Activist-slash-actress Sabrina Elba walked the famous Cannes steps Friday night for the premiere of “Three Thousand Years of Longing” in white wisp of a Tony Ward gown. It wasn’t her first red carpet — she is married to one Idris Elba after all — but it was her first time seeing herself on the big screen.
Sabrina Elba’s a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and works on sustainable aid and climate justice projects in Africa, as well as with the first lady of Sierra Leone on issues related to violence against women. In fact, she was fresh off a plane from two weeks in Kenya, where she was working on an International Fund for Agricultural Development project.
Technically “Three Thousand Years” isn’t her first acting gig, but it’s been a few years since her days in student films. It was the prospect of having Idris filming far away in Australia for six months that prompted her to dust off her acting shoes. “I wanted to get it on my own merit, so I took a chance. It’s a little part but I’m so proud of it. How do you explain working with such a creative? He’s one of the best directors in the world, and just being on set, seeing this masterclass of this creative piece come together, it was unbelievable.”
The two don’t actually work together on the film. “I don’t have any scenes with Idris, funnily enough, which was actually probably for the better,” she said. She appears on screen with Tilda Swinton. “I get to come face to face with Tilda and I mean, she is just a monolith in the industry, so that was really intimidating. But she was such a guide, such a friend and so helpful and like, ‘You got this.’”
Shooting with WWD at the Majestic hotel overlooking the red carpet, Elba was feeling the gravity of those 24 famous steps. “It feels grand,” she said. “There’s a buzz, I can’t even explain it. I haven’t felt that before. It feels like a big thing.”
Styling duo Zadrian Smith and Sarah Edmiston worked with Tony Ward to create a custom gown to calm those jitters and help her feel confident on the red carpet. They took a reference photo of Gina Lollobrigida in the 1959 epic “Solomon and Sheba” to Ward, only to discover he was using the exact same photo as inspiration for his 2022 capsule collection.
“It was like a match made in heaven, I almost didn’t believe them,” Elba said of the coincidence.
“Not only is Cannes one of our first major moments with Sabrina as a client, it also felt so important because it’s her acting debut. We wanted to ensure that the fashion felt authentic to her and how she wanted to portray herself to this new audience and in this new phase of her life,” Smith added. “They turned around the beautiful and ethereal look with a subtle homage to that reference.”
Elba planned her Cannes wardrobe with pieces from the Fendi + Versace collaboration and LaQuan Smith, with the help of Smith and Edmiston as well. She wanted each night’s look to have a different vibe, and she’s a sucker for that formfitting 1990s style. Elba praises those designers for being inclusive, even if she struggles with moments of feeling body conscious.
“I think it’s something every girl deals with since there’s so much pressure to look a certain way. I’ve always been naturally curvy and I’m very proud of that. But sometimes it can be a bit intimidating to try on a sample size, when you know it’s only gonna go up to your knees because you can’t get it past your African thighs,” she joked. “And so I love challenging designers to say, ‘Look, if you want to dress me, pull something out that is my size, because I’m not sample size.’ And you know, I love the brands that always stand up.”
While the Elbas are a couple, the two are careful not to twin on the red carpet and work totally independently. “We’re the worst at coordinating. But I think it works because he’s doing him and I’m doing me and I love that we’re not trying to force anything. I love that sometimes we look like we are going to entirely different events.”
While the pair are still doing their podcast, “Coupledom,” and Elba has additional acting projects in the works, her philanthropy and activism will always be her priority, she said.
“I would never, ever take anything on that I felt was interrupting that work, but I do want to see how this balance grows,” she said, acknowledging the contradiction of the glamorous and activist lifestyles. “It’s a bit of a conflict personally sometimes to be helping real people but then to be doing something so glamorous. So it’s also a balancing act and some days are harder than others.”
She’s using her platform for good, launching her and Idris’ gender-neutral S’Able Labs wellness line, which is fully traceable and sustainably sourced from rural farmers. That will hit shelves July 12.