Idris Elba on Playing an ‘Unusual Hero’ in ‘Hijack’ and a Potential Season 2: ‘I’m Open to It’

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Idris Elba’s new Apple TV+ series “Hijack” sees him star as Sam Nelson, a top corporate negotiator who finds himself in the eye of a storm when the plane he is flying on is hijacked by a gang of ruthless criminals.

Elba also exec produces the show, which launches on June 28, under his Green Door production banner. The project is a result of the actor’s first-look deal with Apple, which was announced in 2020. Sitting down with Variety in London ahead of the show’s launch, Elba said the deal has since expired but he’s already in talks to work with streamer again – including a potential return outing as Nelson.

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“I love Apple and we love each other and I think we’re gonna work together again, but we’re just not currently in a set up as official,” Elba says. “It’s nice having a production deal but there’s restrictions. And I feel like my career as an actor has been so random and different — why change now?”

Elba’s career both on and off screen has undoubtedly been unique. As well as acting, directing and producing, he also has a side-gig as a superstar DJ (he played Coachella earlier this year) and, after considering a bid for U.K. public service broadcaster Channel 4, recently invested in a marketing agency. Is there anything he hasn’t tried — does he own a sports team, for example? “Well actually, not one I have announced,” he replies cryptically.

“I’ve definitely got a reputation for having a few fingers in pies,” Elba continues. “But that said, you know, when I pull out and go wide-lens, I’m building a sort of media village. Everything’s related to storytelling, everything’s related to taking off the restrictions we put on ourselves… That’s my secret sauce.”

Read on for more on how Elba came to work on “Hijack,” and whether viewers have seen the last of Sam Nelson.

You star in and executive produce “Hijack.” How did you end up working on this project?

There was an idea in the cycle of my production deal at Apple at the time, and we [Elba and writer George Kay] were just kicking loads of stuff around and figuring out what it is. One thing I really wanted was to have a show that had an impact. Not necessarily, like, a message but just something that people go, “Oh, man, it’s stuck to me.” Binge television these days, when you binge something it has to be good, and you just want more, you want to get through the story and you invest yourself in the characters. When my wife and I, when we watch “Succession,” we end up talking like the characters by the end of it. That’s real binge stuff. We did the same with “Ozark” and we ended up doing Jason Bateman impressions. I think I wanted a show that had that sort of impact.

There’s so much choice, you know. There’s really good television — really bad shit as well — and, you know, my history and legacy of television, it’s usually been good shit. And I wanted just to make sure that I contributed as a producer in that way. So the idea came [from Kay] and we kicked that around and that blossomed into what “Hijack” was. I guess the premise was, what would [Elba’s character Sam Nelson] do if he was on a plane and it got hijacked? What would you do? And it’s kind of like, well, I’d sit there and wait and hope we don’t die? Or would you just do something about it?

Did you always plan to star in it?

I knew I was gonna star in it, yes. George Kay said, ”I want you to play Sam, do you like this character?” And that was the beginning of that, the unpacking of Sam. Also, I was keen to play a character that was not necessarily an action hero but was in an action setting [who has] the sort of vulnerability of a man who’s an ordinary person, who would make mistakes. I don’t want him to be like, “Yeah! Idris is gonna save the day, go and punch him in the mouth.” I wanted him to be vulnerable and a bit like, you know, an unusual hero.

The story has echoes of Steven Seagal films or “Die Hard,” but without the copious violence. How deliberate of a decision was it to make Sam a negotiator rather than, say, a cop or a Navy Seal?

It was very early on. We tried to understand like, who is the man that’s thinking all the time, but is not necessarily a cop or a detective? We ran through psychologist and things like that, but where we ended up was Sam being a sort of merger/acquisitions lawyer, you know, someone that comes in at the end to try and close the deal. Those people are an interesting type of person. Negotiating is a very interesting way of saying psychologist. You’re a negotiator, but what you’re actually doing is just picking someone’s psychology, their psyche, their weak spots, and playing it against someone else’s, and having the knowledge of the business deal as a way to set themselves up against each other. And it also meant that he can be quite an orator, a thinker, because he’s a negotiator. We didn’t want him to be a cop or detective or an ex-marine or anything like that, because it just felt trope-y. There’s enough tropes in a show called “Hijack” anyway.

The series was shot on a scale replica airplane in a studio. Have you ever experienced shooting something so confined?

It was quite unique. It’s changed how I fly. I’m a bit of a trainspotter now for planes. A planespotter. And it was real dynamics, we didn’t [move] walls or anything, what you see is what you get. So you found us using angles that were just slightly different because we had a lot less space. It was quite interesting. Jim Field Smith is a really phenomenal director, really understanding the way to make this space interesting optically. We’ve all been on a plane and so once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, but I think he found a way to make it feel like a spaceship at times, made the kitchen area incredibly claustrophobic. And, you know, it’s a seven-hour flight [in the series] but we shot it over four and a half, five months.

Are we going to see more of Sam Nelson?

Well, I’m gonna ask you the question. What would be the acceptable scenario that he comes back? Because we’ve thought about this and obviously Apple have gone, “Well, we really love the show.” And I think, you know, Rotten Tomatoes is at 92% at the moment, which is a good sign, but it’s kind of like — he’s not a cop — what would be the acceptable Sam Nelson return? And if I’m honest, I’m not sure. I’d like that, but I just don’t want to put him on another hijack. I’m open to that character coming back. I think if people were compelled to like the character, then I’m in.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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