IDRIS ELBA on 'THE REAPING' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
March 23, 2007
In the paranormal thriller The Reaping, a pair of scientists, Katherine (Hilary Swank) and Ben (Idris Elba), travel to remote sites where purported miracles have occurred in an effort to explain them scientifically. But when they come upon a small town in Louisiana that is afflicted with what appears to be the ten Biblical plagues of the Old Testament, they find themselves unable to rationalize the mysterious events by conventional methods. Their investigation also uncovers an insidious plot, at the heart of which is a young girl (AnnaSophia Robb) who is purported to be a demonic harbinger.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space, TV's 24), The Reaping is a solid thriller with a supernatural twist and a few surprises. The cast is particularly strong, and the lead characters have an interesting dynamic--Katherine, suffering from a crisis of faith, coldly and cooly debunks miracles as a sort of vengeance against religion, while Ben accompanies her on the journey in the hopes that he will be able to scientifically prove the existence of a God in which he has placed his faith. Together, the two play the skeptic/believer dichotomy well, while still being the closest of friends and colleagues.
In this interview, Idris Elba talks about working with Hilary Swank, dealing with giant locusts, and filming in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the region in which the movie was shot and delayed production.
MEDIA: What intrigued you about this project?
IDRIS: The script is wonderful. It was very complex, very deep. I call it a spiritual thriller--supernatural thriller, if you like. And the idea that what we see in the Bible and we know very well as a story is actually going to happen in a small town was fascinating to me.
And what intrigued you about your character Ben in particular?
It was interesting to me for a religious man like Ben to want to go and debunk miracles to find God, as opposed to being like, "Ha-ha! You thought it was God, but there's no God here." You know? He was going to really prove that God existed scientifically, and that was interesting to me.
Ben could have easily been the stereotypical character that explains everything, but by virtue of his relationship with Katherine, he's actually someone the audience grows to care for. Did you and director Stephen Hopkins work closely to develop that relationship?
Yeah, the original script needed Ben's character and the relationship between Ben and Katherine to develop, and that was something that Stephen and I had discussed, Hilary and I had discussed. And you know, we tried to find ways to gel that without beating it on the head. It's obvious that she's a skeptic and I'm sort of like, "I believe." And we didn't want to beat that sort of dynamic on the head. But we needed to show that we were professionals, we were good friends, and we enjoyed doing what we did. And then because that dynamic was real, the story arc became more relevant as these two characters went through it. So yeah, the director and I really tried to be aware of that the whole way through the film.
Did you find that you had good chemistry with Hilary right away?
Yeah. You know, if I respect your craft and you respect mine, you want to go out and do a good scene together because you trust each other. So that was apparent off the bat. Hilary had seen my work and had to approve me, so I'm sure she liked what I was doing, and obviously I love what she does. And so that worked for us, and it worked for us building these characters together, making them friends on the screen. And I recently saw the film and I was like, "Wow, they look like real friends up there!" [laughs] No, we are friends. But it was nice to see a real relationship in that. It's important.
When you first met Hilary, what kind of expectations did you have of her, seeing as how she's a two-time Oscar winner?
Well, you know, honestly, watching her career and seeing those great performances that she's done, I realized that she has to be someone that's dedicated to her work. So I was expecting someone who was dedicated to their work. And I can be a playful guy or a relaxed guy, but I think the day of, I was like, [breathes heavily and nervously] "Okay..." Looking in the mirror, "Working with Hilary Swank today. Don't be a goofball. Don't mess around today. Get your lines right, otherwise it's not going to look good." But she turned out to be very, very nice, very charismatic, very caring for her crew, very professional.
Did you get to do much improvisation in this film?
Some of the more playful and more relaxed scenes were ad-libbed perhaps, but a lot of it was to script. We couldn't deviate too much because of the subject matter. [laughs] Because I don't know what I'm talking about, clearly. It was important that we stuck to the words as much as possible.
How did you feel about working with the locusts, frogs, and other crawly creatures in this movie?
I hate locusts with a real passion. I mean, honestly, they're about this big [demonstrates] and they fly. And that's terrifying. [laughs] If you've ever seen it, it's really, really terrifying. There's a scene where the whole screen fills up with these bugs and they're at the screen and then my hands come through. We actually had to shoot that in this box that was full of locusts, and then the camera was underneath, and I had to dig them out. Oh, man! And so if you're the crew and you're filming me, and there's a camera there, I had to throw them at the crew. [laughs] I could see out of my peripheral that they were all hating this, these flying things everywhere.
When working with the locusts, did you actually have to be careful not to hurt them?
