An Interview with Idris Elba: I'm in my best shape at 44
Idris stars the Discovery series: Fighter - Training to be ready for a pro fight
In the last five years we have seen British actor Idris Elba, going right for the stars. His transition as series-actor in shows like 'The Wire' and the crime series Luther has certainly opened the eyes of Hollywood. It has landed him roles as Heimdall in Marvel Cinematic Universe, Nelson Mandela in Mandela: The Long Walk, Sci-Fi roles in Prometheus and Pacific Rim, and most recently he has lent talent his voice to Disney's Jungle Book and Zootopia.
Amidst all the Hollywood shine, Idris have achieved an impressing amount of recognition. In 2016 he was named one of the world's 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. GQ Magazine has named him as one of the world's best-dressed men and People Magazine as one of the World's sexiest men. He also explores music as a DJ and singer - and how can we forget the big James Bond speculations of 2016?
In 2017, we will find him starring in the film adaptation of Stephen King's 'Dark Tower'; a western inspired dark fantasy, sci-fi / horror series that is heavily inspired by such diverse sources as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Lord of the Rings and the legends of King Arthur.
I guess it's safe to say, that Idris is doing pretty great.
Now, the coveted actor is starring a new documentary series for Discovery Channel. During the past year, he dedicated his time to become a professional kickboxer and it is the journey from amateur to the first professional fight, which is depicted in the Discovery series: Idris Elba: Fighter
I had the opportunity to ask the man a few questions - it is after all quite interesting, to watch a 44-year old man, trying his hand at professional fighting.
How did the other fighters you've spoken with react when you told them that you were trying to become a professional in just under 12 months?
Idris: A lot of them didn’t understand why I was doing it. They wondered why I wanted to do it. Some of them thought I was crazy, some of them thought I was brave, some of them thought it was great and some of them thought it wasn’t so great. It was mixed reactions, really.
How about your family, what did they think of it? Did anyone try to change your mind?
Yeah, my mum wasn’t that impressed with me at all. My mum was really worried. She came to one of the fights and it was pretty harrowing. Pretty harrowing for her, but pretty harrowing for everyone that knew me. I had a lot of friends and family at my first amateur fight and they couldn’t believe what I was doing. I drew that fight, but I got knocked down in the third round and it was a pretty brutal uppercut that took me down, but my mom was the only one of my family that was just like, ‘This is silly.’
In fact, in between rounds, we were fighting when it was quite quiet while the audience was waiting for the next round. My mum was there saying, ‘Drink some water! Don’t let him kick you in the head! What are you doing this for? Do you need your asthma inhaler?’ I mean, I was like ‘Mum, just be quiet. Please be quiet.’
What did your kids think?
Idris: My daughter was very into it. My son came to training with me. He’s in the film – he came out to Thailand when we trained in Thailand. So, my kids were into it. They’re sort of used to daddy being a bit stupid in that sense, I guess.
Can you get into the specifics of what your training regime looked like?
Idris: It was incrementally getting better and better. I guess the first three or four months of training was about trying to get my fitness to a level where I could actually train for fighting. We had – you’ll see in the film when you watch it – but as soon as I started training, I had an injury that set me and the show back a few months, actually. The injury was quite severe and, in fact, the doctors told me that I shouldn’t fight and that I couldn’t fight. Anyway, we decided to keep training and I had to sort of repair myself for that. That was sort of strength training and cardio and very specific muscle training; it wasn’t so much fight training.
And then, the second half, when I was cleared to fight, it became about learning how to become a K-1 fighter. K-1 is a derivative of Muay Thai. It’s less brutal, so you’re not allowed to use elbows and there are certain clenches you’re not allowed to do. You can’t do spinning backfists or anything like that. So, I had to learn K-1 and what the rules were and I had to understand that specific training.
So, essentially, my mornings would be starting off with runs, running for maybe two or three miles, and then I would come back and do pad work and bag work.
Pad work was really about doing three-to-four rounds at three or five minutes a round. And then lots of core work, which involved burpees, sit-ups, mountain climbing, that sort of stuff. So, the training really took three or four stages. The last stage was really about ringcraft and actually what my fight was going to be like. That was the most rewarding part of my training because that’s when I started to become a fighter because I was really dedicating every part of my training towards the actual fight and not just fitness. Once my fitness was better, my ringcraft became better and my actually strategy for the actual fight was the target. So yeah, there was about three or four stages in my training. First, it was repairing my body, second it was about getting fit, and then pad work and punches and kicks and then the third stage was about strategically fighting.
You’ve travelled around the world, met with a lot of professionals and discussed a lot of combat techniques. Which one has served you the most?
