‘Thor’ star Idris Elba on fan racism and ‘Ghost Rider’ sequel (but not ‘Prometheus’)

May 02, 2011 | 9:33 a.m.

DAYS OF THUNDER: We’re counting down to Friday’s release of “Thor” with a month of on-the-set reports, exclusive photos and interviews with the cast and crew of the first truly cosmic Marvel Studios film. Today: Co-star Idris Elba.

idris Thor star Idris Elba on fan racism and Ghost Rider sequel (but not Prometheus)

Idris Elba (Nigel Parry / For the Times)

I’ve seen “Thor” and Idris Elba is a dominating screen presence as the grim, glowering Heimdall, the all-seeing, ever-listening sentry of Asgard. But not everyone is thrilled to see the British-born actor from “The Wire,”  “The Losers” and “Luther” in the role. In a new interview with the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, the actor said he has heard the purists who say that a black actor shouldn’t portray a character rooted in Norse mythology but he is also hearing a chorus of complaint that sounds to his ears like racism.

“Purist comic-book fans are one thing; out-and-out racism is another,” the 38-year-old actor told journalist Leslie Gornstein in a Q&A published Sunday. “Of course, the more I speak on this topic, the more I fuel it. But, look, if people have a problem with me playing the character, just don’t go see the movie, you know?”

There’s a website calling for a boycott  of Marvel for inserting “left-wing social engineering into European mythology” with the casting of Elba and the dust-up has been covered in the British press dating back to last year.

Early on Elba took the stance that in a film as fantastical as “Thor” it seems a bit odd to fixate on one authenticity topic. The Guardian picked up this quote in April 2010:  “There has been a big debate about it: can a black man play a Nordic character? Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the color of my skin is wrong? I was cast in ‘Thor’ and I’m cast as a Nordic god. If you know anything about the Nords, they don’t look like me but there you go. I think that’s a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that, and I think that’s good.”

man 15450r Thor star Idris Elba on fan racism and Ghost Rider sequel (but not Prometheus)

Idris Elba as Heimdall in "Thor." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Critics of the casting choice point out that in the Poetic Edda, the collection of poems that shape much of our contemporary view of Norse myth, Heimdall is even described as “the whitest of the gods” although some scholars have translated that to “the brightest” the gods. This new film, of course, is based on the Marvel Comics version of Thor and Asgard (and even that source material is in wild flux considering close to 50 years of revision, contradiction and cross-media interpretations)  and the otherworldy characters are presented essentially as aliens who use a super-science (that appears to humans as magic) and were deified by the dazzled earthlings of antiquity. All of that makes arguments of authenticity a little slippery.

In the new interview, Elba also touched on his part in the upcoming “Ghost Rider” film, which again stars Nicolas Cage but is being framed as a savvier adaptation of the Marvel Comics character who has been a cult favorite for decades. Asked about his “alcoholic monk” character and the martial arts prospects of that role, Elba said the interviewer was half-right with the question. “That’s a pretty good description of him … except there are no martial arts. There is some fighting, but in the end he resorts to a gun — sorry. He’s also French. That’s the other part of the description you missed. I kind of adopted an Algerian French accent for that role and had a great time doing it. I liked playing that part.”

thorgallery Thor star Idris Elba on fan racism and Ghost Rider sequel (but not Prometheus)Elba praised the star of the film: “Nic is a very generous actor …. When you have an actor of that size and weight, who has been around that long, and you have an ensemble cast, he doesn’t have to do all the things he does to make the cast comfortable. He’ll feed you lines himself again and again and again. He’s very polite to the crew, talks to everyone, doesn’t mind stepping up to his own mark to line up a shot [instead of using a stand-in]. That is generous.”

He also said the special-effects approach of the “Thor” shoot taxed his stamina: “I did green screen for the first time! I wouldn’t like to do a whole movie of green screen, though. You kind of forget the plot a little — like being in a Broadway play and doing it over and over and forgetting your line halfway through. It’s a bit of, ‘Wait, what is this again? Oh, right, Frost Giant. OK.’ ”

Elba declined to talk about his work in the upcoming Ridley Scott film, “Prometheus“:  “If I did, I would probably be fired. I’m bound to silence.”

