That well put-together guy looking like a Bond villain, getting all the glances from assorted ladies at a trendy West Hollywood poolside bar, is a recognizable face but hardly a household name -- Idris Elba.
The actor is having one of those moments when he seems to be everywhere, in a chilling guest spot on HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” as human wet blanket Charles on NBC’s “The Office,” and now starring in the new thriller “Obsessed,” in which he finds himself being fought over -- literally -- by Beyonce Knowles (as his wife) and Ali Larter (as her psychotic rival).
“Dude. I said this a few times but, honestly, it’s true,” he says in his sometimes lilting, sometimes rough-edged East London accent. “In one scene, I’m watching Beyonce and Ali go at it, being catty to each other. . . . ‘Idris, it’s your line.’ ‘Oh, my God, yeah, sorry. Now where am I?’ ”
Elba was drawn to the notion of making a genre film for audiences unfamiliar with “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” or “Fatal Attraction.” He plays Derek, a high-powered asset manager who is maritally blistered when an unstable temp worker (Larter) wants to become permanent in his life.
“He’s climbing that ladder, sort of the All-American dream. Done well in school and now he’s at the top of his game. But one slip-up and . . . well, it’s all over,” says Elba of how the studio presented the project.
“Then they said, ‘By the way, we’re thinking of going to Ali Larter and Beyonce.’ It was like being given the keys to a Ferrari and a Lamborghini and saying, ‘You can have these for all of 24 hours. All yours. But you have to give them back.’ Those women are b-e-a-utiful, and also very nice people.”
Although Elba does betray a weakness for the ladies (he notices attractive women at the limits of his peripheral vision without moving his head), one of his favorite memories of working with Knowles is fighting with her.
“I think my and Beyonce’s favorite scene was where we come home after the cat’s out of the bag. Car. In silence. That awkward silence that only you and your wife know exists. We went into the kitchen and had this fight. The chemistry in that room was electric,” he says.
“Between takes, I’d stand very, very close, right next to her. I violated her personal space, talking [smack] in her ear: ‘You’re gonna let me get away with this. . . . ' We discussed that that was what I was going to do. It was a very interesting technique, one that I’d not gotten to do before. I’m not one for the Method. But she walked into the scene furious and I walked into the scene furious as well. I think we got it in the first two takes.”
His other current executive persona, Charles on “The Office,” came about after a surprise call from show runner Greg Daniels, saying they’d written him a role. “The most dynamic and sophisticated comedy to hit television in the last 10 years, if you like, and here it is, they’re calling me,” he says. “It’s a great, great feeling. And as quickly as it came, I was on the set. It really felt like an out-of-body experience. ‘I watch this show; what am I doing here? What is Steve Carell doing, improvising and trying to make me laugh?’ They all do that. John [Krasinski] especially.
“He said to me the other day, ‘My character hates your character so much, it makes me want to hate you in real life. Is that OK?’ They’re great guys, I love working on that show.”
Despite cultivating a devoted audience on HBO’s “The Wire,” Elba was unprepared for the vocal and opinionated enthusiasm of “Office” fans.
“I made the mistake of going online and seeing what people were saying. ‘Who the . . . is Charles? We hate him! This is terrible!’ All the way, man,” he says, with the raised-brow equivalent of wiping his forehead.
“ ‘The Wire’ had a cult following, so I’m very understanding of that. But ‘The Office,’ their cult following is unbelievable.”
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Where you’ve seen him
Among Idris Elba’s many credits in his native England is the BBC’s 1998 sci-fi take on vampires, “Ultraviolet” (later shown Stateside on the Sci-Fi Channel and given an unsuccessful American makeover for an unaired Fox pilot, also featuring Elba). He’s perhaps best known for his work on HBO’s “The Wire” as buttoned-down drug lord Stringer Bell, who meticulously planned to legitimize his criminal outfit. He also earned raves for his work in HBO’s Rwandan-genocide drama “Sometimes in April” (2005). Elba’s films include “American Gangster” (2007), “Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls” (2007), “This Christmas” (2007) and “RocknRolla” (2008).