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Idris Elba on starring in the new action-thriller series 'Hijack'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

So our next guest turned the tables on us, asking what we thought of his new series. We said we're kind of hooked.

IDRIS ELBA: That's what I'm here for, to hook you into a story. Job done - I can go home now. Thank you.

RASCOE: Yeah. That's the Idris Elba. And he did actually stick around to talk to us about that new series.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM COOKE SONG, "TROUBLE BLUES")

RASCOE: Elba stars as Sam Nelson, who makes a very comfortable living as a corporate negotiator and dealmaker. From the opening scene, though, with this old Sam Cooke tune playing as he boards a plane from Dubai to London, you sense that life is about to get really uncomfortable for Idris Elba's character.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM COOKE SONG, "TROUBLE BLUES")

RASCOE: After all, the show, which just started on Apple TV, is called "Hijack."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIJACK")

ELBA: (As Sam Nelson) There are, like, some 200 people on this flight, and most of them will do exactly as you say.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's right.

ELBA: (As Sam Nelson) But let's face it - there are some who will kick off and cause you problems.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Sit down.

ELBA: (As Sam Nelson) No, no. Let me just tell you where I'm at, OK? I don't care about any of those people. I just want to get home to my family. So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to help you.

RASCOE: Now, you're not going to get no spoilers out of me. But we did press Idris Elba on what drew him to this character, especially since he's known for such iconic roles - Stringer Bell on "The Wire," "Luther," even his portrayal of Nelson Mandela.

ELBA: I was drawn to Sam because he's just an ordinary man. He's not, like, a detective. He's not, like, a drug dealer. He's not a...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.

ELBA: ...President of a country. This is a guy that's trying to get home to his family, and someone hijacks a plane. And he has to make a decision whether the fate of his life and his journey is in the hands of these people. And he decides...

RASCOE: Yeah.

ELBA: ...Against that.

RASCOE: You know, before we even get a word of dialogue from Sam, like, the audience kind of meets him through a close-up on his eyes - they look weary. And then there's this Sam Cooke song, "Trouble Blues," playing. Like, what did you think of that song selection? And there was a lot of good music throughout this whole thing, I must say.

ELBA: The music is good in this. Yeah, you know, there's lots of close-ups of me because it's told from my perspective. When you watch Sam Nelson, you see him make a decision, you see him thinking about something, you're like, what is he going to do? What is he going to do?

RASCOE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ELBA: So that song choice was designed to really pull at the audience quickly and, you know, decide whether they want to follow this guy's story or not.

RASCOE: And you did play a little bit of Teddy Pendergrass, "Wake Up Everybody." That's one of my favorites. You can't see, but behind me, there's a big poster of Teddy...

ELBA: Of Teddy?

RASCOE: ...Pendergrass (laughter).

ELBA: Wow. You know, I always - a long time ago, I actually wanted to play the Teddy Pendergrass story.

RASCOE: You should.

ELBA: Yeah.

RASCOE: You should.

ELBA: I can't sing.

RASCOE: But you should. OK, I digress. I mean, you talk about how you're in this hijack scenario, like, for a multi-episode drama. I mean, it's like the ultimate locked-room. And then when you talk about the close-ups, a lot of times the characters can't talk. They just have to look at each other.

ELBA: Yeah.

RASCOE: They have to, like, signal with each other.

ELBA: Yeah.

RASCOE: Like, how difficult was that to do?

ELBA: You know, it was not as difficult as you might think, you know, because human beings - before we could speak, we found ways to signal to each other, and especially in times of danger. That's where smiling came from. Once the signal passed, we would smile naturally and be like, OK, it's all good, because we couldn't say it. So we were quite observant about that.

Because on a plane we often don't usually speak to strangers, OK? So if you and a stranger are trying to communicate with each other, you have to rely on reading my face and me read yours. And that's a real human instinct. And so we wanted to pull into that a little bit with this storytelling.

RASCOE: You know, not that long ago, Hollywood movies - there would be a bunch of cliches, but it seems like this show was very intent on making sure that you didn't get into those cliches about terrorists, right? Like, how intentional was that?