— Geoff Boucher


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More in: Movies, Marvel, Politics, Thor


99 Responses to ‘Thor’ star Idris Elba on fan racism and ‘Ghost Rider’ sequel (but not ‘Prometheus’)

  1. brettghampton says:

    It's sad that people are even making this an issue. Since Marvel and the filmmakers have already signifcantly departed from the comic book mythology of Thor and the Asgardians by deciding to portray them not as gods but as alien beings from another planet, why is it such a big deal of one or more of those alien beings is of a different color?

  2. Brenda says:

    Idris Elba is such a fine actor, I'm willing to bet most people won't even remember his color, just that he was amazing in the role.

    BTW, I don't remember this happening when Samuel L Jackson was introduced as Nick Fury in Irom Man.

  3. markmanlapas says:

    Let's clear this up. I've not heard of a single comic book fan who has a problem with Stringer Bell being Heimdall. The people with the problem are most accurately identified as 'racist jerkweeds' or 'douchebag white supremacists'.

    Comic book fans want a good movie. That means they want something that makes them think fondly of the comics they love while they cheer at a movie they love. That's it.

    It's the racists with another agenda who are complaining about the casting, not us comic fans.

  4. Michael says:

    Elizabeth Taylor Played the Role of Cleopatra and Charlton Heston played Moses white people had nothing to say about that. Some of these fools need to get over themselves.

  5. John W says:

    Heck I'm more upset that Emma Stone is playing Gwen Stacy rather than Mary Jane Watson….

  6. elamphere says:

    Idris Elba can do no wrong.

  7. Robert says:

    You know, this is not about Norse Mythology really… this is a comic. The comic was definitely not rooted in mythology as much as it was the Marvel universe. But honestly… would anyone cast a white guy as the front door guard in a black panther house in a movie? It's a miscast to me but oh well.

  8. andres says:

    why is this a issue? It shouldn't be a big deal. I don't care that he's black; i only care if he can act the part. That's what should matter.
    ps:im not a rascit

  9. Zeek says:

    David Carraden played a Chinamen.

  10. Jane says:

    And Johnny Depp is playing Tonto. Even if he has ancestors who are Native American (as do I, but I look Black and identify as such), he still identifys as white, so if that is OK, then this is just fine.

  11. Duchess of Cambridge says:

    I was very disappointed that the untitled Alien prequels were shelved in favour of an original science-fiction film called Prometheus. It would have been interesting to see if or which of the various interpretations of the Space Jockey’s species in the novelisations, graphic novels, etc they would have used in the untitled Alien prequels.

    In Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation of Alien, Ash describes the Space Jockey’s race as a noble people and hopes that mankind will encounter them under more pleasant circumstances. It also states that they were larger, stronger and possibly more intelligent than humans. Foster’s novelisation states that the Jockey was trying to warn humans away from the Xenomorphs.

    In Steve Perry’s Earth Hive, the Space Jockey’s race are referred to as collectors because they collect Xenomorph eggs. In Michael Jan Friedman’s Aliens: Original Sin, the race is referred to as the Mala’kak. According to the comic book The Destroying Angels, the Xenomorphs caused the species to become extinct 1.6 million years ago.

    Mark Verheiden’s Aliens graphic novel depict the Space Jockey’s race as malevolent; they refrain from attacking humans due to their immense hatred of their common enemy, the Xenomorphs, but they intend to wipe out and/or enslave humanity once their war with the Xenomorphs is over. In the series, a Space Jockey-like creature communicates telepathically with humans.

    It is possible that the Alien Queen came from the Space Jockey and laid all the eggs in that ship. It was as big as the Queen was, the only giant alien in Aliens (1986) was the Queen and strangely there was no trace of the Alien which was born from the Space Jockey.

