
okay?

This is a guy that sells drugs to communities, to kids, and gets kids to
sell drugs for him, and he was celebrated, loved, adored. And for me and
the writers, it was - you know, killing Stringer was - you know, let’s
put our middle finger up to that ideology. You know what I’m saying?
Like drug dealers are not cool, period.

So I celebrated the idea. Of course, I love Stringer Bell, and I love
the fact that this was a character of huge complexities. You know what I
mean? But I felt that it was right for him to die. I felt it was right
for him to die at the pinnacle of his fame, if you like. You know what I
mean?

I think that it was almost Shakespearean, the way that the writers put
that together, because you just did not see that coming. You know what I
mean?

GROSS: So you liked the death scene they wrote for you.

Mr. ELBA: Well, no. I thought the death scene was actually - and this is
between you and I and whoever’s listening - rushed. I thought the death
scene was rushed. I didn’t understand how Brother Mouzone and Omar
conspired so quickly to kill Stringer.

Like, to me, if you consider the history of how slowly “The Wire,” you
know, unravels stories, that particular storyline came too quickly, too
fast, and it certainly felt like a rush job.

But it remains in history one of the best death scenes you’ve ever seen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, you’re getting it from two people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: What are your final words before you get shot?

Mr. ELBA: I think the final words were: Well, get on with it, mother…

GROSS: That’s right, and then you get shot before you can finish the
expletive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: I think it comes out with some guts, though.

GROSS: Yeah, that’s right. Do you have a favorite scene from “The Wire”
that you’re in?

Mr. ELBA: No. Honestly, I didn’t see much of what we did.

GROSS: No.

Mr. ELBA: No, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see any of - I saw some of
season one. I didn’t see any of season two. And I saw the last scene
with Wood and I, when I tell him that I killed D’Angelo. I saw that
scene. I don’t typically like to watch my work.

GROSS: So you didn’t see much of “The Wire.” You don’t even know why we
like it so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: I do know why.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: Because it’s phenomenal, but I’m not a fan of watching my own
work, and I don’t watch TV too much, either.

GROSS: Right. Idris Elba will be back in the second half of the show. He
played Stringer Bell on the HBO series, “The Wire.” Next week, he begins
a recurring role on the NBC comedy series, “The Office.” I’m Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with actor Idris Elba. He’s best
known for his role on HBO’s “The Wire” as Stringer Bell, the co-leader
of a drug organization that controlled many streets in West Baltimore.
Starting next week he’ll have recurring role in the NBC comedy series
“The Office” as Michael Scott’s new boss. Michael is the character
played by Steve Carrel. Elba’s movies include “American Gangster,”
“Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girl,” “RocknRolla,” “28 Weeks Later” and
“Obsessed,” which comes out next month. Now another thing you’re known
for is on Jay-Z famous album “American Gangster” you do the
introduction. And before we talk about it lets hear it.

(Soundbite of song, “Intro”)

Mr. ELBA: Your gangster is not defined by how low your jeans fall by
your waist but how your genes stand over his expectations.

Unidentified Man: Never forget where we came from.

Unidentified Woman: The gangster.

Mr. ELBA: Your gangster is not defined by how many rocks are in your
watch, but more how many rocks you move while on your watch.

Unidentified Woman: Gangster (unintelligible). Republicans, Democrats.
Pimps and hoes.

Mr. ELBA: Conservatives, Labors. The seller, the buyer, the product, the
producer.

Unidentified Man: You are what you are in this world.

Mr. ELBA: Gangster is absorbed and adored by those that don’t understand
the laws that govern gangsterment.

Unidentified Woman: Gangsterment (unintelligible).

GROSS: My guest Idris Elba doing the introduction to Jay-Z’s album
“American Gangster.” Now, because you were so admired in “The Wire” as a
gangster and because you’re in the movie “American Gangster” and because
you’re on Jay-Z’s “American Gangster” do a lot of your fans assume
you’re really into being a gangster? And do people sometimes have like
false expectations of you?