I think there was a page turn for me when I went to Cuba and I fought with Cuban fighters, both boxers and Muay Thai. What struck me about Cuba was there were no fancy gyms, there were no very fancy techniques; it was very much hard, hard work in intensive heat. And I remember the first day of training, I came home and literally passed out. I mean, I was so exhausted and I only trained for two hours. It was 90 degrees there. But by the end of the week in Cuba, I'd certainly grasped the hard work. So, in other words, these fighters were doing what every fighter or trainer does, but in really extreme conditions. And I sparred with one guy and he was so tough that I just felt like he was impenetrable. But it was because he was conditioned really, really well.
And I took that with me, basically, for the rest of the journey on my fight because these fighters didn't have much. They didn't have a fancy gym, they didn't have fancy techniques, they just worked really, really, really hard and that was a page turner for me, Cuba.
What kind of music are you listening to during training sessions?
Idris: You know what, I really got into old school drum and bass, like jungle, early 1990s stuff. For some reason, it’s so aggressive and the base is like so 160 BPM and for some reason, that was the only music that really got me going. I tried hip-hop and all that stuff, I just ended up listening to it, but with drum and bass, it was this sort of proper energy that I got from it. Me and Kieran we used to just go on YouTube and find old drum and bass mixes, and just play it as loud as we can, and I could train and train and train if I was listening to drum and base.
What was the worst and most brutal part of your training?
Idris: The worst part of it was waking up at 5:00 and doing three-mile runs. The training was really tough. While I was training, I was actually making two films. So, I would train on either side of my filming schedule, which was pretty brutal. The first six months of training were really hard because I was very unfit when I started and then it got easier. But I think the training and the change of diet was the most tough part because it was a complete lifestyle change for me. I think, ultimately, now my lifestyle is changed in the way that I eat and my health, but I think the training was the toughest part – the actual getting up very early in the morning and working out.
How did you have to change your diet for the show?
Idris: Quite specifically, actually. I discovered during the course of this show that I had huge allergies to a lot of foods that I was used to eating. And the problem was that I was asking my body to do massive amounts of shit that I never normally do, so my energy levels were really low and I had to go on a nutrition to understand why. And it was because there were groups of foods that I ate every day like wheat and corn and things like that, that were actually working against my metabolism. And so, that was one of the hardest things I went through because I love pasta, I love rice, I love beer and I had to cut all of that out. And as soon as I did, I lost huge amounts of weight but I also gained a lot of energy.
And so now, my diet is really like a pescatarian diet. I eat a lot of fish and chicken and that's it – vegetables. And my energy levels are good, but what's interesting is that I work really hard, I do long hours and I was doing that on a bad diet for a long time and still managed, right? So, I still managed to do it, but I was on a really bad system of eating; I wasn't eating very well.
And my doctor said to me, 'Do you know what?' ‘At your age' – and this is a true story – he said, ‘At your age, I think you would have collapsed within four months of training if you hadn't changed your diet.' And I was like, 'What do you mean collapsed?' He was like, 'Your body would have had a shutdown, your immune system would have been compromised and you may have caught a very bad infection of some sort and you would definitely not be able to train.' And that was quite a – you know, I don't really get ill and he said it was definite. He said the way my food was being digested was definitely not good, especially as I was asking my body to do so much more.
How did training for the show change you, mentally?
I mean, my ego was definitely deflated many, many, many times, which is good actually. I don't have a big ego but I definitely, definitely took a beating. I was training with guys that were smaller than me and just different and essentially, I was being beaten down by people that my ego thought I could handle and I couldn't handle them.
It's really interesting when people talk about how I come from a part of London, or East London, where there was a lot of aggression when I was growing up. And everyone's like, 'I can fight, I can fight,' and you know what? I realised that unless you're training the way I was training, that people will not last longer than two minutes in a real fight and that was something I went through and it was just soul destroying sometimes. It was soul destroying. I thought I was tougher than I was.
How do you stay so grounded with everything that you’re doing?
Idris: Well, I think being grounded for me, I try not to watch or read or sort of look at myself, look at the back of my head. I try not to look at the back of my head, I try not to watch my own stuff, I try not to read what's said about me. I won't read these interviews so that my perspective of me stays forward looking so I don't see what I look like. And then, ultimately, I think I try to do things that keep me grounded, like my music, for example, and my DJing and stuff. I think that I stay grounded by doing things that have nothing to do with me as an actor. I just think it's healthy. I think actors can tend to be inflated by what's said about them. You know, celebrity culture is quite damaging to your psyche if you start to believe it because it's not really real, do you know what I mean? I'm no different from anybody else.
I just happen to be in the public eye a lot more and if I start reading my own shit, then I start believing my own shit and next thing you know, I feel I'm floating on cloud nine, which isn't true. I have to get from A to B just like any other man. And yeah, I just try to stay grounded in that place. It's healthier, I think.
Idris Elba: Fighter is premiering at Discovery Channel UK, January 17th
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Idris stars the Discovery series: Fighter - Training to be ready for a pro fight
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