Idris Elba finds his inner buffalo in ‘Zootopia’

The esteemed British actor Idris Elba is known for playing powerful, strong characters.

From his turn as the Commandant in “Beasts of No Nations” to his Golden Globe winning run as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther on the BBC series “Luther,” Elba has built his brand on these serious performances, utilizing his deep baritone voice and imposing visage.

His latest role allows him to capitalize on one of those attributes. The character is the gruff, booming-voiced police chief Bogo. The visage? A Cape buffalo.

“Zootopia,” opening Friday, marks the first of three animated roles this year for Elba (along with Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book” and a spot in “Finding Dory.”)

“I’ve been busy in [animation] ’cause I’m just getting older and uglier, man, so I got to use the voice. You know what I’m saying?” Elba jokes.

amNewYork spoke with Elba, about all things buffalo.


So, how does one get into the mindset of a Cape buffalo?

I rely on the script, honestly. Especially a designed engine. Making animation, it takes a really, really long time, so one can come to it with sort of grand designs of like, ‘this is how I’m going to approach my character’ and whatnot, but it is such a science, I just needed to fill in the blanks. Come in and get the character, get the voice, and, for me it, was all in the design of the character and the beat and the tone of the show, all of that was predesigned. So I’d come along and I designed a voice pretty much on the spot, actually, and just sort of playing with textures in my voice to try and bring the lines and the words and the dialogue alive. You do have to use your imagination, you don’t always get the benefit of looking at the animation when you’re doing the job, so you have to imagine what you’ve got, what you’re like when you’ve got horns in your head and how that might sound, you just have to imagine what it’s like to be talking to a room full of animals and there’s an elephant talking back to you. Now that’s the mindset that you kind of have to jump into.


Tell me a little about Chief Bogo.

Well he’s a cop. I’ve played cops before. He’s a big authoritarian character, I’ve played those before. He is quite sensitive and has a heart and that was fun to explore. So I’ve got the constraints of a big-voiced guy that has such huge, gentle moments. That was really nice and I could relate to that. And then what was great, was that the whole team that made “Zootopia” very, very funny. The sense of humor is really great.


A lot of your work is serious. Did you relish in the chance to show off your funnier side?

Totally man, yeah, I’m digging being funny, if I can get it. I never get the opportunity. … The thing about being funny is that some people are just naturally funny and then in a situation like animation where you have to rely on your voice and rely on the dialogue, you have to learn funny, and I loved that ’cause that’s something I’ve never done before, learning how to be funny.


What are you looking for in roles?

The first thing I look for is: Have I done this before? And will I be recognizable from it, can I reinvent and correct something. With animation, I’ve got a range of things I can do with my voice, most of which no one will ever, ever hear, and for good reason because I just sound stupid. But given the opportunity to create a character with one of my silly voices, that’s like a great combination — being paid to be silly. So I look for originality, I look for a way to make this as original as I can but without reinventing the wheel, you know what I mean?