Idris Elba is Playboy’s latest 20 Questions target, and it turns out TV's slickest drug lord of the pre–Gus Fring era, BBC's baddest badass, and the potential heir to the James Bond franchise … is one bashful dude. "As soon as the spotlight’s on me, I feel awkward," Elba says. "Idris feels like he doesn’t have much to offer. That’s why I end up plowing myself into these characters. With Luther I get to play a guy who can be grumpy all day long and doesn’t give a fuck about it. I’m not allowed to be that grumpy! As an actor I have to be friendly and super-accessible."
How does shyness factor into that rap line, though — "bone-hard diamond cutter, dick thick like homemade butter”? (Yeah, DJ Driis also raps.) "Those are the words of a shy man putting on a rap persona," Elba counters to Playboy. "Did you see the video for that song? No, because there isn’t one. I’m really fucking serious; I’m a shy man. I’m great at hiding in characters. When I deejay, I’m great at standing behind the turntables. If I go to a club, I’m awkward. Should I stand there? Should I dance? You’re not going to see me dance."
I recently watched a great documentary called Project Nim, about an Upper West Side family of academic hippies who adopt a chimpanzee in the early '70s. Their goal is to condition the young ape to communicate with humans by raising him as a normal human child. The controversial experiment ended when Nim attacked one of his caretakers, the chimp portrayed as a tragic victim caught between two worlds. Colin McAdam's third book is based heavily on the real-life Project Nim, novelized to push the philosophical lessons of Nim in a way only fiction can do. In A Beautiful Truth, a Vermont couple named Walt and Judy decide to adopt a young chimpanzee after Judy is unable to conceive a child. Young Looee arrives in a crate from Sierra Leone, and the two — in Nim-ian fashion — raise him as the son they never had.
Structurally, the story splits its time between the perspective of Walt and Judy (and later, other humans), and the chimps in a Floridian research institute, where Looee ends up after his violent episode. One might expect the chimp point of view to be distracting, but it speaks to McAdam's talents that they become the most compelling parts of A Beautiful Truth. Looee's chapters — short but lyrical — are often the most affecting.
Michael B. Jordan first made you cry as Wallace, the doomed corner boy with the heart of gold from the first season of The Wire. Years later he showed up on Friday Night Lights, bigger and badder as East Dillon Lions star QB Vince Howard, but no less able to, yep, make you cry. (FNL showrunner Jason Katims was so enamored with the young man's work, he briefly made him part of the continuing contingent of FNL-to-Parenthood exiles.) There were ascendant film roles, first in George Lucas's Tuskegee Airmen drama Red Tails, then the nifty lo-fi sci-fi hit Chronicle. And now here comes his biggest role to date: Fruitvale Station, in selected theaters today, stars MBJ as Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Bay Area man tragically killed by BART Police in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009. The film traces the mundane events of the day in Oscar's life before the killing, doing its best to calmly and carefully ground the inflammatory, heartbreaking incident. And Jordan is on fire throughout the movie, swinging deftly, often within scenes, from oodles of pathos to nearly unbridled rage. And oh, goddamn, he'll make you cry. Grantland spoke with Michael on the phone earlier this week.
You sent in your questions to grantlandTVmailbag@gmail.com. And now Andy Greenwald will answer them. It's TV mailbag time!
Who's your Mount Rushmore of bad characters from good shows? Current and past shows. — Shane M., Philadelphia
I was so anxious about my very first mailbag question that I spent three days misreading it. I thought Shane was interested in the challenging reverse: good characters stuck on bad shows. So I promptly wasted multiple hours — and numerous Gchat windows — making halfhearted cases for Lucy Punch as BJ on the otherwise sucky Ben and Kate or Zak Orth as a stumbling non-swordsman on the ridiculous Revolution. From the wreckage of the recently canceled, I considered making halfhearted cases for Kyle MacLachlan as Donovan Stark, the merry 1-percenter on Made in Jersey, or Aja Naomi King as the deliciously bitchy Cassandra Kopelson on Emily Owens M.D. — but then I realized no one would know what I was talking about. (Nor would they care.)