  12. ScottW says:

    I'm looking forward to this movie. No one had a problem when Gladiator portrayed the Roman elite as blue eyed Northern Europeans instead of the darker skinned Southern Europeans they actually were…at least I didn't hear any complaints.

  13. Chris says:

    I agree with most of those posting on this topic — it's a fantasy movie about a comic book loosely inspired by mythology. The characters are comic book characters with no basis on reality or history. So any debate is phony. In fact, the comments I've seen that object to Elba's race are by definition racist — discriminating based on race. That doesn't mean the people making those comments are bigots but it does mean that their arguments are without merit or logic.

  14. PLZ stop the hate says:

    green lanturn was a black guy in the cartoon but in the movie he was played by a white man….. I dont remember hearing this much hate when that happened -.-, people make me sick

  15. Casual Observer says:

    Funny how Blacks weren't complaining when the Clash of the Titans was remade. With a white woman as Andromeda. When the original story states that she is a beautiful Ethiopian princess. Or the Prince of Persia who was played by a white male. Or the whitewashing of The Last Airbender. Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. The film "21", ect. Hollywood is rife with this kind of thing. But let this fine actor play a Norse god and certain cretins want to get in an uproar? Get over yourself.

  16. Yaz says:

    For Pete's Sake, people! Get a grip!
    What GREEN MEN do we know who could play the Amazing HULK???
    How were they going to cast that one, eh?

  17. Calbert1 says:

    Jenette Goldstein played Pvt. Vasquez in Aliens, she did such a great job no one even knew that wasn't a real hispanic woman. She deserved an award for that piece of great acting.

  18. Mycal says:

    I think Americans should be allowed to question casting decisions based on physical appearance and NOT be immediately considered racist or be labeled in some other negative fashion. I believe a large portion of casting and the movie industry is centered on appearance. Come to think of it so are many of our social interactions. That being said, it is neither wrong nor insensitive to question casting decisions. It's a movie, you are allowed to critique it. I'm super short, super portly and super white, and yet, I will never be cast as any super hero.

  19. OHAS says:

    The man is drop dead gorgeous; add that to the fact that when he's on the screen, he is riveting. I'd pay to see him portray Little Red Riding Hood if the production sounded any good. This movie sounds great. I can't wait to see him in it.

  20. yankee says:

    why is it that everytime you disagree with a black man and your a racist!

  21. Frank Vargas says:

    I am a comic book fan. I have no problems with this man playing this role. To be honest I really hope he gets good screen time, because I know he will play the role well as he did with his previous movie installments. As a comic book fan I want to see a good movie, I could hardly care about race on unrealistic characters. Why? Because if you notice characters in these comics always get a new costume, or always get a new design that changes their race, age, and backgrounds sometimes just for reboots or continuing and or to anew a plot. Its the character development and how they are portrayed is what matters the most in these circumstances.

  22. eddyjames says:

    Until they cast Will Smith as John Wayne in his auto biography,….It's just a movie.But Will Smith as The Duke, that would have big john turning in his grave in Valhalla.

  23. anon says:

    Just my opinion. This is similar to casting a non-Japanese to play a samurai in a period film set in feudal Japan. Whether he's white, black, or Hispanic, or even Chinese, it wouldn't fit with the movie if the samurai character wasn't Japanese. I'm not even Japanese, but I think in a film about feudal Japan and Samurais, a Japanese actor should play the Samurai role.

  24. Chris says:

    Idris is one of the better actors in this film. Could care less about his skin color. It didn't take from the film for me at all. He is a great character. Sure… there is no ethnicity in Scandinavian myth culture other than the Caucasian white guy. I understand that. However, it's doubtful you'd have a white guy with an Irish accent playing the emperor of China in a film. So the casting is a little strange, |'ll give the Swedes that. I remember a casting call for The Lion King on Broadway, and a number of extremely talented white actors being overlooked for black and asian actors. I don't expect a guy to play the part of Marilyn Monroe in a biopic either. That said, I am more disturbed by how Marvel cast this actor in the role of the one Norse god that more or less resembles your resort doorman. Racist? Stirring up S#!+ more like it. Let the chips fall where they may (for any decisions made be they good or evil).

