Idris Elba on the new season of BBC's Luther and hopes for a prequel movie
The camera loves John Luther’s walk.
It peers over his shoulder at key moments, capturing the British detective’s ambling gait, semi-crouched like a prizefighter or confident brawler, wading into the world ready for whatever bit of nastiness it sees fit to send his way next.
But ask actor Idris Elba about that walk, which is featured countless times in the BBC crime drama Luther, and he laughs before delivering an answer he warns may be a bit of a disappointment.
“Honestly over the last three years, I’ve been dealing with a really bad injury on my ankle and it has gotten worse,” Elba told me during a conference call with reporters last week. “I end up having to choose my shoes that I use for Luther very carefully…I’ve heard that Luther has a crazy walk and it’s great, but it’s really not as intentional as I’d like to say.”
Elba’s response is a wonderful reminder: Sometimes you can read a little too much into a TV show.
But Luther is the kind of show tailor made for the overthink. Centered on John Luther, a brilliant, self-destructive, impatient crime solver let loose on the worst killings London can provide – did we mention he has a confidant/ally/unrequited almost-lover who is the only killer he couldn’t catch? – this show exists to feed viewers subtext.
The series returns for its third season at 10 tonight on BBC America, stringing all four episodes of the season along a single week in what the channel is calling a “miniseries event.” It’s a moody masterpiece, filled with gory crimes, competing agendas and Luther’s dogged devotion to solving crimes, no matter the cost.
As this season opens, Luther has been exonerated for the murder of his wife and is past events of the second season where he was forced to work with criminals to get his job done. But the residual suspicion from those activities has led many in the force to suspect he’s a “dirty copper”; David O’Hara (Bravehart, The Departed) is magnetic as George Stark, the brutal investigator dedicated to bringing down Luther in this season.
“The theme, we’d like to say, is understanding the legacy of everything he has lived with…the weight of his actions and how that has change or not changed him,” said Elba, noting that last season’s episodes were more about how far Luther might bend or break the law to achieve justice; this season is about consequences, weathering the suspicions of his closest ally, young detective Justin Ripley.
“At the same time, we wanted to keep our audience thrilled,” he said. “Our bad guys in Luther are always vivid and horrible, but we wanted to enhance that this season; elevate it in a darker way.”
This season, that lineup of villains includes a killer who sneaks into women’s homes and hides under their beds or in their closets before attacking, slipping into view like an awful, supernatural presence.
Once he’s killed them, the murderer dresses them in very specific clothing; why he’s compelled to do so is just the kind of intricate, sordid mystery Luther has spent his career deconstructing.
In later episodes, he’s challenged by a vigilante who slays criminals evading justice online, gathering a public following before taking out a key member of Luther’s team. And that serial killing confidant, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), returns in a key moment to help save Luther’s bacon.
And if it sounds a bit cinematic, you’re on the right track: Elba said he and writer Neil Cross hope to turn Luther into a film, exploring how this crime-solving genius evolved in the first place.
“(Film is) where we can really explore what makes this man tick and really understand Luther, or go on weirder and more experimental journeys with him,” Elba said. “I think the original story is a classic superhero setup, and I’ve always likened Luther to a superhero, because as television makers we bend the rules so much.”
Cross echoed Elba’s words while speaking at the Edinburgh TV festival, according to the Guardian newspaper. “I've written the script and we hope to get the film made next year,” said the writer. “Idris is a brilliant leading man and we've hoped to turn Luther into a movie for a long time. It will follow his career in the earlier days, when he is still married to Zoe, and the final scene in the film is the first of the initial TV series.”
Would he and Cross consider more Luther episodes on TV? “Well, I think both Neil and I would consider it if you could get David Bowie to come and score the next season,” Elba said, laughing. “If you can do that I think Neil and I would be writing straightaway.”
But once area where Elba shows little patience is on questions about race. Many have suggested he would make a great, groundbreaking James Bond or Doctor Who of color, but the London native and son of African immigrants has a terse answer when asked if race makes a difference for Luther or if the show would ever explore race issues in its storylines.
“No and no,” Elba said, impatiently. Prodded for a fuller answer, he said simply, “I don't think the show needs any help, you know, in terms of do we have to make any sort of racial commentary on our television shows, as if there isn’t enough of it on the news.”
But he does allow that Luther may be in a better place, coming out a dark period where he might even consider murder to reach the truth of a crime.
“I wouldn’t say he’s grown up but he has definitely started to grasp onto the idea that he just can’t get away with the way he has been living,” Elba said. “So there is a big massive arc. And In Season 3 we see Luther smiling; not from irony but from actual happiness, you know, a couple of times.”
Luther's third season airs at 10 tonight, 9 p.m. Wednesday, 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday on BBC America.