Tag Archives: Idris Elba

Life of crime

Idris Elba returns as iconic detective Luther for a fifth season of BBC1’s flagship crime drama. DQ visits the set to meet the cast and discover what new horrors writer Neil Cross has in store.

With so much of Luther set in and filmed around east London, the BBC1 crime drama has left an indelible mark on me. Not least because season two, first screened in the UK in 2011, saw a psychotic serial killer select his targets at random, leading to a particularly barbaric sequence involving multiple deaths in and around Liverpool Street train station and a final showdown in nearby Appold Street – my exact commute to the office. Walking to work has never been the same since.

Seven years later – and eight since Luther first aired – I’m standing on the office floor of the Metropolitan Police’s serious and serial crime unit where DCI John Luther, played by Idris Elba, and his team are getting their heads around another series of grisly murders.

Bafta-winning Wunmi Mosaku (Damilola, Our Loved Boy), who has joined the cast as Luther’s new partner DS Catherine Halliday, is standing in front of some large boards covered with maps and photos of locations, bloodied bodies and mugshots. Desks and computers fill the office, a drab space complemented by dark blue walls and matching carpet – standard police station decor.

Across the room, Dermot Crowley’s DSU Martin Shenk is watching her before approaching. “Isn’t it time you went home, Catherine?” he asks. Something’s not right, she says, and they leave together to see Luther.

“Cut,” calls director Jamie Payne, seated in front of a monitor around a corner from where the actors are stood. He resets the shot and, after another rehearsal, the scene is recorded to film. The cameras are then shifted, this time close up on Mosaku, and Payne is nodding his head along to the dialogue. When he’s happy, Payne shouts, “That’s the one.”

It’s a grey March day at a former telephone exchange in Watford, on the outskirts of north-west London, where the team behind Luther is hitting the final stretch of production on the series’ fifth season – a single story playing out across four episodes that will run on consecutive nights on BBC1 between January 1 and 4, 2019.

Luther creator and writer Neil Cross (left) on set with star Idris Elba

If viewers have come to expect anything from Luther, it’s a good fright, with notable scenes from previous seasons including a killer hiding under a bed. “I’m having nightmares,” admits Mosaku, with this season set to bring new horrors to the London night-bus experience. “There have been some dark scenes. There is one scene in episode one that gave me absolute chills reading it, so having to be on set with the aftermath, I was like, ‘This is exactly what I imagined and it’s just as harrowing.’”

Fast-tracked through the police, Halliday arrives as Luther’s latest partner. Mosaku says there’s warmth in their relationship, with some added spice to keep her on her toes.

“She trusts him. She looks up to him and thinks he’s brilliant,” says the actor, who first auditioned for the show way back in season one. “She will say, ‘Is this ethically correct?’ and he’ll say, ‘It’s legal.’ So she knows there’s a difference between their ethics. She does trust him, but she’s wary of the fact this isn’t necessarily what she would do or Schenk would do.”

This isn’t the first time Mosaku has portrayed a police officer, and being a fan of Luther and of writer Neil Cross meant she was keen to return to the beat to play Halliday. “She is sweet. She’s just not your typical cop. She’s smart and she’s good but there’s a lightness to her, and I feel like that’s a character I’ve not played much,” the actor explains. “Luther is a tough show but Halliday has a bounce in her step and everything she’s seeing is affecting her for the first time.”

But why does Luther, produced and distributed by BBC Studios, stand out among the crowd of crime dramas? “Number one, there’s a black British African man as the lead. When it first came out, I don’t think I’d ever seen that before. So when season one came out, that’s why I was watching it and I loved it,” Mosaku explains.

One character who has featured in every season since the beginning, playing an increasingly important role, is Benny Silver, Luther’s loyal, go-to computer mastermind, played by Michael Smiley.

Joining the cast for season five is Wunmi Mosaku as Luther’s partner, DS Catherine Halliday

“I love the fact Benny has, in increments, come more into the drama and storylines,” the actor says. “He was just a one-off character in a couple of scenes in the first season and was Luther’s hacker. Now he’s in the bullpen, he’s one of the main characters and in this season he features quite heavily, so it’s really exciting.”

Smiley describes Elba and Cross’s relationship as a “perfect storm” of brilliant acting and superb writing, and says Luther wouldn’t be the same show without its gruesome deaths and shocking scares. He promises more of the same in season five, likening the show to a gothic fable, but says it isn’t quite the same on set.