  25. Chris says:

    Idris is one of the better actors in this film. Could care less about his skin color. It didn't take from the film for me at all. He is a great character. Sure… there is no ethnicity in Scandinavian myth culture other than the Caucasian white guy. I understand that. However, it's doubtful you'd have a white guy with an Irish accent playing the emperor of China in a film. So the casting is a little strange, |'ll give the Swedes that. I remember a casting call for The Lion King on Broadway, and a number of extremely talented white actors being overlooked for black and asian actors. I don't expect a guy to play the part of Marilyn Monroe in a biopic either. That said, I am more disturbed by how Marvel cast this actor in the role of the one Norse god that more or less resembles your resort doorman. Racist? Stirring up S#!+ more like it. Let the chips fall where they may (for any decisions made be they good or evil).

  26. anon says:

    I wonder if he would be OK with a white actor portraying Malcom X.

  27. Jeri says:

    Who’s to say that some roaming Valkyrie wasn’t passing thru Africa right after a big battle, found the dying” Himdahl”, deemed him worthy and transported him to Valhalla? Since his real name was unpronouceably African they renamed him what he’s known as in the movie and was named a gate guard. Which, when you think about it is about as impressive as a New York City apartment door-man. “Call a taxi for ya Mr. Odin?”

  28. Get Real says:

    How would one know what color is God made of really?

  29. Barbara da Rosa says:

    Come on! Let the dude play the part. The mytology was invented by people and the “draw” the gods how the wanted. If they really existed could you tell for sure that they were white, black, blue, green or zebra?

    the catholic church draw Jesus as a white man, with blue eyes and blond, does that kind of description match the people that lived in Jerusalem?

    LET IT BE!

  30. Uuga Buuga says:

    so why didn't they just cast Wesley Snipes as Thor and be done with it?

    Ohhhhh snap, I forgot…….

  31. gtoya says:

    Ummmm…it's a MOVIE based on a COMIC BOOK.
    Anything else?

  32. Chocado says:

    I am curious with all the talk about Heimdall and the fact that the actor did not portray ‘Norse’ features, which according to some made the casting so wrong since there could not be black Asgardians: Do they have a problem with Hogun, who was obviously a Mongol? And Fandral an Engish Errol Flynn type swordsman being Asgardian?

    This isnt Norse Mythology; It just artistic interpretation.

    And I Enjoyed the Movie.

    Nuff Said.

  33. RC Collins says:

    The only person making this an issue is Idris. The dude's been saying stuff like this ever since he was cast. I've not read one quote on a blog, msg board or anything else that questions the casting. People are free to debate whether a black man can play a role based on a historically white character, but that doesn't make one racist. This is just silly.

  34. stublore says:

    So there'd equally be no problem with a White man or woman playing a mythical or even based upon real Black person.
    Or substitute any race for anyother races heroes, e.g a Mexican say playing an Indian god(Not North American Indian, the ones from India, beside Pakistan).

  35. Alex says:

    Right so according to this whiny ass author if a white stands up to defend a mythological figure from WHITE mythology they're automatically branded as "racist"

    If a White played the role of an upcoming mal x or an Asian played the role of MLK it would be world wide headlines, Obama speeches, Whoopi chimping out on The View, protests at the studios, charities started, books been written etc.

    But if a White so much as speaks up it's "racist"

    Doesn't matter if it's fictional or not, they should have stayed true to the character yet the jews who created the movie purposely slap Norse myth and their people in the face.

  36. D says:

    As a black woman, I have to say that I have had a problem with his casting as well. I am not going on and on about it either. I am refusing to see the movie, the same way I protested the Last Airbender when they released it with only one Asian actor among the main characters, and the same way I will treat the new Akira remake.

