British actor Idris Elba is one of a number of foreign-born thespians who have begun landing impressive roles on American screens both large and small. Elba has made a name for himself in the United States for his compelling performance on the HBO series The Wire, which began its third season in 2004. He plays Stringer Bell, a drug kingpin, on the Baltimore-set drama, who dreams of becoming a legitimate business tycoon.
Born in 1972 in England, Elba gravitated toward a career in the entertainment business at an early age. He began helping an uncle with his wedding-DJ business at age 14, and within a year had started his own DJ company with some friends. He was working in nightclubs by the age of 19, but began auditioning for television parts in his early twenties. In 1995 he landed his first role on a British series called Bramwell, a medical drama set in 1890s England. That same year he also appeared in an episode of the notorious comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, seen regularly in reruns on the BBC America cable channel. He took parts in a few television movies before winning the role of handsome heartthrob Tim Webster on the British nighttime soap opera Family Affairs in 1997. The show was set in Kent, England, and earned terrible ratings during the first season, but managed to revive its fortunes by having one entire family killed off in a barge accident. Elba was only on the show for its first year, but the exposure boosted his career immensely.
Elba went on to appear in a more established British television series, Dangerfield, in 1999 as a forensic scientist. Soon, however, he decided to move to New York City. "England is home, and I love it," he told Essence 's Esther Armah about why he decided to move. "But England couldn't house my ambition." At first, roles for the British actor with a Cockney accent were hard to win, and he took work spinning records in clubs in the East Village and Alphabet City to make ends meet. He returned to England occasionally for a job, such as a part in one of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, a top-rated British crime series.
Elba's break in American television came when he landed a part on one of the top-rated American crime series, Law and Order, in 2001. He also appeared on the New York stage in the Shakespeare classic Troilusand Cressida that same year. The drama of ancient Greece is set during the Trojan War, and Elba was cast as Achilles, the once-powerful warrior now fallen from favor. "Elba, as Achilles, with an ever-present wine goblet in his hand and a controlling arm often around his doting companion, Patroclus, does have the swagger to convey both his physical prowess and his graceless egomania," noted a New York Times review of the play from Bruce Weber.
HBO producers then cast Elba in The Wire, a new series that debuted in 2002. The show was created by David Simon, a former Baltimore crime-beat reporter, and was marked by a gritty realism in its portrayal of the criminal underworld and the cops who fight it—and are sometimes lured into it by their own vices as well. Elba was cast as Russell "Stringer" Bell, an ambitious but ruthless drug dealer. Elba's character strives to make his mark when he emerges as the second-in-command for a local drug racketeer who is sent to prison. His on-screen nemesis is Dominic West as the conflicted Baltimore police detective Jimmy McNulty. Interestingly, West also hails from Britain and had to work to cover his accent with the appropriate Baltimore one, like Elba.
In an interview that appeared on HBO's official Web site for The Wire, Elba answered questions from viewers, including one about why he took the part of Bell. "Here was a chance to play a mountain of different roles molded into one," he reflected. "As a boy you dream of playing a gangster character who has all that power. Stringer is the embodiment of the powerful character who has successfully and charismatically eluded the police." Critics loved the dichotomies presented by the show's writers, some of whom were successful crime-novel writers before they joined The Wire team, such as Clockers ' Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River. The New York Times critic Caryn James asserted as third season began that though the cops-and-robbers game may seem like an overdone genre, since its onset The Wire has consistently proved a cut above. "With its frank attention to race and class, its moral ambiguity and its unabashedly confusing plots that challenge viewers to keep up, The Wire has become one of the smartest, most ambitious shows on television," she noted. Ken Tucker, writing in Entertainment Weekly, also gave the show high marks, calling it a "hypnotically dense drama without pat answers."
Elba has appeared in a few feature films, among them Buffalo Soldiers in 2001 alongside Joaquin Phoenix. The film's negative depiction of American soldiers stationed in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was deemed too politically insensitive, and it vanished quickly from theaters. Elba can also be seen in the occasional music video, including those from Fat Joe and Angie Stone, and still DJs under the name Big Dris. "I consider myself a blend DJ more than anything," he told the MTV Web site Mixtape Monday. "Like my mixtapes, the way I want to see them grow, I basically want to see if I can get my mixtapes to showcase new talent."
Elba has a young daughter, and cites Robert De Niro as his professional role model, especially in the 1983 dark farce, The King of Comedy. He was also slated to appear in a 2004 television movie about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda,… Sometimes in April. He admitted that it seemed easier to win roles in American television, he said in the HBO.com interview, noting that in Britain "rarely do producers take a chance on unknown actors and I think it's for mostly economical reasons. When 25 [percent] of TV viewers are black and rest are white, they don't feel they need to write for black characters. The black audience in England is so much smaller than here so they don't think they'll get the big financial return with a black show."
Belle Maman, 1999.
Buffalo Soldiers, 2001.
Johnny Was, 2005.
Family Affairs, 1997.
Law and Order, 2001.
The Wire, 2002.
At a Glance …
Born on September 6, 1972, in England; children: one daughter.
Career: DJ, 1986–; actor, 1995–.
Addresses: Office— HBO–Home Box Office, 1100 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
Daily Variety, February 4, 2004, p. 24.
Entertainment Weekly, August 15, 2003, p. 14.
Essence, December 2003, p. 146; April 2004.
Mirror (London, England), May 9, 1997, p. 7.
New York Newsday, October 24, 2004.
New York Times, April 16, 2001; September 19, 2004, p. AR19.
