Idris Elba: If I’m going to watch TV it wouldn’t be a period drama, put it that way’

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Since The Wire, the actor has fought against being stereotyped. Now hes tackling the UKs diversity problem with a BBC takeover

Who wants to be that bloke whos always banging on about diversity? Not Idris Elba, certainly. Its become a bit of a corny word, he sighs. People are just like: Oh, stop talking about it. True, the endless reports, broadcaster targets and media representation surveys can be dull; though, crucially, not nearly as dull as yet another cosy British period drama or all-male panel show. And so, in January last year, big-time Hollywood actor Idris Elba was persuaded to give a boring (his word) speech at the Houses of Parliament. At the event, arranged by Labour politician Oona King, he called for a change of mindset among broadcasters.

Elba wants to make clear that the speech was given under some duress. Oona certainly pulled me by the scruff of the neck and was like: Get up there and say it! he says. She pushed me to go even further and, yknow, Oona is one of the most powerful people I know, and very persuasive. He chuckles, giving the bassy laugh of a cockney grandee. Very persuasive.

Idris Elba addresses the Houses of Parliament in January 2016. Photograph: Channel 4/PA

Baroness King, now working in California as YouTubes diversity director, confirms this account: He said: No, I dont want to just give a speech about black people. He didnt want to be further labelled, because when youre labelled your whole life you get sick of it. But I reminded him he has an extraordinary power to make people listen. To start doing night shifts in a car factory in Dagenham and end up a global Hollywood A-lister is almost impossible. Its to defy every label.

After Elbas speech, more actors started flexing their power, too. Selma star David Oyelowo spoke at a London film festival symposium calling for more black-orientated historical films and, at the beginning of this month, Riz Ahmed was in parliament warning that a lack of TV diversity may put us in danger of losing people to extremism. Ahmeds speech overshadowed one given the same day by BBC director-general Tony Hall, in which he admitted that most top BBC posts still go to white men. The following week, the head of Ofcom cited audience research saying the BBC is overly focused on middle-aged, middle-class audiences. More speeches, more reports, more targets.

A year after he went to parliament, however, Elba will be putting his words into action with a curated season of shows on BBC3. The week-long Idris Takeover will include elements of drama (his own series of short films, Five By Five), music and documentary, none of it boring and all of it made by a truly diverse team both on and off screen.

Elba as Russell Stringer Bell in HBOs The Wire. Photograph: BBC/HBO

Theres still far to go and, since Elba has already come such a long way, any weariness would be understandable. He was raised in east London by a Ghanaian mother and a Sierra Leonean father and educated at a special school on account of his severe asthma. He had already been acting on and off for years before he got the role that meant hed never again have to play Thug No 2 on Crimewatch. That role was sagacious drug industry CEO Stringer Bell in The Wire.

He was 30 then, and 32 when Stringer was killed off, three seasons in. Yeah, I was definitely panicked at losing my job, he says now. I wasnt a household name, I was part of a very successful show and then I was off that successful show. But, yknow, from the day I decided I wanted to be an actor, which was probably [when I was] 13-and-a-half years old in a drama class, Ive never, ever worried about if Im going to get there Ive just got there.

It was in the same spirit that the 29-year-old Elba took himself off to live in New York City. Samuel L Jackson has recently reminded us how fraught the issue of black British actors decamping to the States can be but for Elba it was a straightforward expedient: These people that were breaking through the glass ceiling were plentiful there, everyone was on the same hustle and I wanted to be among that mindset, he says, before adding in the same breath, but my home is England. My natural voice in entertainment comes from TV drama, comes from the stage here.

Idris Elba as DCI John Luther in the hit BBC series Luther. Photograph: Sarah Dunn/AP

Even post-speech, Elbas continued ambivalence about being a spokesperson for diversity is evident, but he is keen on demystifying the path to success for others starting out where he did. I am just an actor, not a brain surgeon, he says. But Im not afraid to say: Yeah, look at me as an example, go for it. For him, having the autonomy to work on projects that reflect his own interests is as much a mark of achievement as industry acclaim, because the idea of success is elitist. The truth is anyone can be successful, thats the irony of it.

