Idris Elba got the jitters over sex scenes with Kate Winslet

Aside from acting, Idris Elba also directs movies, designs clothes, produces his own music, makes documentaries, and is a DJ in London and Ibiza.
Aside from acting, Idris Elba also directs movies, designs clothes, produces his own music, makes documentaries, and is a DJ in London and Ibiza.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Actor Idris Elba was nervous while filming with the actress in The Mountain Between Us

NEW YORK • British actor Idris Elba laughs at the questions: "Is Kate Winslet really the woman you want to be stuck with when disaster strikes in freezing weather? You do know that she didn't move over to make room on that door and Leo slipped into the icy Atlantic?"

He is starring with Winslet in The Mountain Between Us, which is based on a novel about strangers who struggle, snuggle and eat roasted mountain lion in the frigid Utah wilderness after their small plane crashes.

Sitting atop the New York skyline in a dining room at the Mandarin Oriental, he says: "Kate Winslet is surprisingly resilient to almost anything. I mean, she is a bruiser. Tough. As. Nails.

"And if we were ever to fall off a real mountain, she and I, we would survive because she's not like a slouch in any shape or form."

To be fair, in 2011, Winslet did hoist Richard Branson's mother down some stairs after a lightning bolt in a hurricane sparked a fire that engulfed the Branson holiday home on Necker Island, where she and her children were staying.

Elba, 45, often plays opposite very strong women and he says that is fine with him.

He portrays the New York lawyer who defends Molly Bloom, the audacious poker madam to the stars played by a fiery Jessica Chastain in the upcoming Aaron Sorkin movie Molly's Game.

And the actor created one of the most memorable romances in TV history in the popular BBC series Luther (2010 to present) when his London homicide detective in the big tweed overcoat, known by his deputies as "his satanic majesty", gets in an erotic and psychopathic entanglement with a latter-day Lizzie Borden, played with film-noir panache by the flame-haired Ruth Wilson.

"I think powerful women are sexy," he says. "But powerful, dangerous women? It's like woooo."

He confesses that he got jittery during his sex scene with Winslet in The Mountain Between Us because he has not done that many. "I was a bit nervous because it was Kate Winslet, number one," he says, slyly, and her breasts were exposed. "Do I look, do I not look? Am I supposed to kiss?"

In a world where most movies disappoint and true stars are rare, Elba is magnetic. He is tall and muscular, and before he hit the big time as drug lord Stringer Bell in The Wire (2002 to 2004), he was a bouncer (and pot dealer) at the comedy club Carolines on Broadway, sometimes living in his Chevy Astro van.

He is leaner than he looks on screen, with a small hoop earring, a grey-flecked beard and elaborately tattooed arms. A tree climbs his upper arm. "I have a spiritual connection to trees," he says. "I kind of use trees as a place to pray." His daughter's name, Isan, is also tattooed on his arm.

And he has a line of a song inked - "This train carries no wrongdoers" - to indicate that he does not want the people in his life to let him down.

He is direct when asked for his response to the kerfuffle when Samuel L. Jackson complained about black British actors getting leads in American movies, such as David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King Jr in Selma (2014) and Daniel Kaluuya in the Jordan Peele horror film, Get Out (2017).

"I spoke on this and I spoke quite openly that I was disappointed," says Elba.

He got a standing ovation when he made a speech to British Parliament last year urging greater diversity in film and television because he could play only so many "best friends", "gang leaders" or "athletic types".

He calls Jackson "a god" who gets respect "as an actor, black, white, whatever", but adds: "It felt like a very stupid thing to say, if I'm really honest and, in a time where people are being marginalised, why marginalise us even further by going on about black Americans and English Americans? And to his credit, he read that and apologised.

"He called and said, 'Hey, man. I agree. You're right, black is black.' I respect him for actually acknowledging what I said and sort of rethinking it.

"Americans come into England to the theatre and play English characters all day long and no one pipes up and says, 'Hey, you can't do that', and no one should. It's called acting for a reason."

He has an explanation for why it is harder for Americans to get a British accent right than vice versa.

"Something to do with the way the tongue sits in the mouth, believe it or not," he says. "But when the English speak, we speak more frontal and it's harder for Americans to get that sound because the tongue is so much more relaxed. I've studied it."

His vibe is cool, but his career is frenetic. When he is not starring in movies and Luther, he is directing movies, designing clothes, DJ-ing in London and Ibiza, and producing his own music, as well as making documentaries about his adventures kickboxing in Thailand and car-racing in Ireland.

Maybe that is why his personal life is so turbulent; he has vowed never to marry again.

He has two children - a 15-year-old girl and a three-year-old son - with two make-up artists, one of whom he married, and a brief second marriage to a lawyer.

He publicly stepped out with his new girlfriend, Sabrina Dhowre, a former Miss Vancouver, at last month's debut of Molly's Game at the Toronto International Film Festival. He met her when he went to Vancouver and British Columbia (standing in for Utah) to make The Mountain Between Us.

"Falling in love while falling in love," he says, dreamily.

"I've had many failed relationships but not because I'm an a**, just because there's so many complexities to relationships and perhaps I'm very guarded, just like Luther's guarded. And being guarded, people presume things and I often haven't corrected them.

"They just have so much of who I am wrong, they feel like I must be a playboy. I must be non-committal. I must be the kind of guy that jumps in and out. And, you know, I suppose if you look at my history or you know anything about my history or you can read on Google who I was married to or what's happened, you know, it might appear that way. But it's completely misunderstood. People think they know about me and my past and my relationships and they don't.

"There's very few people who can say they really, really know me and I can say, 'Yes, you really, really know me.' Very few people. Very few."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Sex scene jitters with Kate Winslet'. Print Edition | Subscribe