Idris Elba plays the commandant in “Beasts of No Nation,” a drama directed by Cary Fukunaga about child soldiers in West Africa, which Netflix released in October. Elba spoke to Variety about the future of smaller movies, James Bond, diversity in Hollywood and why he still loves DVDs.
You’ve said you were drawn to this story because it wasn’t just a movie about Africa. It’s about specific people.
It makes you think, “Wow, this could happen to me or my child.” It doesn’t feel like it’s a million miles away. It doesn’t feel like this is just a problem for Africa. It feels like children are susceptible to being led down the river — whether it’s ISIS, whether it’s any sort of organization that is using youth culture to strengthen their ideas. Children are vulnerable.
The star of the film is a young unknown actor named Abraham Attah from Ghana. What was it like rehearsing with him?
It was very pure. I had to be really in the moment with Abraham. He was always in the moment. Whenever there were scenes where his character was not interested in the commandant, Abraham would just ignore me.
Did you stay in character?
I kept the dynamics alive. The truth is, 200 extras were looking up to “Idris, the actor.” I used the fact that I was popular there to command their presence in real life.
How would you describe the economics of making indie films now?
Everyone is having a hard time and raising money is difficult.
Were you surprised that Netflix bought “Beasts of No Nation”?
This Netflix deal with “Beasts of No Nation” is a glimmer of hope for the small independent filmmaker. Studios passed. It’s a difficult film. But with this model, potentially 60 million people are seeing it and there’s a theatrical release. I think an independent filmmaker can look at this model and see how this happened and go, “There’s a buyer and an audience.”
As an actor, how important is it for you to have a film be seen in theaters?
I think movies will always be in the theater. We love the experiences of the theater. Cameras are designed for the big screen. That’s the way it’s supposed to be digested. But that said, trends have changed. I think it’s important for me to make a film that’s not a box office tentpole, but still have the opportunity for a lot of people to watch it.
Ted Sarandos, the chief content office for Netflix, has said that the movies he’s acquiring will tell diverse stories. At this year’s Emmys, it felt like the big TV shows were a reflection of who we are. Why are movies still behind?
If you consider the economics behind a big film, the likelihood is that the story is going to be universal. It’s been supported that big films that have no diverse direction whatsoever do well. Directed toward a certain type of person, they don’t do as well. So I think there’s a massive economic [rationale] behind it. But I think the film world is making steps. Here’s why: The world is diverse. Everyone’s color of money is the same. In movies, it’s a slow process. It’s happening. I can’t say it’s a perfect scenario.
I was honestly doing other things. I didn’t pay attention.
I know you get asked about James Bond a lot.
I do. I really have nothing constructive to say about James Bond. Apart from, it’s just a rumor.
Do you think there could be a day where James Bond isn’t white?
Yeah. James Bond is a spy. He could be any color, surely.
You’re filming “Star Trek Beyond.” Is there anything you can tell me about it?
Were you a Trekkie growing up?
Of sorts. “Star Trek,” the TV show, is big in my house.
You’re also doing Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book.” How did you find his voice?
I wanted to stay close to the classic “Jungle Book.” Shere Khan is a commanding, conniving character. I wanted to bring that to life.
How do you consume movies?
If I can, I see films in movie theaters. If I can’t go to the movies, I’ll watch it at home on iTunes or Netflix. I still like DVDs, dude. I love that feeling of cracking open a new one and putting it in the DVD player and it swallows it up: “Oh, it’s going to start.”
You actually buy DVDs?
Yeah. There’s something about being in the stores — you can get 3 for $10. It’s a deal.
But those stores are disappearing.
I’ve been in Canada shooting. There’s a DVD-for-hire place there. I just found it really quaint. I was marveling, “When do you change the shelves? There are so many movies. How do you do that?”
Watch an exclusive clip from “Beasts of No Nation” below.