In the last few years alone, Idris Elba has shown quite a wide range. Of armed villains (Rufus Buck in The harder they fall) and beloved but destructive TV detectives who got a big screen moment (Luther in Luther: The Fallen Sun), via wish-fulfilling spirits (The Djinn in Three thousand years of desire) to returning Norse gods (Heimdall in Thor: Love and Thunder), animated video game characters (Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog2) and a man who takes on a lion with his bare hands (Dr. Nate Samuels in Beast), it’s been quite an eclectic mix.
hijack is something completely different.
In the seven-part series, which launches on Apple TV+ on Wednesday, June 28, and which Elba is also producing through his Green Door production company (and the lone projects of the now-ended deal with the streamer), he plays Sam Nelson, a business negotiator on boarding a flight from Dubai to London in an attempt to salvage his failed marriage.
As the title suggests, it’s not exactly a stress-free journey as a bunch of ruthless criminals soon take control. But what could easily have been a testosterone-fueled one Under siege-style action thriller turns into something else, with Nelson using his intelligence and communication skills to relay information to authorities on the ground (led by Archie Panjabi and Max Beesley), while also attempting to defuse the situation on the plane. There are fight sequences, but also a lot of secret codes being passed around the passengers and Nelson trying to sneak his not inconsiderable body between cabins without the hijackers seeing him. To increase the tension, hijack plays out in real time (it’s almost exactly the same length as a seven-hour flight from Dubai to London).
According to Elba, this was one of the main attractions for him – the opportunity to do something different that was contrary to the kind of roles he’s had in the past.
Speak against The Hollywood Reporter in London first hijackAt Tuesday’s world premiere, Elba discussed the joy of people who don’t know what he’s going to do next as he steps back behind the camera for his second feature film as a director, hell (and the first time directing himself), and plans for another Luther movie. And yes, he also addressed James Bond (and how everything he says about a movie franchise he “never played” ends up on Google Alerts).
hijack feels like a unique TV project – real-time, almost entirely in one location. Have you done something like this before?
No. And it was designed that way. I wanted to try something different. I wanted to try something that felt like instant love it or hate it. In The wire And Luther, it’s kind of slowly building into the character. With this man he is in a situation … it’s called hijack, and he’s right there. And you think to yourself, what would I do if I were him? So I was really drawn to that. I want this to be a water cooler moment. I just wanted it to be fun, like ‘have you seen that shit? That shit was done really well.
Did the uniqueness of the project make it particularly interesting to shoot?
It felt a bit like theatre. The venue didn’t move much, we were in that space and it was small. So it felt a bit like theatre, with 400 actors, and you got to know them all. It was good, but very different. We shot as much as possible in succession for two reasons. One because it just felt right not to jump around, but also because we were still writing some of the later episodes during the filming process.
Were you involved in writing?
Not the actual writing, but in the draft stage, just kind of mapping out and planning the story. I was partly involved in this with my production company Green Door. We were all like, What’s the best version of this story? It was called different things and at one point it was called Kingdomafter the UK, because it’s a flight from Dubai to London and there’s a microcosm of our society and the idea of, you know, working against tropes and different personality types.
At first I think I naively thought you were going to punch your way out of all this, and it was going to be much more physical, but I was very pleasantly surprised when it was more than that. Was this something that made it a more attractive prospect for you?
Absolutely. I sat there reading the script thinking I don’t want to play a guy who’s going to fight his way in and isn’t vulnerable because we’re all fucking vulnerable. There’s a version of this we’ve seen before where it’s like (assumes American accent), “Don’t worry, I got this.” I thought this would be better for me, at the peak of my career. I think you can say my name and people will say, “Yeah, I don’t know what he’s going to do next.” And I like that. So it means I get to be vulnerable without people saying, “That was weird for him. He’s usually the tough guy.”
Speaking of tough guys, there’s something absolutely terrifying about Neil Maskell in roles like this where he’s a privateer. He did an incredibly brutal movie a few years ago called Taurus that was hard to see in parts. Is he much more cuddly in real life?
He’s a softie! But yes, I hear where you’re coming from. I wouldn’t say his style is method, but he is in the moment. We’re in this real environment – just like theatre, it’s very intense. And he’s there and the passion and the vibrations you get are like “oh my god he really fucking hates me” and then he turns it off and starts talking about his son.
Has make hijack forced to look around a bit more often on flights to see what’s going on?