But can anyone get the roles they want? Thandie Newton recently bemoaned the limited parts available to non-white actors on UK television, saying I love it here, but I cant work because I cant do Downton Abbey. By contrast, one of Elbas first roles was as an African petty thief in the 1890s-set drama Bramwell, so does he agree that our obsession with period dramas hinders projects such as Five By Five?

Theres definitely a particular lens on the type of period dramas that we make, he says, choosing his words carefully. You tend to see stories about well-to-do Victorians and not the stories outside London, the history of Bradford, Birmingham, Newcastle. Make period pieces more diverse. Look at Englands multicultural history. Theres a lot more stuff to unearth in period drama. Im not a massive fan of it You mean you dont like watching it? If Im going to watch TV it wouldnt be a period drama, put it that way.

Elba DJs at Glastonbury in June 2015. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty

As someone whose acting career was shaped by outreach programmes such as the Princes Trust, what is his view on government arts cuts in schools, where the English baccalaureate has arguably pushed out many arts subjects in favour of more academic ones? Its very sad and short-sighted. There needs be to be a deeper analysis of how useful art is to society. How encouraging it is to a young mind, he says. Were a species that celebrates music, why cant we learn that in school and get funding to encourage that? Its massively disappointing to me.

Music in particular has been a constant source of solace and inspiration at all stages of Elbas unusual journey. Even in the early days, when I was like: Oh, Im gonna be an actor, and everyone was going: Pah, shut up, actor!, then Id go and DJ with my uncle, or in the sound system. It was always a grounding thing.

For the music component of his BBC3 takeover, Elba collaborated with 26-year-old Jamal Edwards, the founder of youth broadcaster SBTV and an Official Young Person. Ive known Idris for quite a few years now and his way of working has always been big, says Edwards approvingly. And if Elba has some naff dad tunes at the bottom of his record box, Edwards is too much of a mensch to let on: I think the 20-year age gap isnt a difference, because weve both got similar music tastes; just anything with a good beat.

Elba as the Commandant in Beasts of No Nation. Photograph: Netflix

So when Elba says that he communicated easily with the young writing team for Five By Five, his takeovers flagship drama, you believe him. In fact, if anyone was intimidated, it was him: I dont ever do writers rooms as an actor, but that was a really good, healthy experience. If you didnt like another writers idea, they were like: Nah, nah, that doesnt work. It was quite an open forum, quite honest.

Whatever happened in that writers room, it worked. Shot mostly in west London, the five interconnected short films combine to build a radical portrait of the contemporary city, which is recognisable yet retains a sense of wonder at lifes little coincidences. In one segment, a romantic gesture between commuters goes awry; in another two policemen disagree over the use of stop-and-search tactics. Its Notting Hill if Richard Curtis had grown up on a council estate listening to Rinse FM. It was an opportunity to put a lens on some stuff that is tied to my speech. Its the idea that we should emancipate our minds and think outside the box.

Michael Ajao, Sydney Craven and Jasmine Jobson in Five By Five. Photograph: Sally Mais/BBC/Green Door

It also works as an encouraging example of what top-to-bottom diversity might look like on screen. Five By Five head writer Cat Jones says this is down to Elbas way of combining a great producers head with a mentoring instinct. I have to say his commitment to helping people at the beginning of their careers is fantastic. You know, a lot of people talk about doing that, but his actions absolutely back up his words.

In his parliament speech Elba gave a shoutout to US showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes. Shondaland shows including Scandal and Greys Anatomy are known as much for their no-big-deal diversity as for their demographic-straddling popularity. Would Elba be the UKs answer to Shonda?

I dont know if Ive got the talent shes incredible. But we need production companies to think like Shonda, to go: All right, lets take over a whole night of British TV with stuff that doesnt normally get on TV, absolutely. Which sounds like a Yes to us.

Five By Five is available from 27 March on BBC3 as part of The Idris Takeover

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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