Q: We were just talking about the value that you bring to this film because you are somebody we like looking at.
IE: Appreciate it! Do you like my new haircut? I'm doing This Christmas, and this is his haircut, [my character] Quentin. Tyler [Perry] saw it, and he was like, "What's up with your hair, man?" [laughs]
Q: Talk about the contrast between a movie like this and the role you've played in The Wire.
IE: There's a huge contrast, of course, because Stringer Bell, who he is and the world he is--he's just completely different from Monty, completely different from me. The contrast is huge, and that is always an attraction as an actor: to be asked to play something that is completely out of sight of what they might think you can do. It's a great opportunity, honestly. My character's very vulnerable in this film and very open in a sense and very unstereotypical. Stringer was too, in actuality; Stringer was a very untypical kind of character too. But Monty's character didn't have the kind of bravado that I was allowed with Stringer. This guy was just an everyman. Stringer wasn't.
Q: You have a daughter.
Q: And in this movie, someone hits your daughter. What would you do if someone hit your daughter?
IE: You know what? I'd react the same way that Monty did.
Q: Did you talk with Tyler about what a father would actually do?
IE: That was in the script. But, yes, we did talk about it extensively because even though I would probably react to it the way that would put me in jail, I didn't want us to completely throw that into the film because then my character loses in that sense. And he does--he goes and becomes violent at the end of the script. But compared to what I would've done--hey, that was a walk in the park, you know? It's one of those things. The thing that I had to draw on as an actor in terms of playing this character was I'm a father, so a lot of the early discussions between me and Tyler were "What would you do? What are your experiences?" I don't raise my daughter by myself, but I spend a lot of time with her by myself, so I could relate. It was important; it was very important to get that right.
Q: As a Black man in America, how important was it for you to do this type of film?
IE: Hugely because the stereotypes are just so boring; we see them all the time. It was so refreshing to go, "You know what? We're gonna flip this--we've seen the woman at home with her children; now let's see a man at home with his children. Let's see a man fall in love with someone that doesn't love him back. Let's see a man raise his children." It was hugely important to show that. As a Black man, not an African-American, but as a Black man in the world, we're always fighting these stereotypes from film, media, just people's perceptions of us. I think it's important that filmmakers and writers lead the way in trying to change that. And we all do it with films--an iconic character can be so important to the way some people see things. So, yes, very important.
Q: How do you go about deciding what roles you're going to take? When you're reading a script, does something have to happen?
IE: I have to be challenged. I have to read that character and go, "I don't know; can I do that?" If it's something that I know that's going to be easy, and I'm not really challenged by it, then it won't be something that I'm attracted to. I have to be inspired by the work. I have to also ask myself as an artist, "Have you done this before? Is it going to be easy for you to do?" If the answers to those questions are no, then I'm in.
IE: [rolls eyes] Uh, no. [laughs] Gabrielle Union is attractive, but you do mean in terms of her character? Absolutely. It's very attractive to see a powerful woman doing her thing. We may be attracted to someone that hasn't got the accolades that she has, the money and wealth and all that by virtue of the fact that she's easier to manipulate. But that's not always the case; I think a man like me, I love a woman that's going to challenge me one way or another. It doesn't matter whether she's rich, but the challenge is important.
Q: How does the European or American influence inform you as an actor? Do you have a relationship with Chiwetel [Ejiofor] or Djimon Hounsou?
IE: I know Chiwetel very well. We worked together a long time ago. Djimon I don't know; no relationship there. But Chiwetel and I have spoken about how it is to be an English actor in America. My influences in England--the television and film industry there inspire really great actors, so you're surrounded by that the whole time. When I came to this country, I was inspired by just the fact that there were so many African-American actors doing well out here, and doing well in terms of Hollywood success. We don't have that in England so much. One of the first auditions I went for when I was 19 years old was up against an actor that I'd been watching on TV for years. And I was just like, "Huh? What is he doing here? That's impossible." And out here there's a ladder to climb, so there is those differences in those terms. I think in England, and you don't know until you travel to England, there's very big similarities in the Anglo-African and African-American experience. That's a universal thing. There are brothers in Japan, and you can relate if you go. Trust me--they speak Japanese, but it's a culture that spreads, and you can relate.