ELBA: That was very intentional. I mean, it was one of the first things we spoke about in the early stages of development, which is, how do we make this different? And that was, you know, a process of eliminating those tropes. The name of the airline is called Kingdom, and it really is a symbol for the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is a real melting pot of cultures. And of course, you walk around London - everyone's a Londoner, and everyone looks different. And that's what it's like on a plane. However, on a plane, you make assumptions about who people are...

RASCOE: Yeah.

ELBA: ...Based on what they look like. And that's why it was really fun to just throw this at the wall a little bit.

RASCOE: There's a lot of action in it. And you do get to scrapping a little bit.

ELBA: (Laughter).

RASCOE: I feel like action heroes - they'll take on terrorists. They'll battle the apocalypse. But emotionally they're so broken. Like, they can never keep their marriages together. They'll fight hijackers before they'll go to therapy. Like, I feel like Sam is a prime example of this (laughter).

ELBA: He's toxic. He's toxic masculinity. He's paid to use that toxicity to get people to buy and sell companies at a higher premium. That's what he's there for. He's there to tell you and make your ego inflate so that you can be like, I need to close this deal.

And it isn't until the end of the film that he realizes that is not going to wash in this area. He is a human being first, and that's what that journey is for Sam, you know what I'm saying? He's on that plane because he has to go home to his wife. His wife is practically - I don't want to spoil it, but his wife is practically on to the next...

RASCOE: Yeah.

ELBA: ...And he wants to try and fix that. But it's too late.

RASCOE: It's too - that's kind of hard to accept, though, right? I mean, love and all of that, you know.

ELBA: This is what happens when you procrastinate, see?

RASCOE: (Laughter).

ELBA: Procrastination is the thief of time, OK? There you go.

RASCOE: So, I mean, look, you've been at this acting thing, at least professionally, for almost 30 years. Has what you're looking for in a role changed now over the years that you are an established superstar and all of that?

ELBA: You know, when I started my career, it was all about being the best. It was all about being the biggest. It was all about, you know, winning an Oscar and winning awards. And since I haven't won any of those, I'm more - I have this power as an actor, and most actors do, to influence, not only in the roles you take, but in who you live your life as. Because people idolize people who are in the public eye, and how you are in reality is - you influence people.

I tend to choose roles that - what am I saying about men? What am I saying about myself? Can I influence with this role? You know, even if it's a bad guy, I like that bad guy to have complexities. I want him to have some empathy, or I want you to have empathy for him.

RASCOE: Is it harder to play a bad guy versus a good guy like Sam Nelson?

ELBA: It's harder to play a good guy, yeah. And make him interesting - it's harder. Because...

RASCOE: Yeah.

ELBA: ...Good guys are written in a way that they don't offend anybody, you know what I'm saying?

RASCOE: Yeah (laughter). Yeah.

ELBA: And bad guys - they're just like - and that's just more fun to play.

RASCOE: Is there a role out there that you are still coveting? Like, I really want to play that. Maybe it's Teddy Pendergrass.

(LAUGHTER)

ELBA: (Singing) Turn off the lights.

RASCOE: Yeah, exactly. God, I see it. I see it.

ELBA: (Singing) Light a candle. I told you I can't sing, so that's not the one.

RASCOE: It's - they'll get somebody else to do the singing (laughter).

ELBA: Yeah, that's true. Any role that really just, you know, sort of, I guess, stretches the imagination of my audience - you know, I have a very loyal audience. Because people that love Stringer Bell will be like, I'm waiting for my new Stringer Bell. But they stay with me.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Oh, yeah.

ELBA: And I take them through all kind of journeys. They're like, I didn't like him in that, but I love him in this. And - but I try to keep it varied. You know, life is all about variety, in my opinion, and I try to keep it varied.

RASCOE: Well, thank you so much. That is Idris Elba, star of the new show "Hijack." Thank you so much for joining us.

ELBA: Thank you, Ayesha. It's really good to see you, and good luck. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.