When asked by Netflix if he had any ideas for TV shows, one of pop culture’s most intimidating screen presences said yes — he wanted to do a comedy.
Idris Elba, who stars in and co-created “Turn Up Charlie” with Gary Reich, acknowledged to IndieWire that it was a decision fueled by wanting to do something different, though not necessarily that different from his past work. “The thought of doing comedy felt like either I do something really outrageous like you know… I don’t know. Who’s the guy…? Not Russ Meyers. What’s his name?”
Elba then held up a pinky to the corner of his mouth, invoking the classic “Austin Powers” character Dr. Evil, played by Mike Myers, then laughing off the idea as ridiculous. “People would have been like, what’s happened to Idris?”
Instead of going broad, therefore, Elba wanted to do something relatively grounded, or at least a topic he personally could relate to; thus, the idea of playing a DJ, which is a major part of his background already (just check out his Spotify listing, which includes a few original tracks from “Turn Up Charlie”).
In the show, Elba plays a ’90s one-hit wonder whose chance to respark his music career comes when he reconnects with childhood friend David (JJ Feild), David’s famous DJ wife Sara (Piper Perabo) — and their precocious daughter Gabby (Frankie Hervey), for whom Charlie ends up serving the role of “manny.”
Nick Wall / Netflix
“I think that I could have made something just about DJs. But then we realized that DJs — there’s only so much you can really really muster up enough stories to make it last a show. So then we added the element of parenting,” he said. “I am a parent and so I wanted to mash it all together.”
In the development process, Elba said, “What subsequently happened then as we nurtured stories was that the parenting angst of [raising] a young teenager or a young child, the stuff that they deal with — celebrity culture, DJ hierarchy, music dance world — all these things started to really come into the forefront and we felt like wow, actually this is a show about a DJ, but it’s also a show about parenting. There was a daddy daycare thing. And there’s a little bit of a journey, just a people story.”
In terms of assembling the team, including directors Matt Lipsey and Tristram Shapeero and writers Victoria Asare-Archer, Georgia Lester, Laura Neal, and Femi Oyeniran, Elba called out the fact that “Gary’s had experience in making and producing comedies. And we partnered with him because we liked his other shows and he has sort of a particular weird sense of humor, which I felt like I could expand on and do. And as Netflix and I just sort of fleshed out who we want for it, we just pulled together younger, fresher, writers that maybe didn’t need to know about being DJs. You know? Just wanted to tell a funny story. The writers were told we’re just trying to make it realistic and relatable.”
Forty girls auditioned for the role of Gabby, with Hervey getting the role after what was her first-ever audition: “It was her first job and she got it. And she was incredible. She just … you know. Everyone was good but she really was the character. She just walked it, talked it.”
Meanwhile, another cast standout was Perabo, who’s been a steady presence on TV, but had never taken on a role like this. “She didn’t know anything about DJs and she was really open arms to it. She was just like, ‘Wow, you want me to play a DJ? Fuck it! Yeah, I’ll give it a go.’ And she just brought a real authenticity to the professionality, the professionalism that goes into being someone like a DJ and coming like an actor. And all the things that you have to think about, especially if you’re a parent. She isn’t a parent but you know, the idea that you have to think about all of this stuff. What was great was that she just really embraced the role and we were lucky to get her. I think she’s hilarious. I think she’s a great actor.”
Nick Wall / Netflix
To capture the dancing-crowd sequences, Elba said that a lot of them had a crowd present in reality, and “even the ones that were a little bit more setup and there were extras, the dancing and DJ-ing was real. We got real reactions, I DJ-ed or someone DJ-ed to make them dance.”
The filming also took place in real festivals and clubs, including the Latitude Festival in Suffolk, England. “It was like day one and day two. And it’s a three or four day festival, and they allowed us to come and shoot in the festival in real time…. we shot that sequence after a one hour set for me with real people. And what happened was like phenomenal because the people in the festival that sleep in tents everywhere were like listen, ‘Go down to the stage at blah, blah. Idris Elba is doing a secret set.’ And they were like what? And everyone came and we filmed it. And we told them, by the way, they’re shooting a TV show and if you come you’re automatically accepting that you may be in the show, sort of thing. Blah, blah, blah.”
The resulting hour, Elba said, was “the best set of my life, because the pressure was about just like, I gotta get these people to pretend to be extras in an hour. And I want them to have the greatest time. So I had to play the set of my life and they were like ‘eh! eh! eh!.’ And then I came out and I was like, ‘Guys so listen, you can see the cameras are all here. Now I want you do me some favor. Would you do me some acting? When Piper comes out, she’s the big hero in our show, she’s a huge DJ. I want you to act like this is who you’ve been waiting for. Would you do that for me?’ Yeah! ‘OK, great. Here we go,’ and she comes out and it’s like, ‘eh! eh! eh!.'”
After a few takes, Elba said, Perabo came up to him to say that “‘Oh my God! That is addictive.’ She was like, you know, I could do that.”
It speaks to something that is a bit of a theme for Elba’s work — his feature directorial debut, the Rialto Pictures release “Yardie,” features a character whose musical ambitions get sucked up by the ’80s London criminal underworld. “So it feels like as a director or making a sitcom about something that I can relate to is a close call. I can write about DJs, I can write about Yardie ’cause Yardie, he is a DJ or is a wannabe DJ,” he said. “And I can relate to the story. It’s weird, there’s no real connection apart from the fact that DJ parts. You’re right to pick up on that. I feel very comfortable sort of telling stories that are related to a DJ.”
For him, “It is hard to sort of really get people in why DJs go through that. But the trick is connectivity, it’s a bit like being in the theater when you’re in a scene as an actor and the audience is riveted by what’s going on in the room. You can feel the energy. It’s a bit similar.”
When it comes to looking forward, he doesn’t have set plans for what a second season of the show might look like: “I’m sort of interested in understanding what people like from the show more,” he explained. “You know, the show is called ‘Turn Up Charlie’ and there’s a version where it is about Charlie and his journey. Or there’s a version where it’s about him being a Manny. I don’t know. I think that I’d like to expand on what people like. But at the same time, what happens to Charlie next, there is a natural thing that I want to explore.”
In general, between the ongoing BBC America drama “Luther,” his recent “SNL” hosting debut, the upcoming “Hobbs & Shaw,” and his recently announced casting as Will Smith’s replacement in the “Suicide Squad” sequel, he’s got plenty going on.
“The only way I can put it into an analogy, because it’s a hard question to answer. But I would say that you know, for my career essentially I’ve been doing many different paintings at the same time. Lots of different canvases. And in the future, I’d like to work on one masterpiece at a time. And the reason I say that is that I feel like I’ve learnt a lot by doing so many different things that I feel like I can bring to one thing at a time, all the experiences. So films that include music, action. You know stories that are innovative, inclusive — I really feel like I’m gonna try and work to a place where I’m working on a project, it’s gonna take me five years. And then I drop it. You know what I mean? That’s the kind of thing I end up doing.”
“Turn Up Charlie” is streaming now on Netflix. “Yardie” also made its theatrical debut Friday, March 15.