Q: What are your feelings about having Peter O'Toole and Will Smith in the same category for this year's Oscars? One's a Brit; one's an African-American.
IE: Sign of the times, honestly. Sign of the times right there. And I think, again, Will challenging the stereotype shows that people are embracing characters that are different. Very excited for Will.
Q: With the exception of a few American actors who can master the English dialect, what is it about a lot English actors, especially Black English actors, switching to the American accent with no problems?
IE: In fairness, honestly, American English is easier to do physically on the tongue than an American doing English. Not to bore you, but just phonetically, Americans don't use their tongues as much as the English.
Q: We're lazy--that's what you're saying.
IE: Basically what English actors have to do is relax their tongues and merge their words into each other a little bit more. That sounds like a general thing, but when I sit down with a coach, that's exactly what he says to me. He says, "English people tend to chop their words up a lot more, use their tongues faster, mouths speak quicker, and Americans don't. We don't pronounce some of the ends of our words, so let it go." At first it's very tough. In actuality, the slur between the two is what sounds so bad. It's not so much that I can do the accent; it's now I know when the slur is off.
Q: What's the tattoo [on the right forearm]?
IE: My tattoo. This says "The Long-Awaited Gift Bearer" which is what my daughter's name means. My daughter's name is Isan, and it means "the gift bearer."
Q: How old is she?
IE: She's five.
Q: When the English audition here, they're always asked to do the American accent. Does that happen to you all the time? Some complain that they can't really play themselves.
IE: I never get to play an English character out here; it's very rare. But, I mean, you're in America--when in Rome. It can be frustration, but it's a challenge. It's easier to play an English character; it's just easier to do your own accent. So for me as an actor, you want a challenge. If you're going to come into this market, you got to be an actor.
Q: What would be your dream role?
IE: I don't have a dream role. There isn't one role that I think that I want to do the most only because that limits the kind of roles I want to do. I play complex roles a lot of times, characters that have a lot of angst. In actuality it might be a challenge for me to play a character that's very simple, very very simple.
Q: Can you talk about being directed by an African-American director? Was it a different experience?
IE: With Tyler Perry, his set is very multicultural in terms of the crew; everybody's from every kind of background. Tyler Perry in this film relates to each and every character in an odd way--the female character, the kids, the male. He's a man, but he can relate to the female characters and the kids and the older characters, and the generational characters as well as Monty, the male character. So that was interesting for me. His audience is very in tune to Tyler, and Tyler's very in tune to his audience, and that's something he brings into his films and filmmaking. So he says things, "No, they're not gonna like that"--"they" meaning his audience. That's something that I haven't heard before, when he's talking about, with this role, "They ain't gonna do that. They ain't gonna understand that."
Q: Was there an example of that? Was he saying that they weren't going to go for that?
IE: One of the things in actuality when I first started working with Tyler--I brought a certain element to Monty. I bring a certain element to all my characters that is Idris; you can never shake that. And Tyler was like, "I want you to be cognitive of the fact that you're an African-American man, and there are certain things, body language, mama's upbringing, that you're going to have to bring in"--which is different from mine. So that was an education for sure.
Q: Did you find that helpful or stifling?
IE: Helpful. Totally. The more that people in the industry or the world knows who I am, the more scrutiny I'm going to face in terms of "Is he real? Is he playing an African-American correctly?" So it's important for me to feed and learn more from African-American culture about playing that.
Q: Did you learn anything from the African-American female perspective during this movie?
IE: Nothing I didn't know already, honestly. I'm not new to African-American culture or to African-American women. It was refreshing, however, to have Gabrielle's character's voice in a movie--the things that she was saying, how she relates to Monty's character. That was refereshing for me as a filmmaker. But personally I've lived in this society, in this culture for a while now. I'm learning every day, though, just like you.
Q: How long?
IE: I've lived in for about eight years; been a part of for maybe 15 years.
Q: How did you build your relationship with Gabrielle prior to getting on set?
IE: You know, I take her out a lot. [laughs] Gabrielle is very smart, very intuitive to what's going on, and loves to discuss; loves to open debate. So that was something that she and I did a lot in order to really get these characters into a place of reality for us. Tyler Perry's script had a lot of things that were filmic, and we wanted to take those things out and attach the real to it.