Yeah, absolutely, which is hard for me because I just want to do that to them. [makes a swatting motion on the table] But I didn't, I didn't. Because they're huge, you know.
Was digging through the locusts the grossest thing on set, or was there something more disgusting?
Well... [laughs] The first assistant director, Cliff...We're all looking at these locusts, we're about to shoot this, and all the guys and the girls are like, "Ew!" So I say, "Cliff, I'll give you fifty bucks if you put that in your mouth." And oh yeah, he takes it. And he puts one in his mouth, and it's crawling. It was the grossest thing I've ever seen. He didn't kill it, he just took it out.
Are you a fan of horror movies as a viewer?
No, I'm not into it. Honestly, my imagination is too vivid, so I take it with me, and it stays with me for a couple of days in my apartment freaking me out. So no, I can't. I was watching Seven the other day and ah man, that movie just really, really... [cringes] But when I saw this, this stayed with me for a different reason. It just made me think. It wasn't so much that it freaked me out and scared me. There were very scary moments, but it really made me think. And it's been a year since I did it, and so seeing it for the first time, I'm seeing it really fresh. I was like, "Whoa, that's pretty deep."
As a director, is Stephen more concerned with the performance side of things or the technical side of the things?
He's actually a really great balance of the two. Yeah, he's very, very technical. He knows exactly what he wants and how to do it. He's been filmmaking for a long time. But he really does have a lot of patience for actors and he really wants the actors to have the environment that they need to make whatever the scene is real. He's very funny. [laughs] He's hilarious, he's got a real funny sense of humor. He's an all around nice guy. I like him. He's a Brit [also]. [laughs] So we had a good time.
In the scene with the river of blood, did they actually turn the water red, or was it a special effect added later?
They had this gooey gunk stuff in the small section of the river that we were actually shooting, which was a real bayou. And they had to get rid of the crocodiles. [laughs] Otherwise, I wasn't doing it. They had like tons of this gunk in there. I fell into it as well. You don't see it on film, but I really fell in.
How humid was it in the bayou?
Very. The weather was unbelievably hot. You know, we were in Baton Rouge. You could cut the air with a knife, it was so warm. I like the heat though, mind you. I love the heat.
Where do you call home these days?
My suitcase, really, honestly. I'm born in London, raised in London, but lived in New York for a long time, and now I'm sort of in between New York and LA. But I travel a lot, and I just got back from London. I work there maybe twice a year. [laughs] So I really don't have a home. Most of my career, I worked on a television show and I've been sort of located in one spot, and now I'm finding myself traveling a lot, which is interesting.
What was your experience of filming in Louisiana like?
They do a lot of film down there, so Baton Rouge was used to the idea of film crews. I had never been there before. It was great. We had an amazing team of people working on it. And of course, you know, we went through the two hurricanes which did, for us and that region, band everyone together. So when we took our three week hiatus and came back, we were just so moved by what was going on around us that it made the pages and the film work just seem so much more relevant. Talk about acts of God, and here we are doing The Reaping. So it was a really interesting experience. You know, I will be friends with the team on this film forever, I believe, because we just went through a lot. Hilary's great, Stephen, AnnaSophia Robb...Everyone just really pulled together on it.
Was it difficult returning to Baton Rouge after the hiatus?
Yeah, it was. There was a sense of "Hey, look, we're doing something that is just filmmaking, and there are people down the road that are just in complete turmoil." But we dedicated time to that part of the country, and it didn't seem right to just leave. You know, it sounded right to just continue.
What do you think it says about human nature when people still believe in miracles, even when they are scientifically disproven?
I think it says that we as a race want to believe in something higher than ourselves. Some people don't, some people do, but I think generally we want to. But it also suggests that there are people that will do anything to convince people that there is a God using so-called miracles. And that part of our nature as human beings really doesn't appeal to me--you know, the fact that someone would go out of their way to make Jesus appear on the wall seems wicked, and just manipulative.
You mentioned earlier that you consider yourself a spiritual person. Would you say you are similar to Ben in that regard?
No, my spirituality is really sort of private and more of an "unorganized spirituality." [laughs] I'm not into organized religion as much, but I do believe that my spirit will dictate what my life does. I believe in that, and I believe in faith.
As a spiritual guy, what would you say to viewers who refuse to see this movie because of its religious themes?
I would say that this is a good film for skeptics and those that want to hear and see more about something like this. There are stories in the Bible that are very hard to sort of "really believe," if you like. And I think this movie would be great for them to see and understand it from a skeptic's point of view, i.e. Katherine's point of view.