“When you’re on the inside, you don’t really see the scary parts,” he says. “What you see is the fake blood and you get to see how the art department works, which is really fantastic. I really enjoy watching people bring their A-game, because Luther’s one of the top British dramas and certainly a flagship drama for BBC1. The people who are on it are there because they’re the best in their trade, so watching those people is great.”

Back on set, the office is now busy with extras sitting at their desks. Two cast members walk out through double doors and in comes Luther, wearing his trademark coat, grey shirt and red tie, to meet Halliday and Schenk. Only it’s not Elba, it’s his body double.

A couple of weeks later, Elba himself joins us at the Langham Hotel, opposite BBC Broadcasting House in central London. And while much of the season’s plot is under wraps, what has been revealed is that, as a series of monstrous killings becomes increasingly audacious, Luther and Halliday are confounded by a tangle of leads and misdirection that seems designed to protect an unspeakable horror.

But as the case brings him closer than ever to the nature of true evil, a reluctant Luther must also face the ghosts of his own past.

DQ visited the Luther set ahead of the new season

Following the success of previous seasons, Elba says the challenge this time around is not to beat previous efforts but match the things the audience find compelling and then make them more complex.

“The comforting thing about Luther from season one to season two is the DNA doesn’t change,” he says. “You see the murder, you even know who it is or you see the clues, and then you watch John go for it – and I don’t think we’ve ever tried to deviate from that. But each time, we’ve made it slightly more complex, which means we start to dissect his timelines.

“This one is the most complex; there are so many things going on. And the great thing about Neil is he’s a great writer. Of course, we want complex storylines, but how does it make it still compelling? How do we fit it into an hour? How do we do it over four episodes and not exhaust the audience? That’s what I think Neil has done a really incredible job of this year.”

The actor admits to going to great lengths to make Luther compelling and dark. “That means for us as a film crew, we film at night, we spend lots of time in the cold, we kill a lot of people and we all watch that and all go, ‘Jesus Christ, what are we doing?’ Then we go home, we dream about it and come back the next day,” he says. “In my first season, I used to spend a lot of time in the bars, straightaway after work, me and the cast, and now I don’t do that. I’ve grown older but I do have to have some sort of therapeutic outlet, which tends to be music for me – making music. When you do Luther in the winter months for 10 or 12 weeks, it’s a dark time.”

Elba is also heavily involved off screen, having first been an associate producer to ensure he had a voice behind the scenes. “We were quite heavily criticised in the early stages that female characters were always the first to go. Having a voice under a producer’s title allowed me to implement some thoughts and bring in teams that helped change some things a little bit,” he says.

Now an executive producer, he was part of the early team that met Payne and consulted with Cross and the department heads about the direction of this season. “This one’s very particular because I think it’s one of our last TV instalments – I shouldn’t say that as a matter of fact, but it was designed in the sense that Neil’s and my ambition is to take it to a larger screen,” he reveals. “We paid attention to what we were writing in this show. If we are to make a movie, this show is essentially a segue to that.”

Idris Elba receives a touch-up between takes on location in London

For now, season five boasts a new character in Halliday, who challenges Luther more than most of his other partners. “He has a sense of protection [over her] because she’s a black female detective and he wants her to climb [up the ranks],” he adds. “But of course things happen within the show. It’s quite a compelling storyline.”

Elba likens Luther’s London to Batman’s Gotham City, a place where societal issues can be transposed onto a unique setting. Crowley, as Luther’s boss Schenk, agrees that the location is another character in the drama, adding to the foreboding and uneasy atmosphere that runs through the series.

“It’s a very frightening programme to be in,” he says. “It feels uber-real when you’re making it because I suppose it has to. This is definitely the scariest yet.”

Since the start of the show, Schenk has evolved from essentially Luther’s bureaucratic nemesis to a character who admires the detective and is equally willing to play with morality and the law to get the job done.

“He always acts with an admiration for Luther because he thinks he’s an extraordinary copper and he does things where Schenk doesn’t himself have that particular skill or facility,” Crowley says. “But at the same time, I think Schenk is very puritanical about himself and the police and morality generally. He always gives Luther enough leeway to act but, at the same time, in an almost paternal way, he keeps an eye on him as well.”

