From co-creators Idris Elba and Gary Reich, the eight-episode, half-hour Netflix comedy series Turn Up Charlie, follows struggling DJ and eternal bachelor Charlie (Elba), who realizes that he needs to do something for cash while he’s waiting to get his dream career back on track. When he decides to reluctantly become the manny for the precocious problem-child daughter (Frankie Hervey) of his famous movie star best friend (JJ Feild) and his wife (Piper Perabo), a hugely successful DJ with a career that Charlie would love to have, he gets way more than he ever could have ever bargained for.
Collider recently got the opportunity to attend a For Your Consideration event to raise awareness about the series for Emmy Award voters, where we were able to speak with actor Idris Elba on the red carpet, as well as listen to what he had to say during the panel following the screening of the first two episodes. While there, he talked about how Netflix picked up the series, his desire to do comedy, the way the story evolved, how his own DJ-ing background influenced things, showing a side of London that we don’t typically get to see, how his own parenting approach compares to that of his character, and what he most enjoyed about getting more involved with the production aspects of a project.
Question: When you and your co-creator, Gary Reich, pitched this show around, Netflix bought it in the room. Could you ever have imagined that it would be that easy?
IDRIS ELBA: No, I didn’t. We didn’t actually get to pitch it around. Netflix was the first pitch, and they bought it in the room, which was incredible because we didn’t have a story, a script, or a [show] bible. We had nothing, but a bunch of anecdotes from me.
As the co-creator, were there specific things that you knew you wanted to do with this series, going into it?
ELBA: Really, the basis of it is that I wanted to do some comedy and something light-hearted, and I wanted to do something that wasn’t far-fetched and was close to me. Not that I have a hilarious life, but I just find a comedic side to some of the stuff that I’ve done. That’s how it came about. DJ-ing was an obvious place to start, but then it became more. It became about parenting and friendships and relationships, and just ambition management, and I’m proud of where it’s ended up.
You’re known for your work on Luther and The Wire, but you haven’t really done comedy. Was that the appeal of this idea and the impetus for coming up with the show?
ELBA: Yeah, definitely. I’ve had my fair share of tough characters and angst. Because I’ve got kids, I’ve done my fair share of Disney voice-overs, but I just wanted to have some levity and play a different side.
What were some of the anecdotes that you pitched to Netflix? Were they all related to DJ-ing, or were some of them personal?
ELBA: I said anecdotes because they weren’t structured pitch ideas. We did pitch the idea of a DJ turned manny, but it was a lot less structured. The anecdotes were really the odds and sods that a working DJ has to go through. A lot of it came from my life in New York, when I was in between jobs for about three years, and I was working a lot as a DJ, and doing all sorts of shit. And then, I based the mannying on a friend of mine who is a manny for a very famous family and some of the anecdotes he told me about managing celebrity children.
In every pitch, there’s the moment where it clicks and it all works. What was that moment, for you?
ELBA: Good question. Initially, what brought us into the room was the opportunity that I was gonna get to do something comedic and have fun with a character that wasn’t too far-fetched of an idea for audiences to struggle with, seeing me in my first major comedic role. We wanted to find something relatable, so the click was when I started to tell them stories about what it was like being a struggling DJ. Really I remember them looking at me and saying, “What?! You did what, to do what?!”
Granted, you’re Idris Elba, but did you have to convince Netflix that you could be funny?
ELBA: That’s a great question. There was that conversation of, “Oh, you wanna do comedy? That’s nice. That’s great. So, you’re also gonna be in it?” There was a bit of excitement in the idea of having not seen it before, in a big way. They were like, “You’re saying that you can be funny? Okay, we’re gonna go with this, as long as you say you can be funny.” That was really it.
What did you enjoy most about doing comedy?
ELBA: When you’re performing comedy, you can almost get away with being as silly as you’d like, and then you can try to reign that in. Everything is slightly elevated. Even the dramatic moments are slightly elevated, so you can be a bit free, in that moment. That’s what I really liked about it.
Once you got the go-ahead for this show, how did you figure out the arc for Charlie?
ELBA: Once they bought it in the room, there was a really awkward silence. It was like, “Now, what do I say?” And then, I was shitting myself for about eight months, trying to pull the story together, but we did. I had a writers room in London, which comprised of young writers, some new writers and some experienced writers. It all came together with long sessions of me telling stories, and specifically telling stories about DJ culture. I really wanted to make a show about DJs, but there was just not enough there to make it interesting. So, what started off as a DJ show, and a show about a DJ trying to climb up the ladder, became this story about parenting, which came from the anecdotes. We merged it together and it started to write itself, once we added the elements that we did. The inner team at Netflix are amazing about that process. They weren’t putting on the pressure. In fact, they were very open about their analytics, believe it or not. We managed to understand what really makes the average Netflix user really tick, so we had this really interesting insight into how to make this story work.
Do the characters of Charlie and David represent the two different aspects of your career, with the aspiring DJ and the successful actor? Was that intentional?
ELBA: No, not really. That sounds pretty clever. I wish I’d thought of that. It was a happy accident, really. But ultimately, what we chose to do in the writers’ room was just keep it as close to my stories, my sense of humor, and that vibe, as possible. Being an actor, obviously, I’ve got lots to tell. So, there was just this natural progression to build out that character, and make them more of a piece.
For people that don’t know how extensive your DJ background, how have you managed to keep both careers going, at the same time?
ELBA: DJ-ing is my first love. I’m a creative, but DJ-ing was the first stop. That’s where I started. By the time I was about 13, I was DJ-ing for house parties. And then, I met my drama teacher, and the DJ-ing went out the window. I became an actor. But the truth is that I’ve kept DJ-ing alongside my acting career. It’s one of those things that I just really like to do. It grounds me, completely. I love music, and I love making music. What I did not what to do was market my DJ-ing based on my acting. But recently, there’s been this crazy cross-roads of stuff happening, all together, with Coachella and Turn Up Charlie. It all looks like a marketing plan, but it isn’t. I promise, I’m not that clever.
You’re going to be DJ-ing at Coachella, this year. Do you have any plans for more DJ-ing gigs?
ELBA: We’ve been working a lot, over the last few years, and summer is typically when I’ll work the most. After Coachella, I’m doing EDC (Electric Daisy Carnival) in Vegas.
In this series, we get to listen to some music that you had a hand in coming up with. Was that one of the most exciting parts for you?
ELBA: Yeah, it was a massive crossroads because, here I am, playing a DJ, but obviously, he needs to make more new music, so I got a chance to make music, which was great. That was actually the best of both worlds, all leading into one. I have a small team of producers that I work with on my stuff, so we jumped in.
In one of the episodes, there’s a tiny little snippet of a fake music video, back in Charlie AO’s early days. Did that bring back old memories for you, making a music video for within the show?
ELBA: That was a real difficult thing to actually achieve, just to try to make that video. What I ended up doing was going back to the shockingly bad videos from YouTube of me singing, that you honestly wouldn’t wanna look up, and we stole a shot from that and made it look like me.