    Yes, the movie is based on a comic book, but that comic book is based on a religion that people actually worshiped and believed in. Its age does little to diminish that. So if you have a character based entirely around a deity that people actually believed in, I believe that maintaining that character’s race is a basic sign of respect for that culture’s history.

    I enjoy watching Elba and I would be equally, if not more, upset if this were a African god being played by a white man, but just because it is done all the time, as many of you have pointed out, doesn’t make it okay when the tables are turned.

  37. oneiriad says:

    Speaking as a Dane with a life-long interest in Norse myth, as well as a fangirl who thoroughly enjoyed watching the movie, I will say that I have no respect for anybody who bitches about the Thor movie because of the casting of Mr. Elba as Heimdall and stating that it isn't true to the mythology as their reason. I mean, we are talking about a comic/movie canon with a blond Thor, no goats in sight, Loki mysteriously having turned from Odin's blood brother into his adopted son, Loki's mother Laufey having inexplicable been genderswitched into the King of the Jotun, etc, etc, etc – please tell me, why is this deviation from Norse myth out of all the deviations in a canon that I think spends more time not matching the old myths than, well – why, pray tell, is this the one you're bitching about?

  38. vic says:

    Idris looks badass as Heimdall. My other half is loosely Heathen (I even more loosely so) and immediately noted that, in costume, he looks perfect for Heimdall. That whole "whitest of the Gods thing"… in a pre-Christian, overwhelmingly white Scandinavia/Northern Europe, why would anyone expect the Eddas to specify that one of the Gods was whiter than the others? Unless the "whiteness" was a symbolic statement, denoting purity, brilliance or something else.

    There are, I am ashamed to say, a very small minority of Heathens who use the Eddas and Sagas to justify racism. But you know what? Those same fuckwits would do the same with any faith they followed.

    And that is without even getting into the fact that this is a comic book universe based on Norse mythology anyway!

    Idris makes a fantastic Heimdall. Ignore the haters, I very much look forward to seeing this film!

  39. Michael Dilts says:

    In the original version of myth, Heimdall is a member of the Vanir, a different race of gods from the Aesir of Asgard, so the choice of Mr. Elba actually makes perfect sense mythologically. (See "Thrymskvida," Stanza 15, from the Poetic Edda.)

  40. HillView says:

    Why the hell are these Norse Gods Speaking English? Destroys the authenticity of the movie. Also why the hell would Thor ride a horse when he can fly?

  41. nel says:

    doen't bother me one bit.He did a good job

  42. melissa says:

    idris is thor case closed

  43. Black Arachknight says:

    As a comic book collector ( Spider-Man and Black Panther), for many years, I've seen comic books take on more of the demographics of their readership. I am African American, I need Amazing #1 to own the complete 616 Spider-Man and own all volumes of Black Panther. There have been 4 Charlie Chans in the movies-ALL have been white men in yellow face-no problem. Admitted white supremacist John Wayne played Ghangis Khan in the movies-no problems. Othello the Moor of Venice played by several white actors-no problem. Whites have played native Americans again NO PROBLEM! Pacino has played a Cuban(Scareface) NO PROBLEM!. So unless you can show me where whites cried foul when those actors portrayed non white peoples, then yes the criticism towards Elba is pathetically racist. If you said he was a bad actor ( which he is not) then that is a very valid criticism, but as long as Liz Taylor can play the Queen of the Nile, Elba can play a fictional Norse god-and play it well I might add.

  44. darklighter says:

    Biggest problem I have with this movie is the fact that they're aliens? This isn't Norse Mythology or even Marvel Norse mythology. To make the Asgardians aliens is such a cop out. So aliens are more likely in Tony Stark's tech world than ancient gods? Marvel and Feige are idiots to let the characters get this warped. It's like doing Superman and saying he isn't an alien but a human that got exposed to radiation making him superstrong and such. The whole character is changed. Thor not being a god is NOT Thor.

