Toward the end of my 15 minutes with Idris Elba in a hotel meeting room during the Toronto International Film Festival, I throw caution to the wind and ask him outright: He knows he has the power to make any woman's knees buckle, right?
He gives me a sideways look. I'm sitting. My knees buckle anyway. I can tell that he can tell by the way he laughs. "I'm hearing that more and more," he admits. "I wonder if I'm making more of a connection between myself – who I am as a person – and the characters I'm playing. I'm a tender person. I'm a very affectionate, warm person. But my characters tend not to be warm and fuzzy."
Elba, who is 45 and speaks with the chipped accent of his native Hackney, London, was terrifying in Beasts of No Nation and brusque in The Office. He spiked his characters with danger in Luther, The Big C, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and, indelibly, as Stringer Bell in The Wire. His power is formidable – even more so when he contains it. But when he warms those liquid eyes and revs that rumbling voice, viewers get plenty fuzzy. There's a reason his name has been bandied about as the next James Bond.
"I've been trying to shapeshift a bit," Elba says of his next two films. "There's more of me in them. As you get older, you live in yourself a little more. I'm letting myself show through."
In the true story Molly's Game, due to be released Nov. 22, Elba plays an attorney who passionately defends the title character (Jessica Chastain), who ran an illegal, high-stakes poker circle. And in The Mountain Between Us, opening next Friday, he's Ben, an old-school romantic lead/action hero – and a surgeon to boot. In the dead of winter, Ben is stranded with Alex (Kate Winslet), a photojournalist, after their plane crashes high in the Rocky Mountains. He's taciturn and cautious; she's a talker and a risk-taker. If, in their struggle to survive, they should stumble upon a remote cabin, I suspect viewers won't object if they pause to make a connection by a roaring fire.
Elba landed the role after his first meeting with Israeli director Hany Abu-Assad (whose 2013 drama Omar won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival). "I looked into his eyes and realized, if my airplane would fall, I would want him there," Abu-Assad says in a separate interview. "He knows how to charm, but he also knows how to be silent. Nowadays, too many actors are blah blah blah. They have nothing to reveal, no mystery. Idris has mystery – in real life, too."
Example: As we chat, Elba cracks open a bottle of sparkling water, pours me a glass first, then serves himself. I notice two phrases inked on his forearm, visible but not easy to discern. One is a line of his favourite song, This Train: "This train carries no wrong-doers." The other reads, "The long-awaited gift-bearer."
"They have stories, yeah, but they're private ones," he says. When I remark on the contradiction of private stories displayed so publicly, he throws back his head and laughs: "You're right, if it's so private, why write it on your body?" But no explanation follows.
In The Mountain Between Us, Elba's silences are crucial to the plot. "In most love stories, the obstacles are civilization: the parents, the fiancée, the job. Civilization is a lot of noise," Abu-Assad says. "This is different, a pure characterization of love. They are physically in danger, but emotionally very pure. You put a love story with no noise around it, it pops."
Shooting on location near Invermere, B.C., in -38 degree weather, Abu-Assad and his largely Canadian crew threw plenty of physical obstacles at Elba: Wake up at 4 a.m., drive an hour to the helicopter pad, chopper 20 minutes to the location. (The production had three scenes ready at all times, depending on weather conditions: atop the mountain, at the tree line and below the tree line.) That's really Elba sliding down a cliffside (his harness and wire were digitally removed in postproduction); that's really him hauling a soaked Winslet out of a lake. (Granted, the crew had inserted an 8-foot-by-8-foot Plexiglas cube of heated water under the ice, but they did three takes. That's hard.)
On set, Winslet was the careful one, Elba the risk-taker. "Kate is precise – she wants to know exactly what she's going to do," Abu-Assad says. "Idris wants to arrive and, without any prep, shoot. Whatever you prepare with him before a scene, he will surprise you. Usually I'm technical when I'm directing. In this movie a lot of times he gave me goosebumps. " (At the film's TIFF premiere, observers detected some frost between the stars as Elba spoke from the stage. "There you go, improvising again, just like in the movie," Winslet said.)
"I was an only child, so I had a massive imagination," Elba says now. "My parents were, not strict, but 'Get down from there, you'll hurt yourself.' Now, if you tell me not to do something, I'm going to analyze whether I should or not and most likely do it."
About Winslet, Elba offers, "She's a really hard worker. She never stops asking questions and pushing for the truth." Then he performs a graceful pivot: "I've really wanted to make a film like this. I'm an adult and I want to watch films for adults."
He's currently editing his first feature as a director, Yardie, based on the British novel by Victor Headley about an Anglo-Jamaican's rise from the London "government yards" (social housing) to drug-world kingpin. Elba immediately felt attached to the story: It takes place during the first 10 years of his life; the character is a DJ, as Elba is (he goes by DJ Big Driis); and Elba, too, is the child of immigrants – his late father, Winston, was an auto worker who was born in Sierra Leone, and his mother, Eve, was a clerk from Ghana.
Eve was "ridiculously proud and in tears" when she accompanied Elba to Buckingham Palace in 2016 to receive his Order of the British Empire from the Queen. But it was bittersweet, too – his father had died the year before. It's evident that Winston would have loved to see Elba now, playing doctors and lawyers in addition to toughs. (Elba lives in Los Angeles and has a daughter, Isan, and a son, Winston.)
"I'm enjoying who I am at this point," Elba sums up. "I definitely still have yearnings. I've got a lot of ambitions that I'm going to fulfill: directing, music, acting, business projects. But all of that is starting to come alive, so I'm in a great space. I'm glad I finally know that it's okay to be myself. Since I was very young, I grew up wanting to be someone else, wanting to be like others. Now I'm happy being like me. The more like me I am, the better."
There's nothing more swoon-inducing than that.