Not exactly sure what to make of this Idris Elba profile in The New York Times today. Elba, the star of “The Wire” and the movie “Obsessed,” comes off as both a focused businessman and, well, kind of a jerk. I’m not sure any of that matters in how I see him as an actor, because Idris Elba is good enough that I don’t see him, the actor, in anything — I see the character he’s playing, whether it’s Stringer Bell or Guy #2 (Tango, IMDB says) in “American Gangster.”
What’s interesting in this profile, though, is that the writer constructs a kind of negative picture of the guy — as though there’s something to be studied, something unnatural, about his insistence on seeing acting as his job, not his life:
Though in real life Mr. Elba’s jaunty accent comes from East London, not Baltimore, in a phone interview from his Florida home he sounded much like the driven Stringer, who ran heroin-distribution meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Stringer had no interest in cred-building gangster posturing, and Mr. Elba has little patience for the actor’s equivalent: endless prattling about art and the corresponding reluctance to speak frankly about one’s own ambitions.
Idris Elba is in the Idris Elba business. And he seems as interested in talking about the game beyond the game — the step-by-step process of becoming a star — as he is in talking about the action comedy “The Losers,” out on Friday.
You can almost feel the writer’s glee as, after talking about Elba is so professional and focused, he includes quote after quote that could be potentially damaging — Elba criticizing James Gandolfini’s career path, Elba “systematically” courting audiences, Elba wishing for Johnny Depp’s career.
It’s an interesting twist, an attempt to write a non-standard profile. I’m not convinced this desire to treat becoming a celebrity as a career goal is something that’s unique to Elba, though, and it’s weird to see the entire piece framed that way, instead of having it focus on the obvious available testaments to his talent.
A reader who goes into this piece having never seen Idris Elba in anything would, I think, be a little less inclined to seek him out in the next thing, which is a shame.
I have mixed feelings when artists begin to believe there’s a mathematical path to success, but what Elba’s talking about isn’t the path to artistic success, it’s the path to material, professional success. I’d be happy to see Elba succeed (and yeah, I’m looking forward to “Thor”), but I’m not terribly entertained by the Times’s attempt to turn his efforts at that into something that’s exceptional and a little scorn-worthy.