  45. DEE Dee says:

    I can not believe that in this day and time racism still exist. America is too busy worrying about someones color instead of worrying about terrorist right at our back door. Stop the ignorance and focus on something productive. this is 2011, not 1711. hatred will kill you. Minorities must be doing something right if the only thing people can talk about is color, all these white people playing characters that do not fit them at all. people in Egypt are not powder white but they made cleopatra white and she was not white at all. so please stop showing how small minded you are

  46. patw123dance says:

    I find Idris Elba to be such a combination of wonderful actor and superstar material that, since The Wire, I would see him in absolutely anything at all. I only wish for him (and us lucky audiences) great big, leading roles.

  47. Kristin says:

    I am actually of “Nordic decent” I have no problem with Idris Elba playing the part of a norse god! For one thing it’s a movie, and even more importantly he is a suberb actor! Did anyone watch the Wire!?! Best of luck to you Mr. Elba, in all you do, I’ll certainly be watching, so keep up all your good, hard word, and thank you for the wonderful entertainment! I hope you enjoy what you do because this is one fan that enjoys watching you do it, no matter what the role. I love the range!

  48. FairIZFair says:

    I'm sure Africans, Middle-easterners, and Native Americans felt the same way as the "racists' purists" when Hollywood chose to cast whites in the roles of CLEOPATRA, Lawrence of Arabia, as Native Americans in cowboy flicks and Egyptians in the Ten Commandments…

    Oh, but I guess that was different. (LOL)

  49. starman says:

    Those so called purist are gonna have a fit when they find out that All the Norse mythology was about Aboriginal Moorish Gods or so called black beings.as it is the same all over the Earth.so sorry purist :( When it talked about Hemdall being the whitest of the gods it was nothing to do with skin color. It was referring to his character.

  50. Randy says:

    Wonder where they found the blue people in this film?

  51. Groer Beert says:

    I enjoyed the movie, plain and simple.

  52. Blakeney says:

    I did initially think "Um, he doesn't look very Norwegian", but I thought Idris Elba was wonderful. His Heimdall was not just a tough guy, but someone you felt his friends could count on. And I liked how he managed to interject some humor into his role as well.

    Let's face it – this is a comic book, which in turn is based on mythology – and even without the movies, comics are retconned at the drop of a hat. I agree with the comment that said a Valkrye could rescue a warrior from anywhere. I hope we see more of Elba's Heimdall in Thor 2.

  53. AERON says:

    This is an issue, really?! This is mythology not the real world; these are not really people. It is not even "strict" mythology but a Marvel comic book interpration of norse mythology. White actors have played ethics parts since the invention of the motion camera . . . and not just mythologically characters. In 1963 the headline read " Elizabeth Taylor born to play Cleopatra." I love Ms. Taylor and will not sepak an ill word against against her. But in reality Cleopatra was a real person and queen of an African country. Enough said. But let's stick with mythology/science fiction. Where were the outcries when Jake Gyllenhaal played the Prince of Persia. Again, I love the actor but spray tan does not change your ethnicity.

  54. AERON says:

    Chris commented that a number of white actors were overlooked for the for the play The Lion King. But the purpose of the story was to be inspirational to African American boys growing up without the presence of a father yet Matthew Broderick voiced the young African prince Simba. So when people make comments like this its usually due to selective forgetfullness that the inverse white actor have and continue to play black, asian and other non white characters. David Carradine in Kung Fu. Scandanavian actor Warner Orland as Charlie Chan. Yu Bynner (russian-american) in the King And I, play the king of Siam. Every Zorro except Antonio Banderas. I could really go on and on and on

  55. Ben says:

    I just watched Thor on DVD. I didn't even think twice about Heimdall. It's a comic book movie! Who cares, really! Some of you guys with your hangups about who's supposed to be white or black–maybe if you weren't so obsessed with that, you'd be more than 50 year old fat virgins jerking off to comic books.

  56. Lyric ibrim says:

    It’s weird and crazy how races are still remarked!!idris elba is a great actor and we the fans ov the sequel are enjoy is acting role!!point blank period

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