The UK’s greatest export, Idris Elba.
By Sondra Barr
Black, British, undeniably handsome, in interviews Idris Elba speaks with a proper English cadence that mesmerizes and intrigues. The celebrated actor is one of the UK’s greatest exports, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and a fierce advocate for diversity. The 48-year-old is also a multi-hyphenated talent whose skills behind the camera rival his acting chops.
The story of this actor, writer, producer, DJ, political activist, clothes designer, OBE, and (fingers crossed) future James Bond, begins as the son of African immigrants in East London. Growing up black in hardscrabble Canning Town in the 1980s was an early, eye-popping education in racial injustice and inequality.
“If you were black and living in Canning Town, you were probably subject to racial abuse and getting chased down the street by people calling you a black coon,” Idris Elba told Vanity Fair writer K. Austin Collins for an August 2019 cover story.
An only chid, Elba was continually looking for things to entertain and ignite his interest. A drama teacher named Miss McPhee introduced Elba to acting when he was 13. A few years later, in 1990, he was awarded a grant by the Prince’s Trust to join the National Youth Music Theatre. Working under the name DJ Big Driis, he was a disc jockey during his late teens while he auditioned for acting roles. Elba scored small roles on British television, which fueled a desire to make it to the big screen in American theaters.
According to the aforementioned Vanity Fair article, Elba arrived in New York long before he was legally eligible to work in the States, hustling to get auditions.
“When I got to America and was like, I want to be an actor, I was like a novelty act in all my casting meetings,” he details about those early days. “They were like ‘Wow! I love your accent, it’s so refined.’” He says they would then turn around and cast him as Gangster No. 1.
Ironically, before landing the pivotal role of financially savvy drug kingpin Russell “Stringer” Bell in the HBO crime drama The Wire, Elba was a bouncer (and pot dealer) at a comedy club on Broadway, occasionally living out of his Chevy Astro van, according to a New York Times article by Maureen Dowd.
“Really nice velvety seats,” he described to Dowd. “I miss that little thing. Honestly, if I found one, I’d definitely buy it and ship it back to France to my little house there.”
His iconic role on The Wire put Elba on skyward trajectory. Although his character didn’t make it out alive past season three of the five, his turn as a drug lord positioned Elba as a marketable actor.
From there, Elba’s resume filled out, much like his 6’3” frame. Among stints on sitcoms like The Office and The Big C, he appeared in a mix of lead and supporting film roles in a variety of genres. He starred in Tyler Perry’s feature Daddy’s Little Girls, in the zombie-filled 28 Weeks Later, and in Obsessed opposite Beyoncé (yes, that one). He’s also done more than dabble in sci-fi, appearing in Marvel Comics’ Thor film as Norse god Heimdall, taken a turn in the Alien franchise’s Prometheus and been in Star Trek Beyond. Performances in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower (opposite Matthew McConaughey) and in the survival tale The Mountain Between Us with Kate Winslet are also on the list.
Elba didn’t leave the UK behind amid his success in America. His starring role as a driven detective in the acclaimed British psychological crime series Luther has earned him multiple Emmy Award nominations and a 2012 Golden Globe Award. The fifth season of the series ended nearly two years ago but speculation of a spin-off movie are swirling.
“I’d love to see three or four Luthers come out as films, definitely,” Elba’s said in interviews.
Recent projects include Yardie, Elba’s directorial debut, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (the universally panned 2019 film adaptation, where Elba plays bad cat Macavity), and in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw with Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel.
“I think when you’re looking for someone who can be a formidable adversary for Dwayne Johnson, that’s difficult enough,” said director David Leitch. “But then you’re looking for someone who can be a formidable adversary for Dwayne Johnson plus Jason Statham. That list gets really short.” Elba was the obvious choice.
Another role Elba seems particularly well suited for, James Bond. A few years ago Elba’s name floated around the internet as a replacement to Daniel Craig in the role of the iconic fictional British Secret Service agent who’s suave, yet deadly. It turned out to be a rumor that has dogged Elba ever since. “It’s interesting that the James Bond thing continues to go. I think it’s more about, we just want to have a black guy play James Bond rather than Idris Elba the actor play James Bond. That’s the part that I’m like ‘Ugh, come on,’” he told Dowd.
With all these high profile roles, some of the high points of Elba’s career remain closer to his roots. He told Gentleman’s Journal that his portrayal of South African president Nelson Mandela in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and speaking in Parliament about diversity are among his most treasured. “I was so nervous but then I got there (Parliament) and spoke and it was an absolutely unbelievable feeling,” Elba explained.
Elba’s music success is yet another accomplishment in a long list of many. A celebrated DJ, Elba has performed at the much vaunted Coachella and Glastonbury music festivals, completed a summer Ibiza residency in the Club Room, and has the distinct honor to have been personally asked to DJ at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding by none other than the prince himself.
When he’s not acting, DJ’ing, speaking on diversity, or doing any number of side projects like designing clothing or showing up as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, Elba finds himself always drawn back to music.
“I do like music. I love listening to it, but I love making music. I find it really therapeutic. Sitting in a studio with a musician and coming up with stuff is quite relaxing to me,” said Elba to entrepreneur.com.
As for what the future holds for Elba, he doesn’t intend to let age slow him down, not even for a minute.
“I never want to stop doing new things. But as I get older, I want to step behind the camera more and direct. I’m a bit torn about celebrities pushing political issues through their art but I’d like to use movies to convey a message in the way I know best,” he said in the Gentleman’s Journal.
“Oh, and I’ll be the oldest DJ in the world! I want to score my own movies. The idea that I could bring film and music together is amazing.”