A Masterclass with Idris Elba

On Friday 10th June, Masterclass hosted an event with Idris Elba where aspiring actors, producers, directors and people interested in television and film had the opportunity to speak to and hear him talk about his experiences in the industry. For those who were unable to attend, here is what went down.

First things first, Idris picked some people out of the crowd to read a scene from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'. Interaction appeared to be the theme of the day and Idris involved the crowd from the very start and built a rapport that lasted two hours and could have gone beyond.  The point of this exercise was that according to Idris people spend so much time dreaming of being an actor instead of doing.  As an actor you are often thrown in the deep end – you’ll walk into a room with people you do not know and then have to act and create chemistry, and the volunteers did just that with some laughs along the way.

The majority of the two hours took the form of questions and answers;  Idris thought it would be best to keep the day interactive and the audience could get the answers they needed. This was broken down into three main sections: how he got started and the fundamentals of acting, his experiences once he had his foot in the door and the present; what is currently happening with his career.

In the first section, Idris talked about starting out attending a drama class in secondary school and once he had left school, the Stage newspaper became his best friend while searching for auditions. Idris highlighted that going to a drama school is so integral to how the industry introduces new actors so it makes it especially difficult for those, like him, who hadn’t been to drama school. However, while this is a challenge, Idris said that it made him work harder and double his ambition and efforts. There were other great tips that Idris gave to help those starting out including be educated and prepared when going into an audition. I guess that sounds obvious but there are so many places where people slip up; don’t read just your lines, read everyone else’s to enhance your understanding of the play and the other characters in it, learn about the past work of the director, the history of the company and where the play or TV programme originated from. Another important tip Idris gave was in response to a question about whether he ever had to restrain his ambition in order to be realistic. Idris responded saying that it was important to be ambitious but it was also important to manage expectations. A lot of people seek the end goal which is being at the top yet fail to see the success in progression. Rejection comes into this too, do not be disheartened but when you fail, still stay positive and take another route. Idris revealed that he originally went to audition for the part of Avon Barksdale in The Wire – he was then told that they wanted him to audition for Stringer Bell. Despite his disappointment having spent days perfecting Avon’s character, Idris had to remain positive and switch lanes to take on Stringer Bell. If he had been disheartened, he many not even have got the part of Stringer – and look how well that’s turned out for him!

Moving onto the next stage of his career, Idris spoke about what to do to when you‘ve got off the ground and you’re foot is in the door and how to keep it open when it is persistently trying to shut on you. A tip Idris gave was to differentiate yourself using the example of Johnny Depp. When Johnny Depp was starting out, he was amongst so many other similar actors so in order to differentiate himself and stand out, he went for oddball and quirky characters to play. Idris said it important to create your own lane – it might be a big risk but if it pays off then you could have a great career. He also said to not be afraid of expressing to a casting director your passion to play a character even f you do not meet the criteria. Perhaps the casting description asks for a good-looking, white, boy next door – read about the character and still go to the audition and express why even though you don’t fit the criteria you could still bring something to the role. If anything they will remember you r boldness and think of you when they next cast for a production. Another way to keep that door open is to keep your skills relevant and focus on improving; go to workshops, go to see plays, keep an eye on the industry, be a student of the craft.

To break things up a little, Idris then decided to do some one on one sessions with some actors in the audience. They were asked to deliver a speech, Idris would then critique it, then they’d have to re-deliver and show signs of improvement (no pressure then!). I have to give it to them, it was a great opportunity to show what they could do in front of Idris and the people in the room but it was also a nervous situation. The nerves did show but it was interesting to see how they gradually became more comfortable and after Idris’ critiques, some even made clearly visible improvements receiving applause from the audience. It was an experience that they definitely would have learned from as Idris gave some great tips. One piece of advice was to start off calm and then build the intensity so that the speech has some progression and different levels. Think about the character, the physicality of the person you are playing, the environment, the back story – all of this should allow you to fully embody the character you are playing and leave the ‘real you’ behind.

To round up the day, Idris went back to the Q&A’s to cover the last stage: now and the future. He revealed that is was always a plan of his to go to the States to act. He looked at actors like Omar Epps, Wesley Snipes and Taye Diggs and saw what they were doing with their careers. The States is a bigger marketplace and Idris said that the UK just couldn’t house his ambition. However even though he’s had success across the Atlantic, Idris doesn’t suddenly feel that he has ‘made it’; you always have to prove your worth. Idris is due to star in the Ridley Scott directed ‘Prometheus’ which also stars Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce. Speaking of Charlize, despite her being an Oscar-winning actress, Idris said that even she still brings her A game – she knows that she cannot rest on that Oscar; you’re only as good as your last piece of work so as actors it is a continuous strive for improvement. The challenge of being at the established stage is that you no longer have to do auditions. While this is probably the ultimate aim for many, it also means that casting directors only have your past work to go on, you have less of the opportunity to try to convince them than you would in a live audition so when you are working, it’s good to have that in mind.

Idris then talked about Luther, which is back for a much-anticipated second series tomorrow (June 14th) at 9pm on BBC1. Idris Elba calls this his most satisfying role to date – not only is Luther a great character that allows him go on a rollercoaster of emotions, he also is an executive producer which allows him to have an even greater creative input. His creative input as an exec producer is something that he has been pursuing both here and in the States; he exec produced on Legacy and Suicide Kids and of course on the Milk and Honey project by LA based company Brown Paper Dolls who SceneTV interviewed a few weeks ago.

Final tip from Idris – promote yourself, seek out opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you. And for bold ones who stepped up and asked Idris whether there were opportunities to work with him on some level,  Idris exclusively announced that he plans to host workshops in the near future for actors in order to source talent for his productions, so look out for news on the social networks.

All in all, it was a great event where attendees had the opportunity to take part in an intimate, interactive session with one of the leading actors in the industry. He gave great advice and really showed just how down to earth he is and passionate about his craft. Everyone left feeling motivated and that bit more determined to go out there and make their mark.

Thanks to Idris Elba and Masterclass for hosting the event.

For more Masterclass events  including the next session with Christopher Ecceleston, click here.

For the interview with Brown Paper Dolls, click here.

Final reminder – Luther is back on BBC1, on Tuesday 14th June at 9pm.


One thought on “A Masterclass with Idris Elba

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *