Actor Idris Elba has a knack for playing daunting characters on screen.
He’s Russell “Stringer” Bell, the no-nonsense drug kingpin in the critically-acclaimed HBO crime drama The Wire, and the taciturn Detective John Luther in the BBC series Luther.
In the Marvel cinematic universe, the 190cm-tall actor portrays Heimdall – the all-seeing guardian of Asgard aka Thor’s home planet.
For the blockbuster Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro cast him as Stacker Pentecost, the Marshal who inspires an army of battered men with a rousing speech (“Today, we’re cancelling the apocalypse!”).
This year, the 44-year-old actor will be The Gunslinger in the much-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s fantasy novel The Dark Tower.
Now, that formidable persona is something Elba brings for real to the three-part documentary on Discovery titled Idris Elba: Fighter, where viewers can witness his journey as a rookie fighter in a professional kickboxing match.
In other words, Elba is not acting in this one. There is no choreographed Hollywood fight sequence, second takes or a stuntman assuming his place.
Elba is committed to train to become an actual kickboxer in less than a year, simply because he wants to. The result of the training will culminate in a match against an experienced opponent.
During an exclusive interview session last year in the Shinkansen (Japan’s bullet train) from Kyoto to Tokyo, Elba explained why his contract for Idris Elba: Fighter doesn’t include a clause where his face is off-limits.
“I expect to get punched in the face for sure,” he said laughing, adding in that famous deep, gravelly voice, “I love to train. I love fighting. I love the art form, the discipline of it. It was an easy decision for me to do it.”
Elba is no stranger to trying out new things and, somehow, excelling at it. His previous documentary Idris Elba: No Limits (2015) saw him setting a new land speed record when he trained to become a professional rally driver.
So, his attempt to become a kickboxer seemed like the logical next step.
On this particular day of our meeting, Elba looked weary. His trainer –former Muay Thai world champion Kieran Keddle – shared that Elba had been up since 4am doing strength training.
Keddle said: “We ran up the hills to the temples to power up his legs.”
Besides building the right muscles, Elba was in Kyoto to learn Zen meditation technique at a temple, to help him overcome pain mentally and spiritually.
After the Japan stop, Elba and his crew would go to Cuba, South Africa and Thailand for more training sessions.
According to Keddle, Elba’s height and long legs could work to his advantage. However, Keddle added, Elba has a long way to go to be “fight-ready”. He also noted that Elba has a back injury that could hinder his progress.
“My job is to get him fit to fight, both physically and mentally. I told him, ‘I don’t want you to get hurt’. But if he doesn’t train properly, then he is going to get hurt,” Keddle said.
Perhaps it was due to the intensive training sessions that Elba seemed distant during our 20-minute chat, even when we adhered to the condition not to broach on persistent James Bond rumours and other acting gigs.
“To be honest, I was a little bit upset that I had to speak to journalists today. Don’t take it personally,” the Londoner simply stated.
Well, we know now how all those “criminals” feel when they’re on the other side of an interrogation table from Luther!
Thankfully, he did loosen up enough to share just how much he enjoys anonymity in Japan.
“It was such an odd and new experience. In London or in the US, where people are more aware of me, I wouldn’t be able to just walk about. But earlier today, after the meditation, I got to be by myself. It was great.”
Learning to meditate, Elba said, has made him realise that he hasn’t allowed himself to have a break from it all.
Last year alone, his projects ranged from independent drama Beasts Of No Nation to Hollywood blockbusters Zootopia, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book and Star Trek: Beyond. There is also the other job – as a deejay at clubs.
“You know how people say ‘me time’? Meditation was that for me. I haven’t experienced that in a long time. I’m always busy, working, being around people. (Meditation) was a very profound moment. I’ve been somewhere in my brain where I’ve never been before.”
Although intense in person, this son of African immigrants (his father was from Sierra Leone and his mother was from Ghana) is also down to earth. He picked up his own bags at the train station, and, earlier, had asked if any of the TV crew needed a drink since he was going to get coffee.
Shedding that Hollywood skin was especially crucial for his training for Idris Elba: Fighter (“People think I’m going to be worried about my face but I’m not…”). After all, his Hollywood credentials don’t matter when he gets in the ring.
Keddle summed it up aptly: “I don’t care that he’s a Hollywood superstar. It doesn’t make any difference.”
Elba confessed it was nerve-wracking to think about the eventual fight day, which is why he was going through the gruelling training sessions.
“If I don’t train, I won’t win. There are (going to be) real fighters who do this for a living. I also have to show him (Keddle) that I’m as committed to this journey as any other fighter would be.”
While Elba admitted he wants to win, he also wants to prove something to himself.
“The journey of becoming a man to fight in the ring, to me, that’s more important than winning.”
Idris Elba: Fighter airs on Sunday at 9pm on Discovery Channel (Astro Ch 551).