When my podcasting partner Chris Ryan and I started a summer book club on the Hollywood Prospectus Podcast a few weeks back, there was never any question who would be our first selection. From his earliest, self-described “punk rock detective novels,” to his more mature recent work, George Pelecanos is a master of the form, able to describe the racial and economic realities of his native Washington, D.C., as easily as the classic cars, films, and records that pepper his pages.
In person, George was kind, thoughtful, and generous, even when he was good-naturedly razzing me for criticizing some of his later books. (He wanted to make sure I had read 2011’s The Cut — which introduces a new recurring character, the Travis McGee–inspired Iraq War veteran Spero Lucas — and What It Was — a riotous blast of ‘70s grime and crime. Both are cracking returns to form, and both are available now in paperback.) We spoke about his professional beginnings, his lifelong relationship with his hometown, and about his burgeoning second career as a television writer and producer. Even if you’ve never read one of his books, chances are you know his work: He’s the hit man responsible for some of the most memorable and emotionally devastating deaths on The Wire, and on his current gig, Tremé. (And yes, I asked him about Grantland’s quasi-controversial Smacketology tournament. I found out off air he would have voted for Marlo.) One of the best parts about this gig is the opportunity to meet people I admire and share both their personality and their work with others. This was a total thrill for me — I hope you enjoy it, too.
If you liked The Wire enough during its five uncompromising seasons on HBO but wished it'd had more in common with Anything Goes, I have splendid news! Coming to the Players Theatre, it's The Wire: The Musical! Mr. Omar (Michael K. Williams) won't just whistle, he'll sing and dance! Kima (Sonja Sohn) shows off a little hoofing while getting to know her dissolute colleague McNulty (Not Dominic West)! Bubbles (Andre Royo) details the heart-wrenching details of his struggle with drug addiction in a rousing gospel number that'll bring the house down! Plus: Isn't Faizon Love a better Stringer Bell, when you really think about it? "I'm pretty sure David Simon doesn't know they're doing this," says the New York Times. "But if he did, he'd love it!" And so will you.
With a vocal fan base extending from Facebook to the First Family, Omar Little was always the favorite to win our highly subjective Smacketology tournament. The incomparably gracious Michael K. Williams — the man behind the shotgun — took some time away from filming the third season of Boardwalk Empire to bask in his victory, and hopefully enjoy a well-earned bowl of celebratory Cheerios. (They’d best be Honey Nut.) Funny and humble, Williams’s only request was that we shout out his Twitter followers so they could take part in the virtual championship parade. Follow Michael here — but remember one thing: If you tweet @ the King, you’d best not miss.
On today's Hollywood Prospectus podcast (our first bicoastal production!), Andy Greenwald and I talk about the victory of Omar Little in Grantland's Smacketology tournament of characters from The Wire. We discuss our favorite lesser-known characters and the strange genius of The Wire auteur David Simon. Speaking of strange genius, we also hit the return of Community and the larger phenomenon of how audiences can be possessive of a television show. And an HP podcast wouldn't be complete without a walk by Herschel's farm, so Andy and I take stock of The Walking Dead as the show violently heads toward its Season 2 finale.
Heads up: We throw some Season 1 Game of Thrones spoilers around like a bunch of dwarves drunk on wine. And our discussion of The Walking Dead is recommended only if you've seen Sunday's episode. Don't say we didn't warn you!
Well, obviously. It’s Omar. It was probably always going to be Omar, even if we hadn’t juked the stats and put our thumb on the coke scale last week by framing this whole bracket experiment as an Omar-vs.-everybody tournament; in retrospect, asking if there was anyone who could beat him rendered that question essentially rhetorical.
But maybe it would have been rhetorical anyway. David Simon’s always denied that Omar’s role in the show was expanded based on audience response to the character and/or Michael K. Williams’s performance in the role, because paying attention to audience response and acting accordingly is what TV hacks do. But Omar’s still a rare example of Simon & Co. giving audiences the kind of thing audiences always want — a wish-fulfilling, shotgun-toting, Robin Hood/Man With No Name; a badass-with-a-code that you could root for. He’s the closest thing to a mythic figure on this prudently myth-averse show. Even — spoiler alert, I guess, although, seriously, if you haven’t watched The Wire yet, it’s weird that you’d feel invested enough in the outcome of this poll to click on this post — his death is less of a thus-always-to-murderers moral judgment and more of a forget-it-Jake-it’s-Bawl’mer freak occurrence; he’s denied a blaze of glory, but the suddenness of his murder means we don’t see him brought low, either.
