If you are a regular visitor to SYFY FANGRRLS then you are probably aware of one of our favorite columns: Idris For Everything. The concept is simple — take a major role from pop culture, be it a comic book icon or classic literary figure, and explain why any adaptation of it would be made exponentially better by casting Idris Elba in the lead role. Our dedicated team have imagined Elba in roles as varied as The Doctor, Dracula, Green Lantern's John Stewart, and, of course, James Bond. This is not a practice exclusive to our domain. Indeed, Elba is a fan cast favorite across the internet.
The most notable example of Elba’s status as king of the fan casting comes from the many years spent building the near mythic notion of casting the award-winning sex symbol as perhaps the most recognizable icon of 20th century action cinema: Ian Fleming’s one and only James Bond. According to Aja Romano of Vox, such rumors and fan desires have been part of the Bond conversation since 2008, after Daniel Craig himself suggested casting an actor who wasn't white for the role.
While famous faces like Will Smith and Jamie Foxx put themselves forward for the part and P. Diddy even spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making a rather tongue-in-cheek audition tape, it was Elba's name that stuck around. At that point in time, Elba was mostly known as a supporting player in films like Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla and, of course, HBO's The Wire. He had not yet become a Marvel player, a voice-over favorite, and he was a solid five years away from canceling the apocalypse in Pacific Rim. So, why Idris Elba? What is it about this one actor that has made him so omnipresent in the “What if?” dreams of fans?
First, there are the obvious elements. Idris Elba is extremely handsome, endlessly charming and very talented. That may seem redundant to even mention but it’s surprisingly easy to forget given how visible he is in pop culture spheres. Elba has put in great work across film and television in many genres and can be relied upon to give every role his all. For genre lovers, Elba has become a reliable presence, be it through his turn as Heimdall in the Thor movies, his rousing monologuing as Stacker Pendercost in Pacific Rim, or even his work as the iconic Roland Deschain in the (admittedly not great) adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. He’s appeared in many blockbusters and geek favorites but often unseen: He voiced characters in two of the most successful films of 2017 (Zootopia and The Jungle Book) and played the villain in Star Trek Beyond, but under massive amounts of prosthetics. As striking and frequently scene-stealing as he is in those many supporting roles, Elba is clearly a man made for the leading roles.
That he gets so few of them is partly what fuels the fan cast frenzy. Hollywood is practically dictated by missed opportunities, lagging trends and a steadfast refusal to just listen to audiences and give them what they want. The success of every movie headlined by a woman seems to inspire baffled think-pieces over the shock of such a project making money. This mindset tends to dictate ridiculously limiting rules for both storytelling and casting. Even in the blockbuster age, when star power is at its weakest and franchises rule all, we still hear the cries that certain actors — usually those who aren’t white — are “just not bankable enough” for the leads. Fan casting allows fans to stretch their imaginations and often go beyond the archaic limitations of a white male dominated pop culture. Why couldn’t Hermione Granger be black? Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore Westeros or Arrakis with a primarily non-white cast? How do the dynamics of Doctor Who change if the eponymous role is played by a woman? Fan-casting opens up some of our most beloved cultural icons to new possibilities, refusing to accept that all heroes look the same and only certain people’s stories are of worth.
In that sense, Elba cannot help but be the patron saint of the fan casting method. He is a great talent who doesn’t seem to be at the epicenter of Hollywood hype in the way he may have been if he were white. While he is not unique in that regard, he has become a representative of sorts for the ways that systemic bigotry shut out the brightest talents. It’s no surprise that fan casting favorites — Elba, John Cho, Riz Ahmed, Constance Wu, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett — tend to be people of color.
The flipside to that is that it also boxes Elba into a narrow role as “the only one.” Often, with these sorts of fan castings, it can feel like Elba is the only black actor some people are aware of. That cannot help but reduce Elba to a cipher of sorts, a singular stand-in for a vague notion of diversity that never goes beyond the superficial. When Elba stops being a man and starts being an abstract concept, a stand-in for the continued diversification of the entertainment industry, it can be somewhat dehumanizing. Yes, Elba would make a great Bond or John Stewart, but wouldn’t Chiwetel Ejiofor as well? Or David Oyelowo? Perhaps Mahershala Ali, or John Boyega? Fan casting can open up a world of possibilities but it’s easy for fans to limit themselves by their own knowledge and experiences.
This brings us back to that eternal dream of Idris Elba as James Bond. Seeing him in the role that exemplifies the masculine ideal of a different time, clad in that most iconic form of modern cultural Britishness, immediately puts a spin on everything we know about that character. How does the epitome of upper-class white male privilege in the United Kingdom change when he’s black? Does it change much at all? What story shifts would be made and how would this impact the wider canon? When Anthony Horowitz says Elba is “too street” for the role, we all know what he really means, and fans refuse to accept that racist assumption about masculinity, class and audience appeal.
The thing that helps keep this fan casting alive has been Elba himself. He has always toyed with fans and the media over the enduring image of himself as Bond. He's been answering questions about it for almost as long as the rumors have swirled, telling NPR in 2011 that, if he were to play the role, he wouldn't want to be boxed in solely as "the black James Bond." He's sent cryptic tweets, he's playfully batted away press questions, he's sent many a handsome Instagram image of himself in a very well-fitting tuxedo. He can deny his attachment to the films all he wants but Elba knows how to play the fan casting game as good as anyone else.
This month, after Danny Boyle officially left directorial duties for the upcoming 25th Bond film, Elba himself finally put the nail in the coffin of everyone’s fan casting dreams. No, he will never be James Bond. But that’s okay. Truthfully, Elba doesn’t need Bond anymore. He’s directing his own stories, bringing light to inclusive tales unseen in Hollywood, and grabbing headlines and scene-stealing roles beyond that of a mere spy.
As fan-power gains a whole new level of clout in the social media age and propels studios' need for audience buzz, producers would do well to listen to those cries for more Elba, but also more actors like him. A call for Idris Elba is as much a call for John Cho or Daniel Kaluuya or Priyanka Chopra or Laverne Cox. Sure, we want Idris as Bond, but why stop there?