Idris Elba Questioned if He Was Really ‘Acting’ in Some of His Intense Roles

Actor Idris Elba has played a wide variety of roles on his rise to movie stardom. But when portraying some of his more extreme characters, Elba wondered if what he was doing could really be considered acting.

Idris Elba didn’t consider what he did ‘acting’ when playing certain characters

Idris Elba posing at the premiere of 'Knuckle' wearing a beige shirt.
Idris Elba | Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Elba has gone out of his way to play characters that are different from his previous roles. He gained momentum by portraying the iconic Stringer Bell in the hit television series The Wire. After leaving the show, it would’ve been easy for Elba to do similar characters. But he chose to branch out instead.

“Playing Stringer Bell put me on the map as an actor in America. I had worked in England and I had done decent work, but getting a role on The Wire expanded me into the US in a way that I couldn’t have hoped for,” he once said on The Talks. “And after that, I continued to get better, bigger roles; I got to work with some really good people. So The Wire really shifted my career massively. But I should be adapting and trying different things, and I think throughout my career, I’ve dodged the bullet of, ‘Oh, you were great as this role, we would love to see you play that role again.’ I have been offered roles that feel very similar to other work I’ve done, and I have definitely tried to avoid those. It can be difficult for my fanbase, they are always surprised! And whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m not sure.”

Elba’s strategy paid off, allowing him to add even more diversity to his film career. But although he set out to play a bunch of different characters, there were a few common traits he always looked for in his roles.

“The roles I take tend to have that complexity, and I enjoy diving into them, because, yeah, this is therapy time. A lot of times I read something in a script and I think, ‘I’m secretly dealing with that,’” Elba once told The Guardian.

But Elba channeled so much of his real emotions doing these characters, that he wondered if he was cheating a little when performing them.

“If you’re only dealing with certain facets of your own personality, is that really acting? People sometimes tell me, ‘You were good in this or that role’, and I think, ‘You don’t realize. I was dealing with that s*** for real,’” he said.

Idris Elba once felt playing villains was therapeutic

Perhaps the roles that offered him the most catharsis were movie villains, which Elba had portrayed quite a few times in his career. The Wire, Beasts of No Nation, and The Suicide Squad saw Elba exploring some morally questionable and downright despicable characters. But Elba felt these types of personalities offered a kind of release that other roles didn’t.

“These people get to say things that we only think in the deepest, darkest recesses of our brains,” Elba once told Wall Street Journal. “They say horrible things and scream horrible things and get to be completely socially unacceptable. As an actor, that’s sometimes a gift, sometimes a bit of therapy.”

But Elba also gave credit to the people who came up with these villainous characters to play in the first place.

“When you see a really interesting bad guy, you’re going to think about the actor, but think about the writer,” he said. “It’s the writer who’s dark. You’ve got to give him or her a hug.”

Idris Elba revealed he went to therapy because of his unhealthy work habits

As much therapy as acting might provide Elba, the Beast star recently confided that he sees an actual therapist for another reason. Speaking on the Changes With Annie MacManus podcast, Elba shared how he used therapy to combat being a workaholic.

“I’ve been in therapy the last… about a year now. It’s a lot right? In my therapy I’ve been thinking a lot about changing… like neuropaths being shifted,” Elba said. “It’s not because I don’t like myself or anything like that. It’s just because I have some unhealthy habits that have really formed. And I work in an industry that I’m rewarded for those unhealthy habits. I’m rewarded for them. I’m an absolute workaholic. And that isn’t great for life, generally.”

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