Idris Elba stars in not one, but two films this summer: The mid-budget horror-thriller Beast and the bombastic fantasy-romance from Mad Max auteur George Miller, Three Thousand Years of Longing. British actor Elba—strikingly handsome and charming, yet with just enough roughness around the edges; a towering presence in any role and unequivocally gifted—made his initial mark as Stringer Bell on the acclaimed HBO crime drama The Wire. And he has, over the years, acquired an impressive roster of film credits as well. He’s worked with directors Aaron Sorkin, Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro, and has taken on parts ranging from The Suicide Squad’s Bloodsport to, uh, being covered in CGI fur as Macavity in Tom Hooper’s infamous adaptation of Cats. Yet despite Elba ticking off many boxes towards becoming a bonafide movie star, no blockbuster role or acclaimed part has tipped the household name actor into the hallowed realm of stardom.
As Gawker recently pointed out in their own quest to analyze Elba’s curious film career, the quality tends to greatly vary in the roles Elba takes on. And when he does get a role in a better film, it trends towards a supporting part (Molly’s Game, Pacific Rim). The rare starring role for Elba, as with Beast, mostly goes the way of lower-budget genre fare. It does seem that neither audiences nor filmmakers nor, quite possibly, Elba himself, knows what exactly to do with Idris Elba. He can both disturbingly prance around as an anthropomorphic cat and voice Knuckles the Echidna; he can embody a cowboy (The Harder They Fall), a Norse god (the Thor films), a gunslinger (The Dark Tower) or a lovesick djinn (Three Thousand Years of Longing). Yet the bewildering eclecticism of Elba’s filmography strikes less like the repertoire of an established character actor and more like a guy who still hasn’t quite found his identity as a movie actor.
The puzzling path Elba has taken since making the jump from television to film isn’t all that unfamiliar. It reminds me a bit of Jon Hamm, a celebrated dramatic television actor and household name who has struggled even more than Elba to institute an admirable film career. Hamm, who solidified himself as an acting heavyweight in a once-in-a-lifetime role, thorny advertising executive Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men, has largely been relegated in films to shapeless, forgettable supporting parts as no-nonsense tough guys and straight men. Hamm seems either entirely disinterested in ever taking on a multifaceted, meaty part like Draper again, or has a terrible agent—maybe it’s a little bit of both.
More confoundingly, the actor has a widely recognized flair for the comedic, utilized to great effect in series like 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Yet Hamm’s got a consistent track record of appearing in comedy films where he’s not actually allowed to be funny. Hamm is skilled at offsetting his ludicrously chiseled looks with a disarming, doughy goofiness. He’s at his best when his role allows him to be the funniest part of a scene. Yet aside from Bridesmaids (which he filmed while Mad Men was still airing, not sure if that is relevant), comedy movies like Tag and Keeping Up with the Joneses keep him squarely as a sensible guy forced to deal with goofier men’s shenanigans. Hamm currently has a rare starring role in the upcoming soft reboot of Fletch, but, well…I don’t know. Just watch the trailer:
This all leads me to a grander question, which is: Can big TV men ever seamlessly make the successful jump from one moving image medium to the other? Take Bryan Cranston: Once arguably the most famous working television actor while Breaking Bad was dominating pop culture, his lackluster move to film following an Academy Award-nominated (if totally forgettable) starring role as the titular Trumbo in Trumbo has nearly pushed him into complete obscurity. (Did you know that this summer, Cranston had a film out in which he co-starred alongside Annette Bening called Jerry and Marge Go Large?? You can’t convince me it’s even real!!) Steve Carell—who made waves in The 40-Year-Old Virgin alongside the first season of The Office—once impressed awards voters with his starring dramatic turn as wrestling coach John du Pont in Foxcatcher, but now mostly does middling political comedies for liberal parents along with the Despicable Me movies.
And there’s also the Adam Driver of it all. Driver broke out tremendously with HBO’s Girls and has enjoyed ample fruits of that success in the years since, going from helming major IP as the antagonist of the recent Star Wars trilogy to becoming a reliable heavyweight in the world of adult dramas directed by some of the great filmmakers of our time (Scorsese, Carax, Jarmusch, Baumbach, Scott, Soderbergh; and that’s not even all of them!). He is dependably cast as lead or co-lead in major projects, many of which drum up Oscar buzz. He makes headlines and generates press just by being Adam Driver. What sets Driver apart from actors like Hamm and Elba, arguably just as talented and versatile, all three of whom stood out in their respective television series that made them household names? My theory is Elba and Hamm’s too-consistent interest in starring in safe bets. Their filmographies tell similar stories: Middling comedies, forgettable would-be blockbusters, mediocre attempts at awardsy fare with the odd high-profile supporting part thrown in (Molly’s Game for Elba, Richard Jewell for Hamm). Even prior to Star Wars, Driver showed vested commitment to taking risks and prioritizing quality. Elba and Hamm, on the other hand, take gambles with more general audiencey stuff that forces them to disappear.
But perhaps it has less to do with the actors and more to do with the current entertainment landscape. George Clooney graduated from E.R. to being, well, George Clooney. The same could be said of Will Smith, Bruce Willis and Jennifer Aniston. The film and television industries are a far cry from what they were in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, back when the mid-budget movie was still thriving and there were both more opportunities for a wider variety of films as well as an environment that fostered them. The British entertainment industry, on the other hand, seems to prime its television stars for film success. Benedict Cumberbatch, though he didn’t get his start on television, gained traction for the series Sherlock, which led to wider recognition for Oscar-nominated films like The Imitation Game and, ultimately, to securing his spot as Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More recently, Daisy Edgar-Jones has already transitioned to film after her breakout in Normal People just two years ago.
It does seem to be the case that, in America, television actors are more likely to flail as they move to film, or simply fade into the background. They may take on supporting parts in middling films that don’t quite stand out, or starring roles in unremarkable awards bait, never making the splash necessary to translate to true, widespread success in a different industry. Of course, Idris Elba, Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston are still very much household names. But their ensuing careers following the television spots that made them household names have left much to be desired. Even the recent Three Thousand Years of Longing, one of Elba’s better films—a sumptuous and gratifying adult fantasy/romance that has Elba playing off Tilda Swinton with remarkable chemistry—is nevertheless a co-starring role in a film that has already more than tanked its budget since theatrical release. Beast, on the other hand, has just narrowly surpassed its budget in global take-in. Still, the lead in a high concept genre film couldn’t quite be considered a true “movie star” role for Elba.
Of course, the idea of the Movie Star is basically nonexistent in modern film culture anymore. Is Adam Driver even really a movie star? He’s more of an “indie darling,” in the most reductive terms. Martin Scorsese’s Silence is hardly Titanic; Baumbach’s White Noise isn’t Mission: Impossible. Impactful movie fame is ephemeral now, harder to quantify. Is it the quality of the roles? The box office? The amount of fancams made for Twitter or TikTok? The amount of thinkpieces written on pop culture outlets? Still, it would be nice to see Idris Elba, in particular, receive a substantive part in a big film that’s worthy of his talents—no, not Macavity the Mystery Cat. As of now, Elba has an upcoming film continuation of another lauded series he previously led, Luther, with an estimated release on Netflix of late 2022 or 2023. I’m sure Elba will be more than good in it, but there’s something about a “series continuation film” that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.