Idris Elba: ‘You need a good coat if you’re going to be a detective’

The actor and musician answers your questions on how to stare down a lion, what Luther would say to Stringer Bell – and whether he was named after the dragon from Ivor the Engine

What’s your best survival tip on how to avoid getting eaten by a giant lion? TopTramp

Stay quiet, stay still, don’t move around too much because they will find you, then radio for help. There are no real lions in my new film, Beast: it’s all CGI. They took lots of photos of an actual lion in its real environment to see what the light was doing and how the fur would move.

Did Nelson Mandela really think it was him in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom because you were so convincing? LarboIreland

Ha! No. There’s a picture of me replicating a famous picture of him. I look so like him in the picture that someone thought it was the original photo. But it wasn’t Nelson Mandela, for sure.

What was the best crime you reconstructed when you were an actor for Crimewatch? MrBlancmange

My very first job was for a government infomercial, trying to dissuade people from not locking up their bikes. It went: “Make sure you lock up your bike, otherwise it’ll get nicked.” I play a cyclist who gets his bike nicked, running up the road, shouting: “That’s my bike!”

Then on Crimewatch, I played a bunch of criminals in all these reconstructions that were pretty realistic and a bit rough. There used to be this reallyprestigious, beautiful Mercedes dealership down London’s Mile End Road, not far from Bow Road underground station. I remember driving past and seeing all these lovely cars. Then these 10 guys walked in and stole them all. It was a heist. So they did a re-enactment and I played one of the drivers.

Watch the trailer for Beast.

When did you realise that you had become such an important, representative and historic part of The Wire? DeJongandtherestless

When we shot the pilot, there was a sense that Stringer Bell was an important character. As an actor, you never know where these things are going to go. But when the first season became popular in the States, it dawned on me that this was a big show. When HBO decided they were going to continue my storyline – I was only supposed to be in one season – I realised: wow, people really love this show.

Would Luther have been more or less effective if he wore a leather jacket like Bergerac, raincoat like Columbo, smoking jacket like Poirot, gadget coat like Inspector Gadget or a felt bucket hat like Miss Marple? OverLunder, TopTramp and Hooplehead1967

I think if he wore an Inspector Gadget coat he might have been less effective because everyone would have seen him coming! But Luther’s coat was definitely what he loved; it was his Superman outfit. What is it about detectives and coats? It’s their uniform, their office. It’s where they keep all their notes, their guns, their evidence. You need a good coat if you’re going to be a detective, otherwise you’re going to have things in your jeans and in your pockets. You don’t want that.

Any headway on the next Luther series or film? Manaochi and Wazza10

We’ve shot the film. About a year ago, I spoke to the press saying we’re going to make a film one day, and we’ve just finished that. So I’m really excited. Hopefully we’ve made it bigger and steeped it so it feels like a film, but we’ve really tried to be careful not to alienate the audience who loved Luther as a TV show.
How would the conversation go if Luther met Stringer Bell? sgbfab

They’re both intellectual, so I think they’d get on. Luther might ask Stringer to help him out. Stringer might say to Luther: “You can be very helpful to me and I can be very helpful to you.”

Idris Elba as Commandant in Beasts of No Nation
Idris Elba as Commandant in Beasts of No Nation. Photograph: AP

You were stellar in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Would you like to do more independent films? Manaochi

I love independent films because you get a lot more freedom; it’s a labour of love. Beasts of No Nation was a very difficult film to make, but yeah, I do want to do more independent films.

You’ve been linked to being the next James Bond. But what would be your dream role? Mike Baker, Redcar and CarolinaBeachGirl61

Right now, I’m gearing towards directing. The ultimate role would be to direct something I’m in, to do both sides of the fence. I love films that have a distinct artistic style, whether it’s an action flick or a short independent. So that’s what I’d aim for.

How did you come across Australian band Lime Cordiale for your recent collaborative EP? Seems a little niche. jeremybh

I was in Australia making a film. I have a music publisher and whenever I can get a music session with another writer, they’ll set it up. They said: “Do you like this band called Lime Cordiale?” I happened to have just heard one of their songs on the radio, so I said: “I think they’re really cool.” We went to the studio to do a remix and ended up writing an EP.

Top five rappers? ClassicMacGruber

Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, J Cole, Nas and … Rakim.

Would you rather be the world’s greatest actor or musician? Or would you trade it all in to score the winning penalty for Arsenal in the FA Cup final? Conorb2020 and catchytitled

I’d prefer to be the world’s best musician because then I could still act. Or maybe I could act and pretend to be the world’s best musician who plays for Arsenal? Where would I place the ball if I was taking the deciding penalty? Bottom right!!

Do you think that the creative industries – such as acting – are closed to younger people from poorer backgrounds whose families have no connection to the industry? Trewellardmaid

There’s clearly less opportunity for people who don’t have the finances. If you’re from a poor background, it’s unlikely you’re going to find yourself at Rada. That said, it is really up to individuals to go out and find these opportunities. If, back in the day, I’d sat back and said: “I’ll just wait for Rada to come to me,” I wouldn’t have got anywhere. [Elba attended the National Youth Music Theatre after winning a £1,500 Prince’s Trust grant.] It’s like water: some areas, there’s not much water, but if you walk far enough, there’s a well full. So that’s the attitude I always adopt. But of course there are some communities that see far less opportunity.

Are you named after Idris the dragon from [1950s–70s kids TV show] Ivor the Engine? cloggy_saint

No, but growing up, that’s all everyone called me. You’ve just reminded me to look up what Idris the dragon looks like. He looks just like me, you say? I’ll take that as a compliment.

• Beast is in UK cinemas from 26 August


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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