Mr. ELBA: I mean clearly,, you know, - festival people are very shocked
by the fact and I’m not from America okay, that’s number one. But it’s
no new news now people know. I remember when I was, you know, sort of,
second season of “The Wire” and it was just, you know, everyone was
going crazy for this show and, you know, people - gangsters would come
out to me all the time, like you’re my man, you’re my man, you playing
my life right now. And now, you know, I’d be like, oh thanks very much,
mate, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: You would be looking at me and like, yo, who the hell are you.
You know what I mean? So, yes there is definitely, you know, people
think that I’m sort of partly like Stringer. And in many ways I am but
I’m not a gangster. Do you understand what I’m saying? Like, I guess
people presume that I’m a gangster, you know, I have a lot of friends in
the industry, in the hip-hop industry, a lot of friends. And they
personify that sort of whole world. I guess people think I’m part of
that. But at the same time I very vocal about Stringer dying. I’ve been
vocal about that, you know, I don’t celebrate the fact that he was the
greatest gangster you’ve seen on TV since Tony Soprano. I don’t know.

GROSS: Now you have a music life as well as an acting life. Let’s talk
about your music. Let’s start at the beginning. You started deejaying I
think with your uncle in your early teens in England.

Mr. ELBA: Yes.

GROSS: So what kind of deejaying did he do when you started working with
him?

Mr. ELBA: Well my parents are from West Africa, Sierra Leone. And my
uncle was the go to deejay. When everyone was getting him, you know, if
you was having a christening, a Sierra Leonean christening or Sierra
Leonean wedding, my uncle was that guy. You go to him he had all the
records. He had a sound system called Sound International. So Sound
International would travel all over England and play for these parties
and as soon as I was like allowed to, you know, leave my home, my
parents allowed me to go with my uncle and deejay. He has three sons as
well, so we would all go with him and deejay. And actually what would
happen is my uncle is a little bit of a player, okay? Get to these
parties, get the party cracking, and then slope off with some young

bridesmaid or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: And then leave the turntables unattended with me and my little
younger cousins looking at these things like what are we doing next. So
eventually of course we started to deejay and take over and that’s where
it came from. I have this picture. I wish I could show you this picture.
I was like four years old and I’m wearing these dungarees, I’ve got this
white t-shirt I’ve got these African beads around my neck and I have in

my hand Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: And I’m literally staring at the turntable like, let me at it.
It’s a great picture my dad has it, I’m going to use it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What were the records that meant the most to you when you were
young?

Mr. ELBA: Well, interestingly a lot of African music - because my
parents - my dad is huge on African, especially Congolese music from the
Congo, which is melodic and it’s bossa nova sounding, lots of guitars.
So some of those records, for which - I don’t even what they’re saying
because they’re speaking in French but these records mean a lot to me. I
grew up, you know, in the vinyl era so I remember seeing - oh my God - I
remember seeing Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster” on 12 and like, oh my
God, playing that record as loud as you could and just (unintelligible)
forever.

I remember there was a record called “Disco” it was like D-I-S-C-O. It
was an old school record and it was one of the first records I bought.
It was like seven inch and I remember, you know, you had to put the
little round thing in the middle of the record before you could play it
because you had a hole in it. You know, these are records that I grew up
with as a kid. I mean, my house - my dad would have the music and the
TV, all on at the same time - I mean all day, all day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: I remember doing my homework to the sound of thumping bass
underneath us. Like, my bedroom would be above the living room and I’ll
be doing my homework and that was my soundtrack. It was like listening
to my dad’s music.

GROSS: Well, I think it’s time to hear you sing. So let’s play some of
your music and this isn’t a final mix, so it’s not like it’s out yet.
It’s not – but you’ve kindly allowed us to play some of it anyways. So
we’re going to hear “The Best I Can” and I should say, you’re recoding
this under the name Driis as in Idris but spelled D-R-I-I-S adding that
extra I in the middle.

Mr. ELBA: Ah, Very clever. Little letter – little letter play like that.

GROSS: And do you want to say anything to introduce yourself.

Mr. ELBA: Yeah. “Best I Can” like, you know, I’ve been in music for a
long time in my bedroom, always had the equipment and stuff and, you
know, I just figured out that I want to put some music out there. I
didn’t - I’m not a singer, but I can sing. I can hold a note I guess.
And I just wanted to put some songs out. “Best I Can” is a part of a
collection of records that I’m going to put out maybe at the end of this
year. And you know, that this – it’s kind of like hybrid of all the
music I like. I love all kinds of music. So “Best I Can” is kind of like
of R&B soulful joint, but there’s elements of reggae in it, so take a
listen and tell me what you think.