The Irish actor praises Cross’s scripts as being “raw, exciting. His use of language is excellent.” He continues: “When you get a Neil script, the words come off the page. They always sound like you’re saying them for the first time, which is the secret of good writing. They don’t sound stagey.

“He’s got great balls as a writer. He’s not afraid to suddenly give an actor an aria, a 10-page speech, and there’s always something underneath it that pushes the story forward.”

With all the excitement surrounding the return of Luther, plus its international popularity thanks to its availability on Netflix, a big-screen outing seems inevitable for Elba and this larger-than-life character. One can only imagine what horrors he and Cross will dream up next.

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Casting Guerrilla

Casting director Shaheen Baig and executive producer Katie Swinden tell DQ about tapping a host of British stars to appear in Guerrilla, John Ridley’s six-part study of race relations in 1970s London.

It was before 12 Years a Slave, the film that earned him a screenwriting Oscar, that John Ridley began to sow the seeds of a story that would become Guerrilla – an examination of race relations in 1970s London.

Ridley had met Patrick Spence, MD of producer Fifty Fathoms, while he was in the UK capital editing Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013) and as they talked, Ridley’s story about the black movement was transplanted from the US to the UK.

Researchers uncovered information about the Black Power Desk inside the Metropolitan Police in the 70s and suddenly Ridley had something to build a story around. Then the project took a backseat, as Ridley won his Academy Award and partnered with ABC Studios to produce the acclaimed American Crime for ABC.

Katie Swinden

Such was Ridley’s limited availability that it was five years after those first discussions that Guerrilla finally came to air on Sky Atlantic and Showtime this April. The show was produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.

“First and foremost, it was the story we fell for – a love story set during a time of revolution and in a time in the 1970s when you had hope. As a young person, you felt like you could effect change,” says Katie Swinden, executive producer and co-MD of Fifty Fathoms. “That was very seductive to us, just in terms of storytelling. But Patrick and I are both Londoners born and bred and I didn’t know anything about this. So it was slightly shaming, and it’s a part of history we should talk about.”

Guerrilla is described as a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. The plot sees Jas (played by Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) finding their relationship and values put to the test after they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counterintelligence unit within the Met’s Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

The cast also includes Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays as the police officers assigned to the desk, plus Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.

With Ridley attached to write and direct most episodes, it was unsurprising that the series was able to attract a starry array of British talent.

But how did casting director Shaheen Baig, who had worked with Swinden previously on Marvellous and Peaky Blinders, begin to piece together the cast that would lead this emotion-packed drama?

John Ridley (centre) poses with Guerrilla stars Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto

“It’s always about script, the people involved, the director and the producers,” she explains. “It has to be. You start with the script first and see the people who are already involved. Early on, we all had a strong sense of what the show wanted to be, and everyone was on the same page about that. The scripts were really vivid, and the more vivid the script, the more detailed the characters and the easier my job is. If each character is really well drawn, it points me in the right direction.”

Baig began with the main ensemble of characters and worked from there, breaking down the characters, discussing ideas and auditioning several actors for those central roles.

“We saw a lot of actors for Marcus and Jas,” she recalls. “There were lots of different ways you could have played the couple. Then we just started to pick the strongest reads and what felt natural. There was something really exciting about Babou and Freida. Babou is such a quiet, detailed actor and there’s something about watching an actor like that. Maybe he’s a new face for many people who will develop and grow over the series, and I thought that was really exciting.”

Ridley’s dislike of scenes with large numbers of extras and his desire to have ‘actors’ in every role meant Baig was casting right to the end, picking out people to play supporting parts throughout filming.

Ceesay portrays Marcus, who is in a relationship with Pinto’s character Jas

“Pretty much across the board, John wanted actors, even if they were supporting roles – so we were asked to cast ‘Man in stairwell,’” she continues. “It’s about casting interesting characters because when you watch it, you can see these moments where it lands because the actor was really vivid. There were a lot of really tiny moments where he wanted actors.”

One actor already heavily involved behind the scenes was Luther star Idris Elba, who was an executive producer on Guerrilla through his company Green Door Pictures. It wasn’t until much later, however, that he took his involvement in front of the camera as well.

