Not long ago, Idris Elba was just a Cyberpunk 2077 player. Today, he’s a fully-fledged actor in the game, and a huge part of the new Phantom Liberty expansion. Oh, and he’s supervised and created some of the new music coming to the game, for good measure. It’s been quite the journey for the celebrated actor, but it started with a simple chat:
“It was really just an exploratory conversation,” he told Xbox On. “You know, ‘Do like gaming? Are you into games? Would you be interested in being a part of something?’ And then, before we knew it, we were having a conversation about Cyberpunk. And I was aware of Cyberpunk as a game, I played it, but then to be a part of the expansion was quite exciting to me.”
That was no doubt helped by the fact that he’d already seen Keanu Reeves playing the role of Johnny Silverhand and, soon, Elba joined the project to portray Solomon Reed, a key figure in Phantom Liberty, pitched somewhere between sidekick and mentor for player-character V. Reed – and Elba’s part in playing him – has been known about for some time, but we haven’t learned much about Reed himself. That’s clearly been a purposeful decision, as Elba teases, “his storyline really has some twists and turns and it’s deep. I was attracted to it, because it was a dramatic character.”
What we do know about Reed is that he’s a tortured ex-special agent, “someone who is really dedicated to his craft, his profession, to his country. But when you meet him, I wouldn’t say it’s a sad story, but it’s a story that’s got its layers, and you meet someone that’s sort of caged in. But when you get into the expansion with Solomon, you get to understand who he is a little bit. He becomes V’s guide, or protector in some cases, and you’re not sure if you can trust him or not.”
The process of creating Reed has been an interesting one for Elba. While he’s appeared in games before, it’s never been a role quite as large as this – and doing that in the fabric of a game as huge as Cyberpunk already is was its own challenge. Thankfully, he felt the writing on the page was strong enough to get him into character easily:
“It’s so complex. I came in and just inherited the world you know – and the storytelling is deep. And so I just brought my own nuance in terms of, I guess, how he sounds, the emotive spectrum for him – but it’s pretty well written.”
Elba’s work was almost entirely through voice-acting, which meant that his recording sessions were captured on video to use as references for the animators. Putting your likeness into someone else’s hands is a leap of faith for a screen actor, but Elba’s felt in safe hands. “It’s funny,” he explains, “because you could say a line, and you could say it with, you know, the intention of pain. And the animator could make you look like you’re happy while you’re saying it – but if it works, it works. And that’s the beauty of collaboration I think.”
That collaboration, and the sheer depth of the story, has taken three full years to perfect – another key difference from his usual work being that Reed needs to be able to go in multiple directions within a single conversation. “A game like this – you’re basically [acting in] it three times, because you’ve got three different answers,” Elba explains of the lengthy process. “You try to record all the different threads at the same time […] It is a process – hats off to [CD PROJEKT RED].”
He laughs, saying, “I’m not sure I’m going to do another game anytime soon. It’s graft – it’s proper graft.”
But he’s delighted with the results, paying tribute to CD PROJEKT RED’s staff throughout the interview. They’re likely delighted with him too, not least because he didn’t just act in the expansion, but brought experience from his side-career as a DJ to help craft Phantom Liberty’s new musical identity, picking tracks for a new radio station, and even creating his own:
“It kind of crossed the realm of music supervision. You know, trying to pick a ‘sonic’ that is relatable to this incredible landscape – and that was a joy. As a DJ, that’s what you do when walk into a club – you’ve got a thousand people, they’re all different, pick one song that makes them all dance. So it was a bit like a process just to pick stuff out – that was just enjoyable.
“I [also] managed to make three songs. That was also a lot of fun – one’s a really techie house thing, one’s really hip-hop, and one’s just kind of experimental. Because Cyberpunk could be anything – it’s cyber, it’s punk, and punk and cyber are sort of mishmashes in any case. We went wherever we wanted with it.”
We don’t have long to wait to see how Elba’s turn as Solomon Reed changes the game – Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty arrives on Xbox Series X|S on September 26.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
CD PROJEKT RED