GROSS: So here’s “The Best I Can” sung by my guest Idris Elba, recording
under the name Driis and again this isn’t available yet. This is just a
sneak peak preview.

(Soundbite of song, “The Best I Can”)

Mr. ELBA: (Singing) The best that I can (unintelligible) Here I go. Here
I stand. The best that I can. Here I am. (unintelligible) I done seen
the pain that you have carried for me. And I want to fix that. Whoa.

GROSS: It’s my guest Idris Elba singing. He’s best known for his role as
Stringer Bell on “The Wire” and he’s about to join the cast of “The
Office” for six episodes, where he’ll play Michael’s new boss. Well, I
think that sounds pretty good.

Mr. ELBA: Thank you.

GROSS: You were telling me before we started recording the interview
that you’ve been taking singing lessons.

Mr. ELBA: Yeah. I just wanted to learn how to use my voice a little bit.
As an actor, you know, you use your voice and you use you diaphragm and
all of that stuff, but in terms of in the studio and singing songs -
that’s a completely different animal. So I’m working with a guy called
Roger, who’s phenomenal and he’s helping me, you know, develop my sound.
You know, my music, I guess my voice is influenced by reggae, just
reggae songs, like, I grew up around a lot of reggae. And, you know,
Gregory Isaacs for example like his voice is just so textured when he
sings these great love songs.

GROSS: Can you tell me something you’ve learned about your voice from
singing lessons?

Mr. ELBA: Wow. It’s powerful, my voice is very powerful. I didn’t know
that I can sing pretty loud, and I didn’t know that. I did - back in the
day - I did a show called “Guys and Dolls.” I played Big Julie.

GROSS: Oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: Big Julie.

GROSS: You’ve got to sing, I’ve got the horse right here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: I got the horse, right, exactly. And that was the first time I
ever sung. And I remember the - you know, it was part of the National
Theater’s Youth Program and they took, you know, very talented kids, put
them in professional shows and took them all around the world and I was
cast in the show. And that was the first time I sung and they told me
you got a great singing voice for musicals. And I was like yeah, yeah,
yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: And I never did it. And here I am singing again.

GROSS: Oh that’s great, that’s great. If you’re just joining us, my
guest is Idris Elba. He played Stringer Bell on “The Wire” and he’s
about to join the cast of “The Office” for six episodes in which he’ll
play Michael’s new boss. Let’s take a short break here and then we’ll
talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

Mr. ELBA: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Idris Elba and he started on “The Wire” as Stringer
Bell who is a drug dealer and now he’s starting on “The Office” for six
episodes playing Michael’s new boss. Can you tell us about the
neighborhood you grew up in, in England?

Mr. ELBA: Yeah. I’m an East Londoner. And, actually, I was born within a
three mile radius of the Bow Bells. If you’re born within three mile
radius of the Bow Bells, you’re what is known as a Cockney. So I am
literally a Cockney. I was born in Forest Gate and moved to Hackney as a
young kid. Hackney is very much like Queens, if you like.

GROSS: That Queens, New York?

Mr. ELBA: Queens, New York. Where Brixton is more like Brooklyn, Hackney
is more like Queens where it’s working class neighborhood, mixed, decent
schools. My parents loved Hackney and then when I was around nine, 10,
they decided to move to another area called Canning Town, which is
further East and, at the time, was 90 percent white and they didn’t like
black people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: Truth of the matter. I remember arriving at school, I think in
my first week, being chased home by a bunch of white kids calling the
all kinds of stuff. And I remember thinking. what? I came from Hackney
where that’s just, like, unheard of. I get to Canning Town and I’m
dealing with this and it was like traumatic.

GROSS: So when you moved to the United States, was the experience of
being black here, both as an actor and just as a person, much difference
than your range of experiences than in England?

Mr. ELBA: Yeah definitely. I mean African-American culture was - I
wasn’t, sort of, alien to it because it came to England as part of hip-
hop music and R&B and the video and the “Fresh Prince” and “The Cosby
Show,” so, you know what I mean? I was very much aware of what was
happening in America. But, you know, England is primarily Afro-
Caribbeans: So Jamaicans, West Indians, and Africans, okay? That’s the
black culture.