Obviously, I can’t prove that. Moreover, I have no vested interest in the outcome, and I haven’t voted in any of the preliminary matchups (and I won’t vote in this one). But Omar is going to win, unless thousands of people decide to vote for Stringer Bell simply to contradict my prediction. Since its inception, our tournament has transpired in a totally predictable fashion; there have technically been upsets, but no genuine surprises. If an actor’s face appeared on the DVD box, he did okay. No minor character inexplicably dominated because her mother’s friend was killed by an arrow or because he best represented the ideals of Lacanian Marxism. What has happened is this: The show’s four most central characters advanced to the Final Four, and the two most meaningful archetypes subsequently advanced to the title. Stringer Bell represents the notion of a rational criminal operating as a traditional authority figure; Omar Little represents the possibility of a rogue criminal self-creating a moral framework superior to that of mainstream society. As a voter, you will have to decide between someone who craves legitimacy and someone who craves autonomy (unless, of course, you’re only reading this because it’s on your computer and you have no idea what you’re even supposed to be deciding, which is a wholly reasonable way to feel).
One of the more prescient observations made by Chuck Klosterman, the brash Herc to my more forgiving Carver, in our Wire-centric podcast this week was that we were unlikely to see many upsets in the Smacketology tournament. The reason being The Wire was much more than a mere entertainment to those who watched it; immersing oneself in the ebbs and flows of the heroin trade in West Baltimore became something of a social obligation, a sign to the world that you were a person comfortable with moral gray areas like the war against drugs and the insane way people in Maryland say “pony.” So even though this bracket was cooked up by a bunch of overworked soup-slurpers in Los Angeles, a city where people think Old Bay means a double feature of The Rock and Pearl Harbor, The Wire’s loyal marching band of social scientists, Go-Go fans and Dickens-riders took the voting nearly as seriously as David Simon takes himself. Sure, sentimental favorites like Bubbles and Cutty were able to score a surprise TKO or two in the early rounds, but Smacketology, like Marlo’s corners, is no place for upstarts. Even an Emmy voter could have predicted this Final Four. Omar, McNulty, Stringer, and Avon? In the words of an immortal State Senator ... well, you know. If you come at these kings, you’d best not miss. And if you’re an unmemorable Ukrainian enforcer that even George Pelecanos probably had to Google when the bracket went live, well, you’d probably best not come at all.
It was perhaps inevitable that the Smacketology competition would eventually draw the attention of its esteemed participants, who would then take to social media in an effort to influence the results, especially as we entered the money rounds. (That we might have sprayed @-replies at some of them like bullets at a crew slinging on the wrong corner to inspire such a response is besides the point. That's just how The Game is played.)
What about my boy Scott Templeton? Scottie boy! The intrepid Baltimore Sun reporter who conjured maudlin newspaper gold out of thin air — you want a wheelchair-bound kid sitting outside Camden Yards on opening day? Boom! How about fabricated nights under the overpass with Baltimore's down-and-out population, cowering under the specter of an (also fake) serial killer who targets the homeless? What, you say? Templeton, along with Jimmy McNulty's season-long manic episode and David Simon's positively tumescent self-righteous streak, submarined the final season of the best TV show ever made? Well, you know what? You're wrong, idiot face. I am loud and I am right! Did you even watch The Wire? Yeah, Templeton made up his stories and got caught, but he got the Pulitzer anyway! Can't you see he won THE GAME? He's more trill than Stephen Jackson firing his biscuit outside an Indianapolis strip club. Templeton FTW. Can't believe we left him out our damn Smacket. Smmfh.
Robert Mays: I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this scene — it's somewhere between five and 15. When it comes to my experiences with TV, the only feeling that approaches the first trip through The Wire is vicariously living through the first time of others. My college roommates love to give me shit about plenty of stuff (mostly my dish-cleaning and rent-paying deficiencies). The one I never minded was their imitation of me as I watched the pilot with them, the eagerness with which I waited for that final exchange:
“If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?”