The crime drama Luther returns to BBC America for its third installment (airing as a four-night event from September 3rd through September 6th), which finds Detective John Luther (Idris Elba) struggling to cope with his own demons. He’s back under intense pressure, with two conflicting crimes to investigate and a ruthless ex-cop determined to bring him down, all while attempting to pursue a chance at happiness with Mary Day (Sienna Guillory).
During a recent interview to promote the return of what is truly one of the most compelling shows on television, actor Idris Elba (who has won a Golden Globe Best Actor award for his work on the series) talked about the overall theme of Season 3, how much John Luther has changed since Season 1, Luther’s new love interest versus his relationship with Alice (Ruth Wilson), why he thinks Luther is a perfect character for the big screen, what excites him about exploring a prequel story, and the chances of possible future seasons. He also talked about balancing his work on the series with all of the films he’s been doing, his preparation to play Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom, how his experience on The Wire fits into the arc of his career, his desire to do another American TV series, and where he’d like to take his career, in the future. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
IDRIS ELBA: Internally, we wanted to get closer to Luther and not follow a route of him getting more and more depressed, taking drugs and wanting to shoot himself. We wanted to get to know him a little bit better and find out what he would do under pressure. Understanding the legacy of everything he’s lived with, how do we get into that? Having him investigated was the ultimate autopsy on him. And we wanted to make that stretch over the season, so that at the end, when we say the last words, “Now what?,” we wanted the audience to say, “Now what?,” and literally look at Luther and go, “I don’t know where you can go from here, pal.” We wanted to really look at the weight of his actions and how that’s changed him, or not changed him. At the same time, we want to really keep our audience thrilled. Our bad guys in Luther are always vivid and horrible, but we wanted to enhance that this season, elevating it in a darker way. That was the theme we wanted to explore.
How has Luther changed between Season 1 and Season 3? Do you think the Luther of Season 1 could ever have handled an investigation like this?
ELBA: No. Season 1 Luther was coming out of the end of a very weird, dark time. It was stuff that we didn’t really explore, but post-traumatic stuff happened. He was willing to kill someone, practically, in the first season, in order to get to the truth. By Season 3, I think he’s stabilized himself somewhat, even though he’s gone through such trauma. He’s managed to stabilize himself, so that he doesn’t get to that place as quickly and as recklessly. There’s been a massive change for him. I wouldn’t say he’s grown up, but he’s definitely started to grasp onto the idea that he just can’t get away with the way he’s been living. That’s a big, massive arc. In Season 3, we see Luther smiling, not from irony, but from actual happiness, a couple of times. In Season 1, a lot of it was very dark.
With such scary adversaries on this show, what is the best horror story you’ve heard from fans about how the series has frightened them?
ELBA: I’ve heard a lot of people, this season, didn’t go to bed until they looked underneath their bed. I heard a lot of people stayed in their living rooms, and a couple huddled up on their sofa. True story! I was like, “You’ve gotta be joking?! There’s two of you. Why couldn’t you go to sleep?” And they said, “We just felt safer in the living room.” That’s hilarious!
What is Luther’s attraction to Mary (Sienna Guillory)?
ELBA: I think Luther’s attraction to Mary is based on how completely different and untouched she is. She’s the furthest thing away from a murder scene. She’s bizarrely isolated, in her own world and bubble. Luther is so attracted to that, that it’s like a grizzly bear being fascinated by a goldfish. When you’re going to discover whether Luther is a bad guy or not by investigating him, we certainly wanted to parallel that with him having some real feelings for someone, for a change, and going for that. With Neil [Cross] being such a creative writer, he managed to sew the two storylines in a way where it was one or the other for Luther, eventually. But, I definitely feel that Luther wanted to fall in love with someone who took him away from what he does for a living and who he has been for awhile.
With Alice (Ruth Wilson) back this season, can you talk about the bond that she and Luther share, and why it’s so strong?
ELBA: It’s just the history of who they both are and the journey that they’ve both taken, along the seasons of the show. Alice and Luther share an intellect that they both thrive on. Because of the cat-and-mouse game between the two of them, they end up being attracted to each other. They’re opposites, but they end up being attracted to each other because ultimately they each own a big secret about each other. For us, it just became a tantalizing way to explore a relationship that’s non-sexual, but has a sexual undertone to it, and it’s dangerous because we know the parameters for each character. I think that’s why we enjoy it. It’s something that we can explore on TV, as slowly as we’d like or as accelerated as we’d like.
Do you think Alice is correct in saying that happiness is what Luther thinks he wants, but that it’s not really what he wants?
