'Hijack' star Idris Elba plays against the 'big lad' type in Apple TV+ show

"I don’t think I would be the hero guy that’s trying to outsmart the hijackers," Elba said

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With Idris Elba stepping into the role of Sam Nelson in the new Apple TV+ series Hijack, the Luther and The Wire star highlighted that this role is "playing against type" for him.

"My size and shape, all my life sort of [hearing], 'oh, you’re a big lad,' and I’ve taken on roles that sort of feed into that a little bit," Elba said at a press conference ahead of the series release. "This particular time, I was really interested in playing against that."

"Even though Sam is what he is, he isn’t always the sort of hero in that sense. ... It’s more cerebral, he’s quite vulnerable in the sense that he’s got lots going on internally in terms of his family, and I really was interested in that."

Hijack sets the scene with a flight to London taking off from Dubai, Kingdom Airlines 29 (KA29), and just 20 minutes into the journey the plane is hijacked by a group of passengers. While many become frantic and emotional, others contemplate whether they should fight back. For Sam (Elba), the businessman decides to try to negotiate with the hijackers while on the plane himself. This is all while authorities on the ground try to navigate how to manage the situation, counting down the hours and minutes leading up the plane's expected arrival at London Heathrow airport.

"Apple and I had a deal that we were trying to figure out what we were going to do together, and this came as just an idea from [co-creator George Kay]," Elba said about what made him want to be involved in this project, as both an actor and a producer on the series.

"I was sort of [interested] in doing something that hit the mark in television. I love television, I love making television. ... I think the sort of merger between what is film and what is television has gotten smaller ... and working with George, it was a joy."

For Kay, the idea for Hijack actual started from a Eurostar trip he took, when the train stopped "quite abruptly" in a tunnel.

"Even though I knew everything was alright, it flashed through my mind, what if there’s something going on, on this train? ... And I looked around me at the people, the kind of businessman eating his lunch, and the squabbling family, and I thought, how would we cope as a group of people if this was a serious incident?" Kay said.

"Who are these people really when ... you get past your prejudice of those people and how they look. ... Then the thought of a plane was much more of a visual. ... We’ve got a class system on a plane, you’ve got all sorts of people. But as all the characters experience, whether they’re on the ground or in the plane, that hijacking is a great leveller for all these people. And so they really get tested, no matter what their rank, no matter what their class seat."

Idris Elba in
Idris Elba in "Hijack," premiering June 28, 2023 on Apple TV+.

Max Beesley's terrifying armed robbery experience

While initially Sam is presented as the most level-headed person on this flight, Elba believes if he was ever in that situation in his real life he would "shut up" and "mind [his] own business."

"I wouldn’t be Sam, for sure," Elba said." I just wouldn’t have thought out that clearly."

"I don’t think I would be the hero guy that’s trying to outsmart the hijackers, I doubt that very much. But I certainly would want to help the staff and say, look if you need a volunteer to help you do something, I’m in a hundred percent."

The thought that Elba would want to assist the on-board airline staff if a situation like this happened on a flight certainly tracks with his reputation with British Airways.

"I flew in six hours ago on a BA flight and every single stewardess was like, 'Are you doing something with Idris? He’s so lovely. We’ve had him on British Airways so many times, he’s such a nice guy,'" Suits alum Max Beesley, who plays DI Daniel O'Farrel in Hijack, revealed at the press conference.

But Beesley himself had a reference point for how he would react in a terrifying situation like a hijacking, revealing he was previously robbed at gunpoint in London.

"I remember years ago, I got robbed in Ladbroke Grove at gunpoint and I remember thinking if that ever happens, I’ll go to work and take care of business, and I completely froze," Beesley recalled. "I was in a chair with a gun at the back of my head. ... I was terrified."

That being said, Beesley stressed that no one can ever really know how they'll react in these unexpected, life-threatening situations.

Idris Elba in
Idris Elba in "Hijack," premiering June 28, 2023 on Apple TV+.

Claustrophobic, anxiety-inducing setting

What's particularly interesting about Hijack, and something that really makes this a very anxiety-inducing show, is that much of it takes place in the confined space of a plane.

"We’ve got a show that’s set almost exclusively inside of an airplane and there’s two problems with that, one is to make it engaging dramatically and not make it feel dull and flat, and the other thing is to make it feel like you are actually in an airplane that’s moving through the sky," co-creator Jim Field Smith said.

"So it was definitely very, very challenging, but we had a very talented team that figured out how to solve both of those issues. ... We didn’t really want to break this place apart, we wanted to move around the plane and never break through the skin of it. ... I didn’t want the thing you sometimes see on screen where everything gets scaled up, the plane you see in the show is a millimetre for millimetre replication of an airliner."

As Elba highlighted, that really added to the "claustrophobia" element of the space.

"Me sneaking on a plane is like, 'bro, what you doing? We can see you,'" he said. "So it meant that I had to even get lower, or we had to figure out another way. [That actually really] adds to the sort of drama and reality of this thing."

"The fight sequences were certainly hard to shoot. They were choreographed within the space. If we hurt ourselves we just took a breather and carried on, because not to say that we didn’t care, but it’s just, we didn’t try and change the choreography not to hurt ourselves because, in this instance, the fight sequences were based on what would we do rather than this is a fight sequence."

While the creators of Hijack worked with a team of researchers, getting advice from pilots and insight into how governments would communicate with each other, there is something a hijack survivor said that really stuck with Smith as a guiding light for the whole series.

"What I realized when writing was that in the hijacking situation, it’s not immediately life or death, it’s not like you’re just about to be pushed off the edge of a cliff or something," Kay said. "For Idris’ character, Sam, he has to contend with a situation that constantly is about to be life or death."

"I was listening to this testimony from a hijack survivor and she said this thing that really, really stuck with me the whole way through the show, ... she said, 'during a hijack, time ceases to exist and all you’re left with is decisions.' I sort of had that in my head the whole time because it is real time, it's potentially more real time for the people on the ground as it is for the people on the plane."