‘Luther’ Producer Phillippa Giles On Race And The Show’s Approach to Casting

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if you’re not watching Idris Elba’s turn as a not-particularly-mentally-healthy police detective in Luther (which, as I write in The Atlantic today, may be the scariest show on television), you are missing. out. Whether the show’s making callbacks to London’s artistic history, tapping the underpinnings of racism in the U.K. to fuel unnerving crime sprees, or exploring the alienation of returning servicemembers, the show jumps off big issues to profoundly new and strange places. And Elba is fantastic in a role that gives him far greater range than playing Stringer Bell ever did, alternately wounded, sly, and forceful.

In preparation for the second series finale, which airs on BBC America tonight, I interviewed the show’s producer Phillippa Giles, and asked her about something that, as an American viewer, has always stood out to me. Whether it’s Luther’s South Asian wife, his white female boss in the first series, his friendship with the murderous but charming Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), and in this series, the fatherly interest he takes in a the daughter of a friend who’s been working in pornography and as a prostitute (watch out for an adorable scene between them tonight), the show is full of interracial relationships that range from the emotionally and sexually intimate, to the professionally bracing. In an environment where it’s striking when advertising campaigns start subtly including interracial couples and when our entertainment can seem rigidly divided between black and white audiences and black and white casts, Luther‘s profoundly refreshing.

“It was nothing to do with black or white,” Giles said of the casting of Ruth Wilson to play Alice Morgan. “Obviously it looks really good, you’ve got a red-headed woman and a dark guy, so that wasn’t bad. We would have cast anybody that had what Alice needs. It was just color-blind casting.”

When I told her how fresh the show’s approach to race — not quite a neutrality, but an insistence that race can be a factor without being the sole focus — felt to me, Giles said she was surprised.

“We always think we’re behind the States,” she told me. “We always color-blind cast. We thought we were copying you. We had no idea that you would feel that that was…Idris is brilliant. Not only is he a mentor to black writers, BBC has a development deal to bring on young black writers. He said he wanted us to try to reflect the country. We’ve tried really hard. We didn’t achieve that.” And when the show introduced an ambitious young black female detective to Luther’s team this year, Giles notes,
“She was written to be cast black or white. We really enjoyed that she was black.”

And I think that’s perfect. When shows and movies assume by default characters will be white and that if they’re going to end up black, or Latino, or Asian, that isn’t a neutral choice. There are stories that are driven by particular racial dynamics, and in that case, it may be important to, say, have a cop be white and a subject of an investigation be black. But if your story doesn’t absolutely require that characters be of a certain race or ethnicity, trying to eliminate any assumption about which race they’ll be before you cast a specific actor to play them seems like a decent rule of thumb. That may take a little work for white creators, but it’s not exactly onerous. And it’s something that Luther gets right and makes the show more fun to watch, both visually and narratively.