ELBA: Yeah. I definitely think that she has a real understanding of what Luther aspires for. I don’t think Luther personally wants happiness, but some sort of satisfaction.
What do you think it is about Luther that makes everyone want to come after him and cause him to lose that are close to him? And did he see that pattern, before he was investigated this season?
ELBA: Luther is just a target. He’s a big target. He’s someone to blame. He’s a big, burly man who’s not afraid to have an opinion, and go in and solve cases in 10 minutes. With that comes a responsibility. If you drive a motorcycle without a helmet, the likelihood is that you’re going to get flies stuck to your face. I think that’s part of what happens with Luther, in the way he goes about his work. Going into Season 3, that was the idea. Although Luther has made this attempt to clean up his act, he wasn’t surprised that someone was sniffing about. That was very exciting for me to read, when Neil was writing that. That was really thrilling for us to explore.
ELBA: I want to be honest with you and tell you the truth, but I suspect it might be disappointing for you. Honestly, over the last three years, I’ve been dealing with a really bad injury on my ankle and I’m not sure if it’s getting better. I end up having to choose the shoes that I use for Luther very carefully. Season 1, there was a certain pair of shoes that were too tight and that hurt me when I walked a certain way. And then, this season, I changed it up. It’s a lot more technical than you’d think. It’s a great compliment. I’ve heard that Luther has a crazy walk, and that’s great, but it’s not intentional.
This season really ends with a sense of closure, much more so than the endings of Season 1 or Season 2. Did you feel that, at the end of these episodes, or did the whole idea for a prequel movie come about because you just really couldn’t feel like you could let this character go?
ELBA: Honestly, I think it’s part of the Bible of what Neil wanted for this character. It sees its roots in a book, and the TV show being what it is, I think we’ve always wanted to take it to a filmic character. This season wasn’t really designed to be closure. There’s massive symbols. Me taking off my coat and [a major character death] point towards the end, but I don’t think we did that intentionally to say, “We’re at the end of this. We’re not going to do anymore.” However, the time is really right for Luther to turn into a film, considering that we’ve had a really interesting continuing following on the show. Our intention was always to take it to a film, which is where we can really explore what makes this man tick and really understand Luther, or go on more and more weird and experimental journeys with him, by uses the film medium.
Are you excited about the possibility of exploring his life before viewers got to meet him in Season 1?
ELBA: Yeah. I think the origin story is a classic superhero type set-up, and I’ve always likened Luther to a superhero. As television makers, we bend the rules so much, so I’d be interested to understand where that came from and how we ended up in that first episode of Season 1. That would be great. That would be really exciting. But then, beyond that, I’d like to pick up after Season 3 and figure out what happens next.
What are the advantages of doing Luther in limited-run installments?
ELBA: One advantage is that I’m less depressed for most of the year, and that’s good. I like not being that depressed. It’s quite a dark show, and I take my work home with me a little bit. And number two, what we have done and taken advantage of is to study the trends of our audience. Season 1 told us that they were up for a ride with six episodes and with this weird character. That gave us a foundation to then design Season 2 and, ultimately, Season 3, knowing that the audience actually don’t need six episodes or 12 episodes. They’re happy to go on this really crazy ride in these short bursts. Especially with the gap between Season 2 and Season 3 being so far, we really understood the way that new audiences were coming to Luther was in box sets. They were soaking up these episodes and were prepared to wait for the next. The advantage, for me as an actor, is understanding what we should do next is give some space and build an arc, over time. It’s rare, definitely, for characters to be built that way on television, but it represents the new trend of how audiences are absorbing TV.
Aside from a possible movie, what are the chances of their being future seasons of Luther?
ELBA: Both Neil and I would consider it, if you could get David Bowie to come and score the next season. If you could do that, I think Neil would be writing, straight away. Now that’s a task!
It’s a big year for you, with Pacific Rim, Long Walk to Freedom, Thor 2 and Luther. How did you balance all of that, and did any of those characters bite into you as much as John Luther?
ELBA: It’s all out of sequence, by the time it comes out. This year looks incredibly busy for me because they’re all coming out, at the same time. Really, the balance is being able to not over-saturate myself, in terms of all these films and stuff coming out at the same time. I’m also continuing my career with stuff that may end up coming out later. Mandela was definitely a very, very challenging role for me, in the way that Luther is. It’s very absorbing. Doing Mandela about a year ago now, and then doing Luther, they’re both very complex characters that are demanding of my time. But, this is what I do for a living. I enjoy the process of jumping from one person to another.
Do you take on roles in films like Thor and Pacific Rim because they’re these big, fun movies and you want to balance out the darkness of Luther?
