From the evil alien foe Krall in Star Trek Beyond, which was partly shot in Dubai, to the battle-hardened guerrilla commandant in Netflix’s harrowing debut feature Beasts of No Nation, and the tortured murder detective in the globally successful detective-show Luther, British actor Idris Elba has made a career out of playing tough guys.
His latest show for Discovery Channel, Idris Elba: Fighter, however, sets out to test not just whether he can play a tough guy, but whether he can be one for real.
The show follows Elba over the course of a 12-month challenge – to train as a professional kick-boxer. The star travels extensively to famed martial-arts centres such as Japan and Thailand, and to less obvious locations such as Cuba and South Africa, training extensively alongside martial arts masters.
He is ultimately required to prove his success by entering the ring with a bona fide champion kick-boxer for a no-holds-barred bout.
In case the challenge wasn’t tough enough, Elba wasn’t able to fully dedicate a year to the project, but instead had to fit it around his day job, which at the time included shooting for his major roles in both Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok and Nikolaj Arcel’s Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower.
How did the producers of these big-budget blockbusters feel about the constant risk of losing one of their key cast members to injury?
“They had no choice,” the star laughs. “It [Fighter] was sort of pre-dating them. So, as long as I didn’t spar or, you know, damage my face, then I was fine. But I didn’t give them a choice to say whether I can do it or not. I was already doing it by the time I got onto both those films. I was respectful of the requirements of my day job.
“I didn’t want to jeopardise any filming or budgets by being silly and sparring and hurting myself. So, I just trained at those times with extreme fitness training, which helped for both because they were very extreme films.”
Although after watching the show it is clear that Elba’s training and development are very much a real thing, he admits that his acting skills did help him rise to the challenge.
“Sometimes when you’re working on a film set, you come in and the director will say: ‘I want you to do this’, and you go: ‘I’ve never done that before’. So then you take two hours to learn this one skill for a shot that lasts two seconds. That mindset, definitely, I had to use to learn kick-boxing very quickly.”
And how about Elba’s fellow fighters, who may have studied for years to reach their current skill level? Did Elba feel any sense of resentment to this interloper from Hollywood claiming he could learn to do their job in a year?
“A lot of them didn’t understand why I was doing it,” he admits. “Some of them thought I was crazy, some of them thought I was brave, some of them thought it was great, and some of them thought it wasn’t so great. It was mixed reactions, really.”
Another group of people with mixed reactions were Elba’s family.
His mother, in particular, wasn’t a fan. “My mum wasn’t that impressed with me at all,” he concedes.
“She came to one of the fights and it was pretty harrowing for her. I drew that fight, but I got knocked down in the third round, and it was a pretty brutal uppercut that took me down.” At least his kids were more positive about it. “My daughter was very into it,” Elba says. “My son came to training with me. He’s in the film – he came out to Thailand when we trained there. So, my kids were into it. They’re sort of used to daddy being a bit stupid in that sense, I guess.”
Elba is now taking a well-earned rest after his trials. With some already wrapped projects, including Thor: Ragnarok and The Dark Tower, a role alongside Kate Winslett in disaster/romance The Mountain Between Us, and Sky Atlantic’s political mini-series Guerilla set to hit screens over the next few months, Elba is taking a break from acting.
His major mission for the rest of the year is making his feature-directing debut on the adaptation of Victor Headley’s Brit gangster novel Yardie.
Fans of Elba the actor need not worry, though – he still has plenty of ambitions in front of camera, too.
“I’d like to work with Ridley Scott again. I really enjoyed working with him and he’s an incredible director,” he adds.
“I’d like to work with Paul T Anderson who directed There Will Be Blood. I think he’s incredible. Denzel Washington would be a good person to do a film with. I did one with him before. It was a smaller part, but I’d like to work with him again. He’s just a legend. So is Meryl Streep. I’d love to work with Meryl Streep.”
With the actor currently enjoying the peak of his career, we’re sure he won’t be short of offers.
•Idris Elba: Fighter debuts tomorrow at 10.50pm on Discovery Channel (OSN channel 500)