Idris Elba occupies a space that he shares with no other. When he's not being one of the most successful British actors to work both here and in the US (and possibly the most successful black British actor to date), he's making headlines with his music, his campaign work to increase diversity in the arts, and that James Bond rumour. His latest project sees him join forces with soft drink brand Purdey's for Thrive On—a new campaign that champions extraordinary innovation from ordinary people through a range of initiatives including panel discussions and a competition for seed funding. We caught up with him to discuss inspiration and motivation for today's generation.
Why this campaign?
I've been drinking Purdey's for a long time; it's a brand that's been around for a long time, but they tend not to do any advertising. The engineering behind Purdey's is that it's made from natural products to keep you going. Plus, we have a campaign which means talking to a lot of people and perhaps inspiring people to do things that are outside of their comfort zone.
The common denominator of people who like what I do is that they're aspirational; they're not afraid of going for it and that's what they recognise in me. So we thought it would be a perfect combination—myself and Purdey's—because we agree on the same sort of principles.
I grew up in East London like yourself. There weren't any initiatives like this when we were younger. Is that because we didn't need them? Do you think it's getting harder for people to achieve their ambition these days?
Well yes, things are getting harder and you know what, we can sit back and say "it's too hard! There are no opportunities! Don't worry about it, I'm just going to sit still". Or we can go, "no actually, it is hard, there aren't as many opportunities, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't still go for it". It's healthier to have a point of view on life which is "I am going to try and overcome the obstacles", rather than say "you know what, it's too tough, there aren't opportunities, goodbye". So the campaign is a gentle one, we're not sitting here saying "achieve the impossible!"
It's more about saying "go for it", regardless if you know that there are doors in front of you that aren't opening, knock anyway.
I understand the campaign is looking into a range of different avenues including TED Talk style events. What subjects are really interesting you at the moment? What can we expect?
Honestly, it's a bit of everything. The agency and I went out and found a bunch of people and did a lot of interviews. We asked people who had regular jobs but ambition to do other things. The answers from those people were so varied. We met a woman who was an analyst for a tech company, but who wanted to be a football coach. We met a single mum who wanted to be...wait for it...a hot air balloon instructor. From our perspective, the more varied it was the more interesting it was. So when we do get to a place when there are these TED Talk like forums, I'm hoping that the subjects will come from many different areas and as many different types of people as we can. I think the more the merrier; it's all about encouraging a culture of doing.
What compels you to get involved in projects like this?
he said "does anyone here want to be an actor?". I was like "I'd like to be an actor" and he said "go on big lad, you should do it". That WAS MASSIVE TO ME.
It's giving back. I remember being influenced by a teacher. One day she brought in an actor to come and see me, to see our class—this was an actor who was in The Full Monty at the time which was a massive film—and he came and sat in our class and watched us pretend to be fried eggs and stuff. He didn't have to do it, but it had a massive impact on me. It was just the fact that he came. He talked to us and he said "does anyone here want to be an actor?". I was like "I'd like to be an actor" and he said "go on big lad, you should do it" and we talked about it. The fact he was a real actor was massive to me.
In my head I'm not really the 'grip and grin' endorsing kind of guy, but Purdey's and I think we can encourage a forum.
Speaking of school, do you remember brands being so involved growing up?
It's not unusual to us now, but back in the day you were influenced by adverts. I remember Coca-Cola, Pepsi and brands that were just glossy and beautiful to look at. You had either beautiful people, or ordinary people doing extraordinary things in these campaigns and it encouraged you. Now brands know that they can talk to people in a more involved way. Now you can encourage people, give people opportunity, give people interconnectivity, where they can actually get something from the brand, and to me that's the way forward. That's what attracted me to this type of campaign. Even if you meet 20 other people [at an event] who all want to do something they haven't done, that's fellowship, and its a way to build your confidence and network. But I don't think its a brand responsibility, I just think its a good way for brands to be more attractive, to get to know their audience.
In the promo for this campaign you talk about how all people, no matter how big or small, have their barriers and their hurdles to overcome. What are your barriers?
(Laughing) Not getting enough sleep! But in all seriousness, I run the risk of keeling over one day because I don't look after myself or get enough sleep. Part of my consciousness about that is trying to feed myself well, and have good health. Purdey's the drink—you know I do drink it, I do use it, I have before this campaign—and I do because its more natural. but I can admit I run myself into the ground. It is a barrier for me. Also, maybe its not a barrier as such, but I tend not to listen to criticism or even acknowledge it. It's good, but you can find yourself a little naive to what people think about you.
That's bliss isn't it?
It can be. I don't know, I can't really articulate it.
So who in the UK, in the spirit of the Purdey's campaign, is really thriving to you?
Jamal Edwards from SBTV. He started off with a small kernal of an idea and its not stopped growing. He's always learning, that's something that I'm really impressed with. I think that he's a really interesting young entrepreneur. There are others but I'm so awful with names.
What advice would you give a young actor now?
One of the main things that helped me as a young actor was understanding the industry. It's quite scary sometimes when you meet an actor who has no concept about the actual process of getting a job. You know, who doesn't understand how to communicate with a casting director, or what a casting director is or what they do. For me a young actor needs to be completely self-educated. I didn't go to drama school so I was forced to understand what Spotlight [a casting service] was, and what The Stage newspaper was. I had to force myself to understand the different kinds of theatre, and the different groups I could get involved with. I was a nerd about that; there was nothing you couldn't have asked me as a young actor.
I feel like there's a lot more I can do and give
Now these kids expect to be internet sensations and haven't got a real understanding of the process of becoming an actor. My advice is to educate yourself completely. I know it sounds boring but while educating yourself you'll probably find some opportunities.
Is education something you'll be doing more of in the future?
I think it's a natural journey for me to speak. I don't think I'll be a professor or anything but I've got a journey that could influence other younger people. I don't think I'll be a teacher but I respect teachers so I'll probably lend my success to encourage programs—educational programs—so I do feel like there's a lot more I can do and give.