Interview: Idris Elba on Luther S5
Star of long-running and gritty crime series Idris Elba shares his thoughts on his character, the show and what he’s learned over the years playing the troubled detective.
Why did you want to return to Luther for this fifth series?
I have a commitment to the show. I’ve done it for a few years now, and I always want to come back. I love the show, and I love playing the character. It’s a gift of a part. There are so many dimensions to play, and I really enjoy that. Also, we are very loyal to our fan base. We want them to get their fix!
Tell us about this series.
It’s still a show about a detective and his obsession with murder and dark characters. This series is one storyline over four episodes, but of course from that storyline all these different tentacles spread out. It’s extremely complex. That’s the way Luther is. You unfold it and unfold it and unfold it. There is one criminal and that person gets themselves into a lot of trouble. Some old characters also come back to the forefront…
It’s still a show about a detective and his obsession with murder and dark characters.
How has Luther developed over the five seasons?
The show doesn’t change format. We are very prescriptive about the type of show it is. We don’t deviate from that. It’s a dark, quite violent procedural. But in this season, we have upped the scale. We’ve kept London as the spine – this just has more of a cinematic feel. But Luther is still Luther. He has just gotten older, as you can tell from my beard!
What have you learned from playing Luther?
As an actor, I’ve learned to find ways to keep the performance fresh and real. I’ve also learnt to trust the writing. It’s great when you have got a really good writing partner like Neil. I’ve also learnt to adapt with the writer and try to make the character deeper.
Murder detectives have an incredible capacity to take stress and pressure. They tend to be very hard to penetrate because not too much shocks them. As a person, I have learnt what that is, and maybe some of that applies to my life. Not many things shock me now. If I have learnt anything from Luther, it’s that.
Some people have compared Luther to a superhero. What do you feel about that?
Because of the graphic-novel nature of the styling of the show, I can understand that. In the same way that a superhero always dons the same uniform, Luther always wears the same coat, red tie and grey shirt. Also a moody, dark, comic-book looking London is the backdrop for all the seasons of Luther. We haven’t made the show about Paris or Prague. It’s about London. London in Luther is like Gotham City. That’s where some of the comparisons with Batman might come in. Luther is also a mysterious man. He is a murder detective, of course, but he has inner demons. I think the audience loves to try and understand why he is the way he is.
Where do those demons come from?
When you choose a career pursuing people who do incredible evil, you have to be able to think like them and understand their psyches. That’s going to take a toll. It’s like people who are fascinated with murder podcasts. Ever so slightly, they are getting closer to knowing how to commit their own murder. If they were ever to murder someone, they would be way better at it than someone who had never heard a murder podcast before. Luther is similar. He has a dark side. Of course, he is not a murderer, but if he were to be one, he’d be good at it!
If they were ever to murder someone, they would be way better at it than someone who had never heard a murder podcast before. Luther is similar. He has a dark side.
Does Luther have to break the law in order to get results?
He’s not corrupt in the normal sense, but his philosophy is “by any means necessary.” If he has to take down someone who has committed a crime, he is happy to take the law into his own hands. In this day and age, that sort of vigilante is rare. If you do that, you can be labelled a terrorist. It’s a very fine line. But if you watch someone like Luther, who says he doesn’t care how he gets results, that’s pretty compelling. It’s entertaining, but part of that appeal lies in the fact that he says, “I don’t care about being politically correct. I going to get that person.” It’s more superhero than reality.
Is Luther popular with real-life detectives?
Absolutely. They love him because he doesn’t get into the politics of the job. He gets into finding bad guys in the most visceral way. The show wouldn’t be so appealing if it tried to deliver trendy messaging. It’s pure escapism.
Would you make it good detective in real life?
I probably wouldn’t. I tend to overcompensate. I tend to think people are going to be good. I don’t look for the bad in people. If someone does something bad, I try to look at why. I don’t believe in pure evil. As a detective. I think you have to have a suspicious nature, and I don’t have that. Part of the job as an actor is asking, “What’s the back story? Why did he say that?” I would take that into being a detective. But Luther doesn’t do that. He just gets on with it! I think I would be a good criminal psychologist, though, because I’d want to understand why someone had done something.
Why does Luther remain so fascinated by Alice?
She is the mastermind criminal who got away. We find her oddly attractive and supremely smart. She has incredible violence in her, but she is still a compelling character to watch. Alice is also the character who causes Luther the most trouble. She is the one person not afraid of him. She can control him. That’s a very interesting perspective. Luther is this wild man who can only be controlled by her. She’s his kryptonite, his weak spot. Of course, she shows up in this series, and she’s not there to give Luther Christmas cards!
How has the show progressed since its debut in 2010?
Luther hasn’t changed. He’s still the same guy. He may be more cautious than he was in the first series, but he is still very much a force of nature. But the show has really grown over the last eight years. It started life as a small BBC drama. But over the last five seasons, alongside The Wire and The Walking Dead, it’s become one of the top 10 shows that people binge watch. Also, my career has got stronger and more varied over that time. I’m still an actor, but I’ve embraced other parts of my creativity way more.
What does the future hold for Luther?
We would definitely like to see more Luther on TV, but for the moment the focus would be on a movie. We want to scale Luther up to a big feature film and take it to a much larger audience. There would be more murder! Perhaps it would be international as well. Luther has all the ingredients to echo those classic films of the 90s like Se7en. We would like to use that blueprint to create Luther the Film.
What would you say to people is the best reason to watch this season of Luther?
It’s very entertaining, dark detective drama. It has really good writing and acting. It’s great escapism, and it’s really worth a binge watch!