The Version Interview... Idris Elba on new Sky Atlantic series Guerrilla

Sky Atlantic is all about bold, high-quality storytelling, with the very best talent on both sides of the camera. Created by John Ridley – the Oscar®-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave – Guerrilla is a perfect addition to our world-class original drama line-up for 2017. Set against the evocative backdrop of 1970s London, Guerrilla follows two young activists involved in the capital’s Black Power movement, whose relationship falls under intense pressure when they clash with racist elements within the police.

It’s a fictional exploration of a thought-provoking moment in history, which asks what might have happened if Black Power groups in the UK had turned to violence in their fight for equal rights. Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay play the central couple Jas and Marcus, with Rory Kinnear as Special Branch copper Pence. Nathanial Martello-White, Daniel Mays, Denise Gough and Zawe Ashton also feature, and if all that wasn’t enough Idris Elba, who has co-executive produced the series, co-stars, too. We’re proud to say the series is a Sky Original Production made in association with Showtime, the people behind Billions, Ray Donovan and The Affair, which, thanks to our partnership with the network, are all exclusively on Sky Atlantic.

In the bold, distinctive, unflinching Guerrilla I believe we’ve got another series our viewers will love, and a brilliant addition to our family of ambitious original dramas – such as Fortitude, Riviera and The Tunnel – which we will continue to bring you throughout 2017 and beyond.

Idris Elba tells us more...

How did you become involved in this project? What interested you about it?

John and I met when he was in London, just before the Academy Awards® several years ago. We really got on, and I had long been an admirer of his work. Around a year later Katie Swinden, the executive producer at Fifty Fathoms talked to me about Guerrilla and whether I wanted to come on board as an executive producer. As soon as I heard about John’s vision for the show, I knew I wanted to be a part of this project. When we think about civil rights we think about the Black Panthers in the US or Martin Luther King. But in England there was a smaller, similar movement. It was far from easy to be black or Indian in 1970s England but we’ve never seen that story on British television. The opportunity to be a part of the development process of such a uniquely original and important story really appealed to me as it was the time period of my youth. As a black British man who grew up in the 70s, I felt my voice could really complement John’s, and getting to sit down with him and discuss the trajectory for the characters and the issues debated in the series has been a joy. It’s the kind of story, as an actor and a producer, that you dream of being a part of.

Describe your character. Who is he and what does he want?

Kent’s a bit different from the other revolutionaries. He’s an activist who uses art to keep black British history alive. Like iconic photographers Neil Kenlock and Charlie Phillips, Kent documents through photography the plight of people who came over to England on the Windrush. In his art gallery, he’s created a space that is comfortable for both black radicals and white liberals, which puts him at odds with some of the more strident members of the black community. Kent is constantly striving towards equality and racial harmony as he wants to be a part of anything that’s happening, but doesn’t believe that direct action will get you there. He’s vain, thoughtful, yet passionate, and rejects all extreme radical behaviour. He wants to be back in Jas’s life so the game of politics he plays is mindful of staying relevant to Jas while seemingly being part of the cause


What is his relationship with Jas and the others?

Jas and Kent were previously in a relationship, but split up years before the series starts. Even though they clearly once loved each other and Kent probably still loves her now they clash about the best way to achieve equality for the black community. Jas is headstrong, where Kent is considerate, and throughout the series he tries to talk her out of her plan for revolution, and ends up becoming embroiled in a complex web. Jas used to be inspired by Kent but those days are few now and he holds on to a part that Marcus can’t touch. Another feature in this is Omega. Omega also disagrees with Jas’s plans, but tries to force Kent to take a public stance against Jas and Marcus, which he is uncomfortable with. Although he views people like Marcus, Dhari and Leroy as radicalised vagabonds, he’s reluctant to publicly divide the black community. He’s often caught between what he thinks is right and his desire to protect the people he loves.


Guerrilla is set 40 years ago. Why is it relevant now?

Debates about how best to achieve racial equality – the themes covered in Guerrilla could have been ripped from the headlines of a newspaper in 2017. The clashes that happened in the 70s are the foundation of what we have now. And so while we were telling a story of a particular moment in time, it also feels like a mirror to what’s going on today, in both England and America. One of the things that really attracted me to this project was getting the chance to show a modern audience what it was like to face prejudice, fight racism and really take a stand. I think that we can all learn a lot from what our ancestors went through.


When researching your role and the truth that Guerrilla is based within, did any of it touch a nerve with you personally?

I was born in Hackney 1972 and I remember having a very happy childhood, but my dad would tell a different story. And that story is what we’re bringing to life in Guerrilla. As a kid I was shielded from some of the harsher aspects of prejudice but as I grew older, I talked to my parents about what they went through and the problems they faced. And so the opportunity to bring to life a story that reflects some of my personal history is really special to me. We filmed some of the tea house scenes right near my childhood home, and so some days walking to set felt like walking back in time. I couldn’t not be a part of a project like this.


Did your family experience anything similar to what Jas, Marcus and their friends go through in the series?

Jas, Marcus and the group are targeted by the establishment.  While I never had that level of force fighting against me, I did experience racism on a smaller level. All black men do. In school, in shops, when I was out with my friends. But I was also lucky. Growing up in a multicultural part of London, I didn’t feel like a target.



What was it like working with Freida Pinto?

Freida and I got on straight away. As our characters have such an intimate history, it was important that we felt comfortable with each other. And as soon as we sat down I knew this was going to work. We had so much fun together on set, we’d be chatting away in breaks between scenes in which our characters were furious with each other!


And John Ridley?

John is a visionary. In his script he not only created flawed, complex dynamic characters who are incredibly human, every day on set he brought a level of passion and consideration that I’ve never seen before. He created such a creative, free and inspiring environment and so when you were on set, everyone from the leads to the supporting artists felt like they were a part of something special. It was like we were shooting an epic film, but with intimate and engaging scenes. It was an honour to work with him.


Guerrilla starts this April on Sky Atlantic.