Idris Elba uses his brains not brawn in the new Apple TV+ series ‘Hijack’

Standing 6-foot-2-inches, Idris Elba’s size helps to sell his characters. As a detective in “ Luther,” he often averted protocol and went rogue. On “The Wire,” he played a shrewd, intimidating crime boss in the drug world. In the 2022 movie “ Beast,” he protected his daughters from a ferocious lion while on holiday in South Africa. But, in his new Apple TV+ series “ Hijack,” it’s his mental strength that helps him navigate a crisis, not his build.

Elba plays Sam, a passenger on a flight from Dubai to London that turns into a hostage situation. The first two episodes of “Hijack” debut Wednesday on Apple TV+, with one new episode released weekly.

HIJACK Official Trailer (2023)

“I’m used to being cast as a big man,” said Elba. “In this situation Sam is vulnerable. He isn’t there to fight.”

Sam’s strength here is that he works as a corporate negotiator, and his ability to assess high-stakes situations like mergers and acquisitions, serves him well. “It’s all a bit of a psych game,” he said. “Pitting one against the other and figuring out what your weak spot is. And then, of course, being able to make people feel comfortable, not threatened,”

Space — or lack thereof — was an integral part of filming. The set was an actual plane which Elba said “really helped” the look and feel of the scenes.

“We thought about builds and then we thought, ‘What if we just bring a plane in and shoot within what we’ve got?’” said Elba, who was also an executive producer on the show. “You’ve just got the space that you’ve got… It felt a little bit like a play and the camera could only go so many places.”

The seven-episode series also unfolds in roughly the same amount of time it takes to fly from Dubai to London.

“It’s difficult to to make that happen because you shoot things out of sequence, but each minute of every episode is important,” said Elba. The show cuts between what’s happening in the air and on the ground as officials try to piece together what they’re dealing with and how to react.

“It just made sense to get these real time decisions as a way to propel the narrative forward rather than sort of jump out of time sequence,” said Elba, adding that the two perspectives are “really reflective of each other the whole time.”

Idris Elba at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

“It was very intense,” added Archie Panjabi, who plays a counter-terrorism official. “As the series progresses, the tension multiplies and so did the number of people in the room.” In the end, Panjabi says there was a feeling of resolution that was freeing. “I should tell people I spent six hours on screen saving your butt,” she tells Elba to laughter.

Elba felt his own kind of relief at the end of six months of filming, in part because his adrenaline was often running high even between scenes.

“You stay keyed up. You go to your trailer or whatever, chill out, but you can’t undo your mindset. Your body does not know it’s acting.”