Idris Elba is something of an icon, even if you can't remember his name. The British-born actor has done everything from HBO's immortal series "The Wire" (recently named, by Entertainment Weekly, as the greatest show of all time) to portraying a super-heroic gatekeeper in Marvel's "Thor" and its upcoming sequel "Thor: The Dark World." He can literally do anything -- and often does.
This weekend Elba stars in Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim." As Stacker Pentecost, he leads the human resistance in the 11th hour against giant monsters called kaiju. Pentecost still believes in a program he helped develop to defeat the kaijus: the jaeger program. Jaegers are robots, roughly the same shape and size of the monsters that have crawled out of an inter-dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean floor.
We got to talk to the veteran actor about what it was like inside one of the jaegers, why he was so excited to work with Guillermo del Toro, and what's in store for "Thor 2."
Moviefone: How do you go about deciding what roles you're going to take?
Elba: Well, for a long time in my career it was never about deciding, it was about I need to work, what am I being offered? That's a lot of it. Recently, over the past five or 10 years, I've gotten to choose what I want to do. Now as an actor I'm only 20 years into the game so my choices are about what makes me excited, who I want to work with, what's varied, what haven't I done before. So I run the risk of being criticized very very deeply for doing anything. And it's not that. It's that I don't want to do the same thing twice.
MF: Few actors can be in "Thor 2," "Pacific Rim," and "Mandela" in the same year. That must be fun to bounce around between more commercial stuff and stuff that's more personally interesting.
IE: Not to toot my own horn but it speaks to versatility. I think people pigeonhole themselves and I think people don't challenge themselves. You are an actor. You're a vessel. I'm very much about doing as many different types of roles as I can.
MF: Tell me how you became involved in "Pacific Rim."
IE: It's just an opportunity to work with Guillermo del Toro. He sent the script over and I was so fascinated by him I wanted to do anything for it. "You want me to open an envelope?" Oh, okay.
MF: What about him made you so excited?
IE: I'm young at heart. I'm 40 but I have a young imagination. I love people who have that and know how to express it and have the technological know-how and savvy to do the same. So I was on his side. He's one of my favorite nerds in the world.
MF: What did he equip you with? The robots aren't there, the monsters aren't there. Did he show you drawings?
IE: Well he gave you everything in terms of who these people were. Stacker Pentecost is a soldier who has fought in many, many, many battles. That's how he grew up. That was all there. From my costume to my command station was all real. All the green screen stuff was given to us, so the information was there prior to getting to the set.
MF: What surprised you the most about the finished product?
IE: The detailing. The detailing was incredible. If I wasn't in this movie but I was going to take my daughter to see it and spent at least 50, 60 bucks on two tickets and Coke or whatever, I would walk into the movie and say that was money well spent. Because these guys did not leave one stone unturned. They asked me to come into this world and suspend my disbelief for a little while. And I was completely blown away. And I was in it! It was like watching "Blade Runner" or "Star Wars" for the first time. Who thinks this stuff up? And where did they get a C-3PO? Where do they get one of these things? For me it was like the value for money in terms of filmmaking.
MF: Can you describe what it was like being in the cockpit for one of these things?
IE: Yeah I'm going to reluctantly take you through this process because every time I think about it I get nightmares. It was really tough. We had to wear these suits that harnessed into our bodies and then that went into another harness and we had to wear these shoes and there was this elliptical machine and you're stuck there between nie and 10 hours a day. It took you through the spoils of war. You felt it -- you felt the impact, the water, the fire, the steam. It was not for the lighthearted. That's what Guillermo does so well -- he doesn't want to see fake sweat, he wants to see sweat. He doesn't want to see fake tears, he wants to see the turmoil. That's borderline torture on actors but it was pretty good.
MF: You said Guillermo took you through the characters. Your character is very mysterious. Do you know more about the character than the audience does?
IE: You meet Stacker Pentecost in the middle of it but prior to that he's been through a lot of sh*t. He's one of the first jaeger pilots and there's that whole journey that the audience doesn't quite get to but it's there.
MF: You're coming back for "Thor 2." What did that offer you, in terms of not wanting to repeat yourself?
IE: Well, I'm under contract so I had to come back. And secondly it's a sequel and it's a continuation of the story, which is different than going back. It's what the audiences want. And I think this particular film is a bit more fly on the wall. It's a little bit closer to the Asgardians, which was definitely what the audience wants to see. They want to get closer to Thor, to see where he's from.
MF: You've been in a bunch of comic book movies. Were you always a big fan?
IE: The three films that have that sort of element work because of the people I was working with. I wanted to work with Guillermo, I wanted to work with Ridley Scott, I wanted to work with Kenneth Branagh. When I did "Ghost Rider," I wanted to work with Nic Cage. It's just really wanting to work with people that I like.
MF: You've got "Mandela" coming out this fall.
IE: Yeah I can't wait to show it. It's one of the hardest pieces I've worked on to pull together and I think it comes out in November. And then I have "Luther" that just came out in England.
MF: Did you tease Ruth Wilson [his "Luther" co-star who's in "The Lone Ranger"] about whose summer movie was going to make more money?
IE: [Laughs] No! I was really excited for her! It's one of her first big blockbuster movies! How has it done?
MF: It didn't do very well... But it's pretty cool. Have you seen it?
IE: No, I haven't seen it yet.
MF: Are you going to continue to fluctuate between television and features?
IE: I hope so. I want to produce more TV. I want to get into a little bit more directing. I just want to stay creative as an actor. Just keep choosing different roles.
This ought to make for an awkward Comic Con panel.