'Luther': Idris Elba walks the line between dark and light


Here's the scenario: You're a police officer who's chased down a criminal who has killed several victims, with another's life hanging in the balance. The criminal is cornered, and now he's in a precarious position, one breath away from possible death.

Do you exploit his fear to get information, or do you save him? He's pleading; the clock is ticking; other victims may be out there -- what do you do?

What do you do?

That's the dilemma facing John Luther (Idris Elba), a British homicide detective, in the first episode of "Luther," premiering Sunday, Oct. 17, on BBC America. How he handles the problem may just muddy the lines of which character is predator and which is prey.

"Typically someone who's really good at killing people and eluding the law," Elba says, "is oftentimes quite smart, with quite high an IQ. Luther's on the other end of that spectrum and uses that, as well as an instinctual predator personality, I guess, to do his detective work."

Created and written by suspense novelist and screenwriter Neil Cross ("MI5"), "Luther" uses its lead character's surname as the title, much like another detective from TV history, whom Elba -- who's also an associate producer -- considers a spiritual ancestor of his character.

"I like flawed detectives," says Elba, relaxing in a cabana by the pool during a press event in Beverly Hills. "It's tough to do that in America. 'Columbo' and 'The Shield' did that very well. It's a lot of angst for one character to realistically maintain."

But one look at Luther, with his loose tie and his rumpled tan coat, and it's evident that the character is more Lt. Columbo than Lt. Vic Mackey.

"My character choice was not to change his clothes," Elba says. "It's an homage to Columbo, the overcoat and the stoop."

But neither Columbo nor Mackey ever had a problem like Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). She and Luther meet when he suspects her in the death of her parents, and their relationship evolves into some strange combination of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Fatal Attraction."

"When he realizes," says Elba, "when he has the feeling that she did it, they fall in love, don't they? It's a chess game. 'Oh, wow, someone that's going to challenge me and knows how to do it.'

"Luther likes to win. He's egotistical. He likes getting results, but here's someone who's blatantly done it, in his opinion, but she's so far cleverly eluded what the law says you need to actually prove it.

"That turns him on somewhat, not sexually."

As to whether he's sure about that, Elba says, "Yeah."Wilson, talking later in the day on the other side of the same pool -- with her hair returned from Alice's auburn to its natural brunette -- is not so sure.

"There's a bit more flirtation that goes on throughout," she says, "but she's on the front foot all the way through. It's a bit off-putting, but she's very full-on.

"It's very intellectual. She doesn't understand the emotion that she's feeling. She's not confused by it; she's interested by it. She's fascinated by it. She's intrigued, and she wants to know more."

Alice isn't the only woman in Luther's life. There are also his tough, risk-taking boss, Detective Superintendent Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves), and his wife, Zoe (Indira Varma), who has found a new boyfriend (Paul McGann) after separating from her husband.

Although Zoe has walked away, it's evident that she still carries a torch for Luther, as he frightens and attracts her, all at the same time.

"They're right for each other," Elba says, "but wrong for each other. I don't think she'd be in love with him if he was just Mr. Procedure."

"What's great about Zoe," Wilson says, "is she's constantly toying between the two men. She's playing both of them off of each other. She's not as innocent as she makes out.

"She's exploring what she can deal with. 'What life do I want? I can have that exciting but essentially really frustrating life, or I can have this very normal, boring life, but it's safe."

Wilson's also got a theory about the three women in Luther's life.

"I was just talking to somebody else about it," she says. "Neil had based it on a myth. There's three different female roles: the virgin, the mother and the crone. Those are the three he's based these on. I'm the virgin.

"He has these three women spinning around his world all the time."

There's a line in the first three episodes about Luther perhaps being happier if he'd been a priest. Elba isn't so sure.

"I think he might have been happy as a fireman. Plus, by the time a fireman gets there, you can salvage, save life. By the time Luther gets somewhere, it's already done. It eats him up."

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