Absolutely. Much more. I am much more aware. Usually when I fly the staff want to say hello and share some more information. And I had this thing on a flight to LA when a guy passed by and we had to divert to Canada. It was horrible and people were in tears. The staff gravitated towards me and I tried to be a confidant and accessible as much as possible. When you’re a public figure, it’s like being a doctor. And oddly enough, my experience in flight and understanding the flow of information, and how not to freak people out… it was like being behind the curtain. I actually said I made a show on an airplane and asked if there was anything I could do to help. Because I think I kind of understood what they were going through. We knew we couldn’t tell everyone he had passed away and had to say someone was sick. And I knew the plane wouldn’t take off again because a coroner would have to come.
Away from hijackat the recent Annecy festival there were clips of the R-rated animation Fixed. What was it like to voice a naughty but neutered dog?
It was very, what can I say, liberating. But it’s definitely not a PC.
The right way. We can all be cancelled. But it was a lot of fun to make, and I hope people love it because it’s my sense of humor.
Your next directorial gig has just been announced – hell. Your directorial debut Yardie I think it was 2018. Did you hold back? What has been the process of finding your next project behind the camera?
I probably would have gotten to it much sooner if the whole world hadn’t fallen a little off its axis. And just like my acting career, I didn’t want to do the same thing I’ve already done and try to do something different. But I really like this story, and I think we have a chance to make a good piece of action thriller. It’s my first time directing and starring and that’s daunting, so I think I ran into it and ran from it at the same time, just knowing how hard it is to work. You are in high demand as a leading actor in a film. As a director you are always in demand. And so the preparation for it is extremely important to me.
And it’s with Millennium…
Hats off to Millennium. They are known for a certain type of movie. And this story and this movie is a minor aberration. In a way it still ticks all their genre boxes, but they’ve given me the chance as an actor they like to direct my way. And they’ve been very supportive of me and allowed me to fill the team the way I want.
You said a while ago that you wanted to make a music album based on your different screen personas. How does that work?
I didn’t do much on that music project. I deviated a bit from someone else. But that character album that I’m going to do, I’ve yet to collect a few characters that are memorable that people can say, “I imagined he listened to him or sounded like….” And I’ve got a handful of characters that do that kind of emotions.
What genre of music would Sam be attached to hijack?
It seems like Sam could be a memorable character because living with him, you’re really stuck with him. I think he’s a bit sadder. Sad and emotional. So I can acoustically see electronic sounds around the track. Something honest.
This is clearly a subject and character that has followed you for many, many years, so I’m sorry to bring it up. The next James Bond is probably someone who isn’t on any favorites list and someone who isn’t expected. Is there anyone you’ve seen that you thought could play the part?
I’m going to say no, just because every time I answer something about Bond, I land on Google Alerts. So I have to stay away from it. I get intrigued by answering questions about that character because I’ve never played him!
Has the conversation about Bond ever been a burden?
No, I wouldn’t say it’s a burden. It’s a huge compliment. But it will be news no matter what I say. And I’ve done it a few times and thought “why did I do that” and all of a sudden it’s “IDRIS THINKS…”
Do you think being associated with arguably the biggest movie role in the world for so long has had a negative or positive impact on your career?
I do not really know. I think I have a fan base, but people who don’t know me got to know me better through Bond. Those who are non-believers can be like “Idris, who?” and then they start googling me. So it’s interesting to my career in the sense that it makes people think about what makes a Bond, so maybe they can see it or not. But I don’t think it changed my career.
hell is next – we shoot in October. Actually, I want to direct a little more. And we are watching Luther and another episode.
Another Luther movie?
Yes. It’s very early days. We know what we want to do and we know what the opportunity is. Honestly, you’re talking about Bond, but John is my answer to that. He is a mechanism and a character that you can follow through some crazy escapism. It’s Jan. I think he’s very relatable and sometimes you want a good guy to go to the bad guys and figure them out. And John is not here to negotiate.
I recently saw you on Netflix Extraction 2. It was only a small role, but one with a strong indication that there is much more to come.
Yes, there is a heavy indication. It’s incredibly well done. I did it as a favor – Chris (Hemsworth) is my partner and I enjoy working with him. So maybe I’m in it. Don’t know. Nothing is official. The extraction movies are pure action and escapism and I imagine the relationship we built in the second movie is expanded.