A Little White Lie Cranked Up The Tension During Idris Elba's The Wire Audition

When you think of HBO's classic mid-'00s series "The Wire," it's the characters that come to mind first — people like McNulty (Dominic West), D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), Kima (Sonja Sohn), or Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). All of them have their place in the show's vast tapestry, but their stories never feel manufactured or inauthentic. Their major failures and small triumphs echo and clash against those of others, comprising the major drama of the show. And Stringer, the ambitious climber at the top of the show's Barksdale criminal empire, had some of the show's most engaging material. Of course, it helped that he was played by a future movie star.

While you can now see him on the big screen fighting monstrous lions in "Beast" or playing a romantic Djinn in a George Miller film, Idris Elba's work in "The Wire" some 20 years earlier was much more low-key. Stringer is nothing like the typical fantasy gangster. He has a practiced stoicism, doling out hits with calculated coldness –- even on family and children. Elba's performance moved Stringer from a pragmatic pencil pusher into one of the great television roles, as the actor exuded a brooding charisma even as he hunched over a desk.

It's hard to imagine anybody else playing the part, and Elba fought hard to be considered. But before anything could move forward, he would have to lie about a pretty major part of his origin: The country from which he hailed.

The Wire and America

Idris Elba's main concern was that, as a Londoner, he wouldn't come across as authentically American. That anxiety made some sense, since "The Wire" was explicitly designed to function as a portrait of America.

The show used its five seasons to document every aspect of the fall of the archetypal American city. It examined a loosely fictionalized Baltimore, Maryland, concocting a dramatic narrative that explored the actions of cops, drug dealers, port workers, politicians, and teachers. Its cast of characters went into the hundreds. And it was bleak, shot with documentarian immediacy. As co-creator Ed Burns says, it probably couldn't have been made by HBO today.

Much of the show's realism came from co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns' respective experience with inner-city Baltimore. According to HBO, Burns spent 20 years working in the Baltimore P.D., befriending Simon, who was the police reporter for the Baltimore Sun in the mid-'80s.

The two co-wrote a 1997 nonfiction book "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood," which laid the foundation for much of "The Wire." By emphasizing empathy and downplaying sensationalism, the book told hard truths about the cause and effects of the drug trade, and the War on Drugs, as experienced by a Baltimorean family. When that book became an HBO miniseries written by Simon (and future "Wire" writer David Mills), "The Wire" became a logical next step.

Casting locally (and globally)

Idris Elba told "Hot Ones" that David Simon was looking for an all-American cast for the show. After all, that kind of casting would naturally ensure a greater sense of realism. Simon's bible for the show stressed the need for documentary-style filmmaking, and casting American actors fit into this ideal. Elba was ready to fake it for the audition.

Per "Hot Ones," casting director Alexa Fogel had instructed him to obscure his origins and even fake a Brooklyn accent to seal the deal.

The show made good on its promises. Besides casting Americans, its fictional Baltimore teems with actual Baltimoreans, like Felicia Pearson, the actress behind the character of Snoop. (She continues to work with "Wire" co-creator Ed Burns.) Other "Wire" actors hailed from the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, like Trey Chaney and Delaney Williams. Even Larry Gilliard, Jr. grew up in the city.

With a cast this big, the actors came from far and wide, from beyond the Baltimore-Washington metro and even the United States. For McNulty, David Simon had wanted Chicagoan John C. Reilly, per IndieWire. He got Dominic West, from Yorkshire, England. Irishman Aidan Gillen (best known now for his "Game of Thrones" performance -– and his "Game of Thrones" opinions) would come on in the show's third season to play mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti. And of course, there's Idris Elba.

Elba's little white lie

As Elba related to "Hot Ones," Fogel let him know that "The Wire" team was specifically looking at American actors. He recalled her saying, "I love you ... but you've gotta promise me you can't tell them you're from East London." He got to his first audition having studied the interactions at his local Brooklyn barbershop to ensure that he didn't have a trace of his London accent. All proceeded according to plan.

Until he got put on the spot. He held onto the lie right to the moment the Irish manager, "with a twinkle in his eye" according to Elba, asked where he was from. The pressure of the moment forced Elba to reveal the truth: He was from East London.

The Irish manager excitedly yelled that his suspicions were confirmed, but if Elba, still a struggling actor at that point, was panicking, he needn't have worried. As he recalls, he was nearly in tears when David Simon revealed that he was going to give him a job anyway — not for drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, the role Elba was actually auditioning for, but for the character of Stringer Bell.

That casting may not have fit in Simon's original design for "The Wire," but the results speak for themselves. The actor fit so naturally into the show that he never wanted to leave.