“As John was an American writing a British story, we all felt we needed a producer who could make sure it felt authentic and truthful, and Idris was absolutely the right fit,” Swinden says. “We sat down and talked it through, he met with John, so he came on as an exec producer. But then, of course, it’s hard not to go, ‘Is there a role for him?’

“He and John found a role that inspired both of them. That’s how the casting came about, but we had a really tiny window between a couple of movies where [Elba] could come back over [to the UK], and we worked him into the ground for seven days! Nobody ever wanted to cast him as the lead. It always felt like the story was about two young people concentrating on their relationship and what they stand for in the world. As much as we love Idris, casting from the beginning wasn’t towards him and we would have had to twist the show quite substantially to make it one he could have been a lead in.”

The show had to work around the busy schedules of actors such as Rory Kinnear

Once the majority of the casting was in place, Ridley led mini read-throughs from six weeks before filming began so whoever had been cast would come together to read the script, allowing him to edit it as he felt necessary.

“That was an incredibly helpful process for the cast but also for John in that he was constantly rewriting as he went,” Swinden says. “That was the real joy of having a director, writer and creator in one person – he was constantly listening to feedback and absorbing, tweaking and polishing it the whole time.”

The desire to secure such a talented cast, however, led to a challenging shooting schedule as the production team attempted to align actors’ schedules.

“Rory Kinnear was amazing because he was shooting during the day and then at night he was on stage at the National Opera,” Swinden adds. “It was extraordinary. There was lots of that going on. But the biggest challenge was how to find down-and-dirty 1970s London in gentrified London. There’s not many pockets left. We mostly filmed on the outer edges of Hackney [in east London] and a little in south London, but we moved a lot.”

For Baig, who is also casting Channel 4/Amazon anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams and Elba-led feature film Yardie, the process stays the same across both films and TV series, though the number of small-screen dramas currently in production means the demand for actors is increasingly fierce.

“The television industry at the moment is so healthy, it’s sort of overflowing because you’ve got so many different outlets and there’s a huge amount being made,” she notes. “Film is still tough. It’s a hard climate unless you’ve got one of the five actors who greenlight films.

“Television is very competitive. I’ve never known quite so many scripts around. It’s bonkers – good but very busy.”

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Networks bank on spin-off series

The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper
The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper’s younger years

In a relatively quiet week on the commissioning front, one of the more interesting stories is that US network CBS is developing a prequel to its hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory.

Now in its 10th season, the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady-created show continues to attract an audience in excess of 14 million, so it’s no surprise that CBS would want to build on that strength.

According to US reports, Lorre, Prady and showrunner Steve Molaro will oversee the project, which will focus on the younger years of key character Sheldon Cooper. None of The Big Bang Theory cast will be involved in the new sitcom except Jim Parsons, who plays Cooper and will executive produce the spin-off.

Interestingly, rival network ABC has also announced plans for a spin-off from its sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg. Unlike the CBS project, this will be a sequel as opposed to a prequel. The Goldbergs, now in its fourth season, is set in the 1980s, but the new show will be set in the 1990s. It will star Bryan Callen, who plays a gym teacher in the current series.

The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on
The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on Bryan Callen’s character Mr Meller

The spin-off trend is not new – think Cheers/Frasier and Friends/Joey. But it fits well alongside the TV industry’s growing reliance on TV-to-movie spin-offs and TV reboots, giving networks a promotional boost from the outset.

And, for the most part, it works well. In the drama procedural arena, for example, we’ve seen franchises like Gotham (ABC), CSI and JAG/NCIS (both CBS) prosper, while Dick Wolf has created an entire world out of Chicago-based dramas for NBC. More recently, there have been examples such as NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption and CBS’s The Good Fight, the latter an extension of The Good Wife.

US cable network AMC has also got in on the act with Breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead – both of which have rated well enough to justify their existence.

There are also reports that Netflix is planning a Daredevil spin-off with The Punisher (based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero), while outside of the US the success of ITV’s Morse prequel Endeavour has encouraged the network to follow up with a Prime Suspect prequel called Tennison (coming soon). In Italy, Rai has also enjoyed decent levels of success with Young Montalbano, a prequel of its hit detective series Inspector Montalbano.

Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil
Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil

However, as the Friends/Joey example shows, spin-offs aren’t always guaranteed to succeed. And there has been a more recent example of an unsuccessful spin-off in the shape of Ravenswood, which grew out of Freeform’s hit series Pretty Little Liars. But overall there is enough of a hit record for networks to take notice.