And I get to the - I get to America and there’s African-Americans all of
a sudden and it’s completely different, you know. I remember thinking
when I got to America, I was like, I’d ask someone so where you from.
And they’d be like, Brooklyn. Yeah, but wait, where are you really from?
Brooklyn. Oh, you mean my parents? Pennsylvania. I’ll be like, wow, hold
on a second. Like, I couldn’t understand that, you know, you don’t have
no roots to Africa or the West Indies. That was a shock for me.

I didn’t - I didn’t get that at first. But I celebrated the African-
American culture because I think it’s one of the most successful
cultures in the world considering what - what our culture has been
through. And I think that was a huge part of my draw here. I felt that
in England - it’s sort of like a glass ceiling to what you could do
there culturally from within ourselves. You know, my parents will be
like, why do you want to be an actor? Actors don’t make money. You want
to work in Fords, with me. No. That was considered a good job, stable
job.

GROSS: Working in the Ford factory?

Mr. ELBA: Yeah. You go to America and the African-Americans are running
businesses. And so, I came here to pursue acting because the characters
that I’m seeing in films – I mean, you’ve got movie stars, black movies
stars. There’s no black movies stars in England, no one at the time. I
remember one of my first auditions as an actor. I was in the room with
an actor I’d been watching for 10 years. He was 20 years older than me.
And he and I was up for the same part. I was like huh? How - how? What?
He looked young and he looked great but he and I were up to the same
part and I was like this cannot be. Like, how am I going to survive as
an actor out here, my ambition is way too big for the room, so America -
America was where I ended up.

GROSS: You said there were no black movies stars in England and they’re
certainly are in the United States. And of course you played with one of
them, Denzel Washington in “American Gangster.” And I read a quote from
you where you said, Denzel never shows up on the set, it’s his character
who comes to work. I’m wondering what that was like for you. If you’d
worked with actors like that before who stay in character on the set?
And if that’s the story, anything for you as an actor - as an actor who
isn’t that way?

Mr. ELBA: No, no, no. I mean growing up as an actor, when I was about
18, 19, I was fascinated with Robert De Niro like - Robert De Niro was
my idol, and a huge method actor. So, you know, I was very aware of the
method and I wanted to practice it for myself. But you know, it’s kind
of not the kind of practice you can do for every role, okay. I’m sure
Denzel doesn’t use the method for all his roles. I think in the case of
Frank Lucas in “American Gangster,” which was an intense role and he was
in New York, I think that worked for him to stay in character.

It’s not disorienting for me at all. I sometimes stay in character when

I’m working. Especially, you know, like for example in “The Office,”
right now I’m playing Charles Minor. It’s very tough - excuse me - to
have personal conversations as Idris while I’m playing Charles. So I
rather not have conversations, or I’ll speak in an American accent the
whole time. And - which makes me feel like a fake, of course, because
people would say, so where are you from, I’m like London.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: No, no, really, where are you from. You know, London - East
London. And they were like, okay. It makes feel like a fake but - you
know, so I guess that’s kind of a method, you know, staying in
character. But I’m doing that because my accent - I don’t want my accent
to slip.

GROSS: So, just one more thing. Do you spend a lot of time eavesdropping
on conversations on the streets and in restaurants just to hear
different versions of American accents?

Mr. ELBA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean I have a mental rolodex of so much
stuff. Like, I’ll just - I’ll, you know, buy a newspaper from the
newsstand and if the guy says something that - I’ll ask him, where are
you from bro? Like I just have - I’ve done it forever. Even before I was
an actor, I just love to listen to the way people speak. When I was in
New York auditioning, I would walk around with American accent all day
and see if I could fool people, like the bus driver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How would you know if you were fooling him or not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: Because if he said, what - what did you say? Where are you
from? Then it wasn’t working. But if he was like, alright bro. Then, I
know, yeah, he thinks I’m from Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you hardly watched “The Wire” because you don’t like watching
yourself. Are you going to watch “The Office”? It’s just half-hour
episodes. It’s easy to take, even if it’s…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …you watching yourself.

Mr. ELBA: I’m - you know what. I’ll buy the DVD.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELBA: I - I won’t actually watch it while it’s on. It’s too much
pressure. I don’t read reviews. I don’t - you know, I probably won’t
listen to this radio interview. I just, you know, I love sharing, but at
the same time, I don’t like watching myself sharing.

GROSS: Okay. Idris Elba, thanks so much for talking with us. I really
appreciate it. Thank you.

Mr. ELBA: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s been great. Thank you.

