At the 2016 Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 31, Idris Elba took home not one, but two awards: one for Male Actor in a Supporting Role for his part in "Beasts of No Nation," and the other for Male Actor in a Miniseries/TV movie for the BBC America show, "Luther."
Elba is the only SAG film award winner who was not also nominated for the Academy Awards. His absence in the Oscars lineup added considerable fuel to this year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy, as many believed that his performance in "Beasts of No Nation" was more than worthy of at least a nomination. His win at the SAG Awards seem to confirm this sentiment.
The Frame interviewed Idris Elba at the Telluride Film Festival last fall about his role in "Beasts of No Nation."
ORIGINAL POST: If you were anywhere near social media three years ago, you probably saw something related to "Kony 2012."
The short film about the Ugandan guerrilla leader — and his history of forced recruitment of child soldiers — struck a nerve and went hugely viral. And while the video received plenty of criticism for its oversimplification of complex issues and its encouragement of "slacktivism," there was clearly a Western fascination with the man behind years of atrocities.
And that's the fascination and energy that writer-director Cary Fukunaga has tapped into with his latest film, "Beasts of No Nation," which stars Idris Elba as the commandant of a child army in an unnamed country in West Africa.
The film premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival and just had its U.S. debut at the Telluride Film Festival, opening to positive reviews that praised Elba's performance in particular.
When we spoke with Elba at Telluride, we asked him about his personal history with the filming location for "Beasts of No Nation," and the ways in which he and Fukanaga blurred the line between Idris the actor and Commandant the character. Oh, and we also asked about the history of his DJ alter ego.
How'd you start DJing? Was it an early passion?
Yeah, I've been DJing since I was 14 years old. And before that, I used to DJ for my mum and dad. They'd have friends over and I'd be the guy putting the records on while they were getting drinks. Once I was 14 or 15 I was on pirate radio, and then at one point I decided I wanted to be an actor, but I kept the two going.
Do they give you different satisfactions?
Actually, it's the same satisfaction. It all comes from creativity, trying to make people emote to you, one way or another. However, DJing is live, it happens there in the moment, and if you make a wrong turn you can change the atmosphere of a room just like being on stage as an actor. But it's very different for film.
Let's talk about "Beasts of No Nation." First, I want to talk about the location where you shot this film, because it's a place that's very special to you personally. Can you talk about what the location meant to you as a child, and then what it means to go back there as an actor?
The film was shot in Accra, in Ghana, which is very special to me because my mum was born there. My mum was the last of 10, 11 children, and she left Accra when she was 12 and moved to Sierra Leone, where she met my dad. They got married and then I was born in London. So my affinity for Accra is because it's my mother's birthplace, and simply making a film there was very special.
I took my mum with me, so the first time I got off the plane was with my mum, and she hadn't been home in about 20 years. That was a great moment. Accra is a beautiful place, very proud, and they're very proud of me and my career, so it felt very welcoming. And, of course, we were making an important and in-depth film, and Accra lent itself to us in so many ways that it was just incredible.
Not only was it perfect for what we were shooting, but the Ghanaian officials and government who allowed us to come in and make this film were really sensitive as well. It was a really good atmosphere to make a film in, and Cary was very sensitive to the idea of being a filmmaker, coming into Ghana and making a film about atrocities that never happened in Ghana.
You play a character named Commandant, who's a soldier-for-hire in many ways. He's driven less by ideology than he is by profit, and yet he has a remarkable and obviously dangerous bond with the children that he has fighting for him.
I think there's an ideology that he believes in. The way he runs his faction is based on the army and strategy, and that's an ideology that he uses to entice kids to come into his fold. He's fighting for a dead ideology and he doesn't realize it, and that's what you realize halfway through the film.
But it's a fascinating slice of someone that has a lot of complexities, and that was one of the things that drew me to this role. How do you make someone so despicable — I'm going to take your child and turn them into soldiers and we'll make them do horrific things — but make him human? What's that process? Cary and I were both fascinated by that.
We wanted to steer away from the caricatures of the Charles Taylors of the world and the Konys of the world, who have these magnified personalities of being commandants of child soldiers. We wanted to find a middle ground — this guy's real, he's honest, he's human, but he is what he is.
When Cary's casting the film, he's casting from a lot of local actors, non-professionals, people who live in the area. As an actor in that film, does that change your relationship with the cast? As a professional actor, do you become someone who's walking them through the day of how to act?
You've picked up on it immediately. There had to be a moment where Idris the actor really connected with the supporting artists. In other words, we had to really understand each other to make it happen on the screen.
So, for example, I'd walk on set and I'm the lead actor, but we designed it such that when I walked on-set, we were ready to go. The actors that were non-actors were really excited to see Idris, but the point is that also these were multiple days of our story — I'm the Commandant, and I'm going to tell you what to do.
There was this real interesting rapport, where the extras would look at me and [think], I've never seen a professional actor, but he's still acting, so we must still be acting. Here he comes! [And greet me], "Hey, Commandant!" And the great thing about Cary was that I'd come in, I'd walk on the set and wouldn't even be prepped, and I'd just stir up a frenzy with the guys. And before you knew it, Cary was filming and that was the energy of the camp. It was really fascinating.