There are a couple of reasons why they seem to stick. One is that spin-offs often centre on actor/character combinations that the audience still loves – unlike TV reboots where the audience is being asked to like something that was popular 20 to 30 years ago. Another is that they are generally written by the same team that created the original, so there is a continuation of tone that audiences connect with. Again, expecting a new creative team to run with something that is decades old is not a simple process.

Prequels, of course, require the audience to accept a new actor or actress in the central role. But there is something inherently appealing about seeing the youthful back story of a mature character you’ve grown to love over several seasons. Besides, the time gap from original series to spin-off is usually shorter than the kind of TV reboots we’ve witnessed in the last few years.

Pulling
Pulling is set to be remade in the US

In fact, the hit rate on spin-offs is such that networks would be foolish not to at least consider them. Is there any reason, for example, why ABC would not consider some kind of extension of Modern Family? Imagine a young Phil Dunphy at college – the only downside here being the likelihood of getting anyone to live up to the high standards set by actor Ty Burrell. Or what about a Game of Thrones prequel? It will be a major surprise if HBO lets its biggest franchise go without trying to create a follow-up.

Returning briefly to the subject of comedy, there are also reports this week that NBC is developing a US remake of UK comedy Pulling, which first aired on BBC3. The original show was written by Sharon Horgan and Denis Kelly, who are attached to the US adaptation as exec producers.

Actor/writer Horgan is already well known to the US market having written HBO comedy Divorce, which has Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, alongside Rob Delaney (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series).

Darren Criss in Glee
Darren Criss in Glee

Also this week, pundits are predicting that ABC’s legal drama Conviction is destined for cancellation. The first season of the show, which stars Hayley Atwell, has been limited to 13 episodes, which doesn’t augur well.

However, this setback doesn’t seem to have reduced US network interest in legal subject matter. CBS, for example, is developing a drama about a US senator who withdraws from office to join his brother’s private-investigation law firm, unearthing the truth in high-profile and top-secret cases.

In other stories this week, Glee star Darren Criss is working with Fox on a new project called Royalties. According to Entertainment Weekly, Royalties is a “workplace comedy detailing the unseen, unsung, and unglamorous heroes behind the pop stars – the producers and songwriters whose day job it is to crank out hits. Sometimes it’s sexy, but most of the time it’s just like every other workplace: day-to-day minutiae, office politics, and clashing personalities. Royalties is about a small publishing company, Royalty Music, and a one-hit wonder who returns to the fold in the hopes of making it big again.”

Fox is also trying to get into the vampire scripted series business. This week it ordered a pilot based on Justin Cronin’s boot trilogy The Passage.

Fauda
Fauda’s second season has been picked up by Netflix

Away from US drama, Netflix has acquired the upcoming second season of Fauda, a hard-hitting Israeli political thriller that follows a unit of the Israeli army working undercover in Palestine. The global SVoD platform has also picked up the show’s first season, which initially aired on cable broadcaster Yes last year.

Following up on last week’s column about Nordic drama, this week has seen UK-based SVoD platform Walter Presents pick up Valkyrien from distributor About Premium Content.

The eight-part series, produced by Tordenfilm for NRK and written by showrunner Erik Richter Strand (Occupied), revolves around an illegal hospital hidden in an Oslo underground station. It tells the story of a physician who fakes his terminally ill wife’s death to secretly keep her alive in an induced coma while he tries to find a cure. To finance his activities, he makes alliances with the criminal world and treats patients who need to stay off the grid.

In the UK, meanwhile, BBC3 has joined forces with actor Idris Elba on a series of short films that will bring established talent together with new writers and actors. Called Five by Five, the project will consist of five standalone five-minute shows that are set in London and question identity and changing perceptions.

Valkyrien
Valkyrien will air on Walter Presents

Elba will appear alongside talent such as Nina Yndis (Peaky Blinders) and Andrei Zayats (The Night Manager) in the shows, which are being produced by Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures and BBC Studios.

The films are written by Cat Jones (Flea, Harlots) and new writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.

“I have spent time with these talented five writers and observed their storylining process,” said Elba. “The scripts are uplifting and incredible, and with this group of young actors now attached to star, BBC3 viewers are in for an absolute blast. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.”

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