GROSS: Idris Elba will co-star in NBC’s “The Office” for six episodes
starting next Thursday, playing Michael Scott’s boss. Elba played
Stringer Bell in the HBO series “The Wire.” His new movie “Obsessed”
opens next month. He just completed work on the movie “Bone Deep” which
is scheduled to open next year. Elba is featured in the first episode of
the series “The Number One Latest Detective Agency” which premiers on
HBO, March 29th. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by Bonnie Prince
Billy, who is also known as the actor Will Oldham. This is FRESH AIR.
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‘Beware’: Lovely, Lonely Cowboy Songs

TERRY GROSS, host:

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of “Beware” the new album by Bonnie
Prince Billy. That’s the alter ego of Will Oldham, a prolific singer-
songwriter who has released scores of albums, singles and collaborations
with other musicians. Ken says this Bonnie Prince Billy project is
filled with exciting, if often deceptively laid back country rock music.

(Soundbite of song, “You Can’t Hurt Me Now”)

Mr. BONNIE PRINCE BILLY (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Oh, I know,
everyone knows, oh, I have seen that’s a thing about (unintelligible)
you can love, if

KEN TUCKER: That lovely melody with its plaintive Bonnie Prince Billy
vocal, keening pedal-steel guitar and loping tempo, is typical of the
song-craft Will Oldham offers on this superb new album “Beware.” The
first time you hear that song called “You Can’t Hurt Me Now,” it’s easy
to get carried along by its sweeping beauty and miss the fact that its
lyric is all about isolation and loneliness. The more I feel myself, the
more alone I am, sings Bonnie Prince Will Oldham, and you feel for his
desolation. It only gets prettier, and more despairing.

(Soundbite of song, “Beware Your Only Friend”)

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) I want to be your only friend, my (unintelligible)
don’t wish it so, watch out for these silent (unintelligible), that’s
where you see a soul-sucking (unintelligible), oh, where
(unintelligible) take the (unintelligible).

TUCKER: That song, “Beware Your Only Friend,” is a fine jangle of
country-rock complete with violin veering into fiddle. It’s about
friendship turned into, as the narrator puts it, “soul-sucking.” While
Oldham’s collaborators chime in with companionable harmony vocals, his
words are at odds with such harmony, speaking of the ways in which
people who like each other inevitably disappoint and fail each other.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) I wanted (unintelligible) love to I have and what I
do, then I met you, you couldn’t care less if I were lord of Japan half
the man of what I am, you say you like my eyes (unintelligible) just the
way I (unintelligible) sometimes of me or how my stomach jiggles, but
you don’t love me, that’s all right, (unintelligible) all through the
night.

TUCKER: In the past, Will Oldham has released music with distorted
chords and jagged variations on old gospel and blues music. But in a
recent interview in The New Yorker, Will Oldham described his Bonnie
Prince Billy persona as, “A Brill Building or Nashville songwriter who
sings songs with verses, choruses, and bridges”.

In other words, Oldham sees Prince Billy as expressing his most
commercial side — but commercial on his own stubborn terms, which have a
distinctly lonesome cowboy pokiness. It’s a pokiness I really enjoy, to
be sure, but it’s also not the kind of Nashville songwriting that shows
up in the current music of hitmakers like Sugarland or Taylor Swift.
It’s more like Willie Nelson meets Gram Parsons’ version of the Byrds —
Bonnie Prince Billy is a sweetheart of the rodeo.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) I don’t belong to anyone, there’s no one who’ll
take care of me, it’s kind of easy someone, when you don’t belong to
anyone, time has come play childish games, to (unintelligible) if I
follow the (unintelligible) for a moment I thought I had someone…

TUCKER: Will Oldham has another alter ego besides Bonnie Prince Billy —
he’s done quite a bit of acting, in movies such as “Junebug,” “Old Joy”
and the recent Michelle Williams’ movie “Wendy and Lucy.” In almost
everything he does, Oldham radiates a kind of resignation that can
either be genial or despairing.

He seems consumed by his own thoughts, whether on screen or in a piece
of music. But there’s one crucial key to the success of Oldham’s art, he
never comes off self-absorbed. When he titled this album “Beware,” it
may have been a signal that we should come prepared not merely to hear
his thoughts, but to hear ourselves, and some of our common fears and
insecurities, in this lovely, passionate music.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed “Beware” the new CD by Bonnie Prince Billy. You can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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