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Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 15:24 UK
Stringer Bell on the success of The Wire

Interview by Tulip Mazumdar
Newsbeat presenter

Idris Elba, the British star of one of the most loved TV shows of all time, The Wire, explains who inspired his character Stringer Bell and reveals why he thinks the show is such a phenomenon.

Idris Elba talks to 1Xtra's Max about his role in hit series The Wire

"It's not typical television, I'm sure some execs would say it's 'unsafe television', because it isn't for everyone."

Idris Elba, London-born star of The Wire, is right - the Baltimore-set series, filled with drugs, violence, poverty and corruption, is not for the faint-hearted.

Somehow, though, it's become one of the most acclaimed TV programmes of all time, and is even now being shown - late at night, of course, on BBC2.

"I think it's one of those shows that, because it has such a huge cult following, no matter what time of night they put it on it's going to get a decent viewership," says Elba.

"Most people that like intelligent, sophisticated drama think this is a phenomenal show, and will stay up 'til like four in the morning watching it."

Elba himself came from working class stock in Hackney, east London, and was eager to find a way out, through acting.

'Glorifying violence'

He's quick to deny that The Wire, in which he plays the drug dealer Stringer Bell, glorifies the tough environment he left behind, though.

"The way The Wire is portrayed in its writing," he explains. "There isn't a sort of glamorisation of drug dealing, there's a sort of realism.

In this day and age, it's guns, it's knives, it's people getting murdered, you know, for what?
Idris Elba on modern society

"It's fascinating, which is why people are sort of attracted to it, but it isn't glamour, it doesn't celebrate it as much as it does give you the raw truth of what it is."

The actor's portrayal of Stringer Bell was, unsurprisingly, inspired by some of the people he knew growing up. "I grew up with a lot of kids that were either very good at sports, you know what I mean, like football, running," he says.

"Or they were kids that were selling weed, robbing stores and that, and that was it, there was no other option.

"And I grew up around kids that, if they did that, they had to be smart about it - that's where the influence from Stringer Bell came from."

He continues: "In this day and age, those kids are not as savvy or not as sophisticated with their methods, it's guns, it's knives, it's people getting murdered, you know, for what?"

Bad guys

The youthful 'apprenticeship' has served him well - Elba has played a string of bad guys since Bell, namely a dealer in Ridley Scott's American Gangster and a villain in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Elba has just also been appointed as an Anti-Crime Ambassador for The Prince's Trust, the charity which gave him a grant when he was a teenager and allowed him to join the National Youth Music Theatre production of Guys And Dolls.

Idris Elba
Idris Elba who plays Stringer Bell in The Wire

"If I can just be a beacon for four kids to just look the other way and look my direction," he explains.

"That's four kids that might be off the streets, that can encourage another 12 kids, you know, another 24 kids, whatever, try and bring some sort of system where people go, 'You know what, maybe we don't have to do that, maybe we can do this'."

Unusually for a British actor, Elba is now a box office smash in America.

His new film Obsessed, which pairs him up with Beyonce, entered the US charts at number one last weekend.

"It's really weird, we had a phenomenal opening weekend in the States, and it is currently number one," he says.

"It made $28 million in one weekend, which is phenomenal for this time of year, so I'm very proud of that."

'Challenging role'

Despite working his way up as an actor the "old fashioned" way, the actor had nothing but praise for his co-star.

"Beyonce is a very talented person, period, and I had no doubt that she was going to bring the performance that she did in Obsessed, and she did, she brought it home," he gushes.

"It's a very challenging role for her, and when I say challenging, [I mean] it's not a musician.

"She's used to playing singers and in Obsessed she plays a wife of a man that goes through a very extra-ordinary scenario, being that he gets a stalker."

Oh my god, ok, it's Beyonce, don't stare, don't stare
Idris Elba on Beyonce

"I remember first meeting Beyonce on the film set of Obsessed," he adds.

"And that was so surreal, I was like, 'Oh my god, ok, it's Beyonce, don't stare, don't stare…'"

Based in Atlanta full-time, Elba's been known to hang out with US stars like Jay-Z and P Diddy - something he says was pretty unbelievable at first.

"It's like walking into Madame Tussauds but people are moving, that's what it's like," he laughs.

"It's like, 'Wait a minute, he's speaking, he's speaking, he's speaking to me, hey Jay-Z, how are you?'"

Additional reporting by Tom Pinnock.

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