"Mixtape Monday," MTV.com, www.mtv.com/bands/m/mixtape_monday/092704/ (October 28, 2004).
Elba, Idris 1972–
Elba, Idris 1972–
Original name, Idrisa Elba; born September 6, 1972, in London, England; children: one daughter.
Addresses: Agent— International Creative Management, 10250 Constellation Way, 9th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067; Ken McReddie Associates, 36–40 Glasshouse St., London W1B 5DL United Kingdom.
Career: Actor. Former member of the National Youth Music Theatre. Deejays under the name "Big Driis the Londoner"; produces music demos.
Awards, Honors: Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 2005, for The Wire; Black Reel Award nomination, best actor—television, Image Award nomination, outstanding actor in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, Vision Award nomination, best dramatic performance, 2006, all for Sometimes in April; Black Reel Award nomination, best actor, 2006, for The Gospel; Screen Actors Guild Award nomination (with others), outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, 2008, for American Gangster.
Benton, Spiders and Flies (short), 1996.
Ovronramwen, Behind the Mask (short), 1997.
Gregoire, Belle maman (also known as Beautiful Mother), AMLF, 1999.
Jam, Sorted, A Plus Entertainment, 2000.
Kimborough, Buffalo Soldiers (also known as Army Go Home! and Buffalo Soldiers—Army Go Home!), Miramax, 2001.
Aaron, One Love, Blue Dolphin Film Distribution, 2003.
Himself, "Scarface": Origins of a Hip Hop Classic (documentary; also known as Def Jam Presents … Origins of a Hip Hop Classic), Universal Studios Home Video, 2003.
Reverend Charles Frank, The Gospel, Screen Gems, 2005.
Monty, Daddy's Little Girls (also known as Tyler Perry's "Daddy's Little Girls"), Lionsgate, 2007.
Ben, The Reaping, Warner Bros., 2007.
Stone, 28 Weeks Later (also known as 28 semanas despues), Fox Atomic, 2007.
Tango, American Gangster, Universal, 2007.
Quentin Whitfield, Jr., This Christmas, Screen Gems, 2007.
Himself, "28 Weeks Later": The Rage Is Back (documentary short), Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.
Himself, "28 Weeks Later": The Infected (documentary short), Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.
Himself, Code Red: The Making "28 Weeks Later" (documentary short), Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.
Detective Winn, Prom Night, Screen Gems, 2008.
Mumbles, RocknRolla, Warner Bros., 2008.
Larry, The Human Contract, 2008.
Television Appearances; Series:
Charlie, Bramwell, PBS, 1995.
Officer Chiswick, The Governor, YTV, 1995.
Matt Gregory, Dangerfield, BBC, 1999.
Russell "Stringer" Bell, The Wire, HBO, 2002–2004.
Television Appearances; Miniseries:
Charlie, "Blood, Sweat and Tears: Parts 1&2," Silent Witness, BBC and Arts and Entertainment, 1997.
Vaughan Rice, Ultraviolet, Channel 4 and Sci–Fi Channel, 1998.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Augustin, Sometimes in April (also known as Quelques jours en Avril), HBO, 2005.
Paul, All in the Game, ITV, 2006.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Making "Sometime in April," HBO, 2005.
The Black Movie Awards, TNT, 2005.
BET Hip–Hop Awards, Black Entertainment Television, 2006.
An Evening of Stars: Tribute to Stevie Wonder, 2006.
Tapping "The Wire," FX Channel (UK), 2007.
Black Men: The Truth, 2007.
Presenter, The BET Honors, Black Entertainment Television, 2008.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Parachute instructor, " Fortuosity," 2point4 Children, BBC, 1994.
Pizza delivery man, "Double Duty," Space Precinct, syndicated, 1994.
Hilton, "Sex," Absolutely Fabulous (also known as Ab Fab), BBC1, 1995.
Pest controller, "Heartstones," Ruth Rendell Mysteries, PBS, 1996.
Raffy, "Simisola: Part One," Ruth Rendell Mysteries, PBS, 1996.
Tim Webster, Family Affairs, Channel 5, 1997.
PC Brian Rawlinson, "Neighbours from Hell," Verdict, YTV, 1998.
PC Paul Fraser, In Defence, Granada, 2000.
Lance Corporal Frost, London's Burning, ITV, 2001.
Lonnie Liston, "3 Dawg Night," Law & Order, NBC, 2001.
Robert Gabriel, "Payment in Blood," The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, 2002.
Mac Boone, "My Alibi," Hack, CBS, 2002.
Smitty, "Sacrifice Fly," Soul Food, Showtime, 2003.
Angelo Sedaris, "The Best Defense," CSI: Miami, CBS, 2003.
Himself, "Kitten of the Month," Rap City, Black Entertainment Television, 2003.
"All in a Panic," Girlfriends, UPN, 2005.
Hodge, "To Serve and to Protect," Jonny Zero, Fox, 2005.
Tavis Smiley, PBS, 2007.
Carla, "Mad About You," Queens Supreme, CBS, 2007.
Paul, Battieman Blues,Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, 1993.
Cody, This Is How It Goes, Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, 2005.
Also appeared in Coming Home, Red Lion Pub Theatre, London.
The Isley Brother's "Just Came Here to Chill," 2006.
Styles P featuring Swizz Beatz's "Blow Your Mind," 2007.
Also appeared in Angie Stone's "I Wanna Thank Ya."
Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 49, Thompson Gale, 2005.
Ebony, December, 2005, p. 92.
Entertainment Weekly, March 25, 2005, p. 65; February 23, 2007, p. 31.
Essence, December, 2003, p. 146; November, 2007, p. 95.