ELBA: Honestly, I like to look at that genre of film and be in those films because my daughter, who’s 11, loves that type of film. Stacker Pentecost (in Pacific Rim) wasn’t particularly fun, but that type of film is fun. Even Thor is not so much fun to actually make. But, they’re very different, compared to Luther or Mandela, which are quite serious bits of work. I like having all of that on my resume.
ELBA: Believe it or not, she actually snuck away and watched the first two seasons. She said, “I love it, dad!,” and I said, “You’re not supposed to be watching it!” But, she’s a big fan of it. She hasn’t seen the third season yet.
Did you get to meet Nelson Mandela before portraying him in Long Walk to Freedom?
ELBA: I didn’t meet Mr. Mandela, no. He was very ill. He wasn’t hands on, on the project. His foundation was very much connected, but I wasn’t speaking to him, personally.
Since you didn’t meet Mandela, how did you prepare to play such an iconic person?
ELBA: The preparation varied, during the stages. I knew about Mandela while I was working on another film, so the first preparation for me was really about just reading and watching a lot of films and documentaries on the man, and that time in history in South Africa. And then, as I got closer to production, I was in South Africa about six weeks prior to shooting anything, just to understand the culture and understand the logistics of where we were and what was happening, at the time. I visited a lot of places and people, and had conferences with people. I tended not to meet people that knew him too personally, just because I wanted to stay away from too many anecdotes that could color my performance. But, everybody has a Mandela story in South Africa, that’s for sure. I was inundated with a wealth of information, and that was my preparation. And there was some physical stuff and some make-up stuff that we had to do. I had to understand and absorb, before I started playing him.
ELBA: The Wire was my opening for my career in America, so it’s very significant to my career. It completely put me on the map. It was some of my best work. As a young actor, doing that show for three years, I really got to build a character slowly and hone it. So, it was very significant for my career, working on The Wire.
Would you ever be interested in doing an American TV series again, or are films your priority now?
ELBA: Yes, I would be interested in working on American TV. Television, for me, is a medium that I’m probably always going to be attached to, one way or another. My film career has been very kind to me, and I’m building in that world, but honestly, so far, my biggest challenges have been in television. I definitely would like to see myself back on a great American TV show again.
If you were offered two things at the same time, like the chance to take on something as iconic as James Bond or the Doctor (from Doctor Who), or to do Luther or another role that you helped create yourself, which is the more exciting and fulfilling for you?
ELBA: I would definitely choose Luther, or a role that I helped create. There’s a lot more longevity in that, for me, and creative input. I think I’m really excited to get into the next stage of me, as an actor. Writing, directing and creating a character that I will play is the way forward for me. So, I think I would definitely choose a role that I could create.
There have been rumblings that you should take over as James Bond, when Daniel Craig quits. Would you be interested in that, and do you think you have what it takes to be 007?
ELBA: Honestly, it’s a rumor that’s decided to eat itself. It’s a very kind rumor because it’s an iconic role. I guess you have to have certain attributes to play Bond. Do I have the attributes? I don’t know. Considering that my favorite Bonds are Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, I don’t compare myself to them very much. It would be an honor, of course, to play the part, but it is a massive rumor.
You’re certainly at a point where you could become a major star in the Hollywood system. Is that important to you, or do you just care about the type of work you’re getting?
ELBA: I think what’s more important is the kind of work I’ve been getting. Most actors want to get that Hollywood status and be up there with the greats in the premiere league of acting, so to speak. But from my perspective, it’s the work and it’s the jobs. I turned down a couple of films that would have taken me towards Hollywood to do Luther. Luther, which was a lateral step, ultimately ended up taking me further towards Hollywood. I really just chose a character that I could sink my teeth into, and that would be very different from everything else I’d done before. So, as much as it’s nice to step into that massive world of Hollywood and be a big, famous actor, I prefer the career of actors that have really chosen smartly and done really amazing performances. Maybe they’re not as known, but their careers are a bit more interesting.
Are you at a place to have the ability or power to get the projects that you want?
ELBA: No, I’m not. It’s a treadmill. I’m not at a place where I can just greenlight stuff. But, I’m at a place with my confidence where I know what I would like to see made and say, “You know what? I think I’m gonna go for this.” Most actors go for it, whether they want to direct or they want to start buying the rights to stuff, and I think I’m certainly in that lane, at the moment. I think the future is a combination of me doing films that I’ve created and nurtured, and then other stuff, as well.
Season 3 of Luther will be airing on BBC America on September 3rd through September 6th.