Idris Elba talks ‘Concrete Cowboy,’ fatherly advice and ‘a new lease on life’ after COVID-19

Idris Elba is the king of Benadryl.

The British actor braved a horse allergy to work with equine co-stars while filming not just one but two Black-centered Western movies coming to Netflix: “Concrete Cowboy” (streaming Friday), which premiered at last fall’s virtual Toronto International Film Festival, and “The Harder They Fall” (premiering later this year).

“I’m ready to go and move out to the wild, wild West,” Elba quips to USA TODAY via Zoom. (His allergy symptoms: “My eyes swell up, and my chest gets tight.”)

In “Concrete Cowboy” (on which Elba’s also a producer), he stars as Harp, one of several modern-day Black cowboys who are part of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in North Philadelphia. When Harp’s estranged son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is kicked out of school in Detroit, he’s sent to live with his dad for the summer, and Harp tries to keep Cole from a life of crime while also dealing with the gentrification that’s impacting the riders’ way of life.

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Elba says the film was “particularly moving” for him “being able to tell a story about a father and a son, but also give a little amplification about some of this really happening where these small, tiny communities that historically own this land are now being moved out.”

The 48-year-old actor, one of the first major celebrities to reveal a positive test for COVID-19 a year ago, has a busy slate coming up: He straps on major weaponry to play Superman villain Bloodsport in James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” (in theaters and on HBO Max Aug. 6); stars as the archenemy of a vengeful outlaw played by Jonathan Majors in “The Harder They Fall”; and is currently in Sydney finishing up director George Miller’s fantasy “Three Thousand Years of Longing” co-starring Tilda Swinton.

Elba – dad to daughter Isan, 19, and son Winston, 6 – opens up about “Concrete Cowboy,” his bout with COVID-19 and what he binged during lockdown:

Question: As a father yourself, what scene between Harp and Cole most touched you?

Elba: There’s one where Harp talks about his mother and the advice she used to give him. It’s that father/son dialogue I have with my kids that really resonated with me. The Harp storyline was very different from mine, but I could relate to it just being a dad.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice your dad gave you?

Elba: Weirdly enough, my dad said to me, “When you’re speaking to somebody, if you want to connect with them, look them in the eyes.” But right now I’ve been told to look at my camera on my screen. So it’s a bit of an irony.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given your kids?

Elba: “I don’t know” is not an answer. That’s what I say to my kids.

Q: You have a horse allergy, but does that fade away when you’re up there, riding and connecting with this majestic animal?

Elba: There’s something very unnatural for the horse to have someone sit on its back. And if they don’t want you on their back, there is no connection. They will very quickly let you know that. So immediately, if you can get onto a horse’s back, you definitely connect with them. There’s a language: They’re sensing you, reading your movements and relating to you. I really found that so fascinating.

Q: There are no horses but plenty of colorful misfits in “The Suicide Squad.” What was that experience like?

Elba: It’s an incredible bit of work. James Gunn really worked hard on it and we all did. It’s very different from running around Philadelphia on horseback but equally as exciting.

Q: Your COVID-19 announcement early on in the pandemic really shook a lot of people about how serious this thing was. A year later, how are you feeling?

Elba: I don’t suffer any residual effects and during my time with COVID, I was asymptomatic. But I guess I feel incredibly lucky to have not gone down the worst route and thus it’s given me a slightly different perspective on life, a little bit more of a new lease on life. There are things that I’ve always wanted to do and haven’t done that I’m doing and want to do and pursuing. Personal things, small goals, things that I just put aside, things that I just said, “Oh, I’ll do that one day,” but now I’m doing.

Q: How was it to get back to work after your diagnosis?

Elba: More than anything, we all binged on films and stories and books during this time, especially during the hardest times of lockdown. To have a seat at the table, I feel really lucky and thankful to be able to be back to work making films, telling stories, making characters.

Q: What was your favorite binge?

Elba: There’s an old (British) TV show from the ’70s called “The Professionals,” which is Bodie and Doyle. They were like a double act. And I watched “The Queen’s Gambit.” That was incredible, Anya (Taylor-Joy) was amazing.

Having watched so much stuff, I was sitting going, ‘Oh, I wish I could be an actor.’ And then going, ‘Oh, I am an actor! Great! Let’s go!’ ”

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