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The Untold Truth Of Idris Elba

Idris Elba is a man of many talents. Over the years, he's been a bricklayer, an athlete, a public speaker, a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, and a guy with a unique musical gift. And that's just what he's achieved outside his acting career. On the screen, he's played everything from a traumatized detective and a Baltimore drug lord to a Norse deity and a South African president. The man even showed up at Dunder Mifflin, much to the chagrin of Michael Scott.

To say that Idris Elba has range is an understatement. But whether you know him as John Luther, Stringer Bell, or Heimdall — or for one of his many other roles — chances are he's still done something that will surprise you. This is the untold truth of Idris Elba, who was born in the United Kingdom, became famous in the United States, and wants to change the world.

Idris Elba could've gone into manual labor

Idris Elba's first job was a far cry from his future movie career. He grew up in Hackney, London, on the notoriously tough Holly Street estate. As he told Radio Times, "Holly Street had a great vibe, but yeah, it was rough. I got run over once, and they drove off." After moving to Canning Town — a little further southeast — at 14, he got a Saturday job fitting tires.

Elba's parents, Winston and Eve, never had much money, despite working multiple jobs each, as he told Esquire. However, Elba was making relatively good money for a teenager. He said this meant that unlike some of the people he knew, he never felt the need to resort to crime.

Elba also credits his parents for instilling discipline in him, protecting him from the violent aspects of their neighborhood, and teaching him the value of hard work. Winston had emigrated from his native Sierra Leone in 1971 — the year before Elba was born — to study for a marketing degree, and instead, he spent 30 years working at the Ford factory in nearby Dagenham. Elba says he could easily have followed in his dad's footsteps. As he explained to Esquire, "I was a good tire-fitter. I brick-laid, I plastered boards. ... I could have been a laborer and earned decent money. ... But when I discovered acting, the creative side of me just exploded." 

He was inspired to act by drama class and Robert De Niro

Always an imaginative kid, Elba discovered acting as a creative outlet at a drama class in high school. Outside school, he looked up to established actors. He admitted to Luxury London that when he was 16, he skipped school one day and went to see Once Upon a Time in America, the 1984 crime saga directed by Sergio Leone and starring a cinematic legend. "I was inspired by Robert De Niro; I was blown away by his performance," Elba recalled. He told his acting teacher that he wanted to act like De Niro, and they encouraged him. "My teacher, who believed in my talent, told me that it was important to pursue your dreams and that one day I would become a great actor."

After graduating from high school, Elba earned a spot at the prestigious National Youth Music Theatre (Jude Law and Lily James are fellow alumni). His first on-screen acting role was in a reenactments for Crimewatch (similar to Dateline.) He started working steadily on British TV — with some side jobs to make ends meet — but the roles were small and stifling compared to what he saw Black actors like Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle doing in the U.S. Elba "had a love affair with New York," as he put it to Radio Times, and he moved there when he was around 23.

Idris Elba's first passion is music

When Elba isn't busy being a movie star, director, and producer, he's playing music. Having learned the DJing ropes from an uncle when he was eight or nine, Elba took on the name DJ Big Driis. "I started DJing first as a way of making money, and at the same time, it was a way of expressing my creativity," he told Luxury London.

Even though acting is more than paying the bills by now, Elba is still DJing. He did a set at Harry and Meghan's wedding in 2018 (mostly R&B and '80s classics), has opened for Madonna twice — to venues of 17,000 people — and performed on the Sonic Stage at the legendary British festival Glastonbury in 2015.

Elba has also created albums inspired by two of his most iconic characters — "Mi Mandela" for Nelson Mandela, whom he played in the 2013 biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and "Murdah Loves John,” for the titular character in Luther. He's reportedly interested in recording a Stringer Bell album some day.

One of Elba's favorite musical memories is writing and recording the intro for Jay-Z's 2007 album "American Gangster," inspired by the movie of the same name in which Elba had a small role. "It was a real moment of 'dreams can come true,'" he said.

The Wire was Idris Elba's big break

After years of struggling, in 2001, Elba finally landed the part of Stringer Bell in The Wire, the role that would make him a household name. It came just in time. He'd been living in a van for a few months, with no acting jobs coming in, and his then-wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. "If I didn't get it, I was going to leave the U.S.," Elba told Playboy (via CBS News).

Elba was originally considered for the role of Avon Barksdale, the head of one of Baltimore's most powerful drug-dealing operations, but producers decided he was a better fit for Bell, Barksdale's second-in-command and the brains of the operation. At the time, they didn't realize he was British, as Elba had perfected an American accent in his local barbershop in New York.

By season two, the show and Elba were famous. But — spoiler alert — showrunner David Simon made the deeply unpopular decision to kill the character at the end of season three. Already reluctant to leave, Elba successfully fought for a more dignified end for Bell, as his original death was supposed to be very degrading.

Nearly 15 years later, Elba's view of the character has shifted. In 2018, he told Unfiltered with James O'Brien, "We're all idolizing Stringer Bell, but who are we really idolizing? ... Is it okay to pump a community full of heroin, but because you're smart at it that makes you cool? That was a problem for me."

He returned to London to play Luther

After The Wire, Elba worked steadily. His next big role was another American, Charles Miner in The Office. But the stream of roles — some more fulfilling than others — was a double-edged sword. "An actor who works all the time. ... Your parts become better, your acting becomes better ... but you stifle your growth as a person," he told Radio Times. However, he was immediately inspired by the script for BBC detective series Luther, which gave him the chance to return to his British roots. "Luther saved my life," Elba said.

Unlike other shows, Luther didn't force Elba into a years-long contract that would dominate his acting life. Seasons one and two came out in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Season three followed in 2013, season four came two years later, and there was a four-year gap before season five aired in 2019. That worked for Elba, who told Entertainment Weekly, "I've been addicted to the lifestyle and expressive nature of Luther for a while." And he always has to take time off after playing the intense character.

In 2020, Elba gave Luther fans exciting news, announcing that a movie is on its way. "I've maintained I'd like to see it come to a film, and that is where I think we are heading towards," Elba said (via Variety), adding, "I'm looking forward to making that happen. It is happening."

Idris Elba made a sitcom about his childhood

In 2018, Elba created a sitcom, In the Long Run, based on his early life on the Holly Street estate in 1980s Hackney. "I didn't set out to do a comedy, I set out to tell a story of a portion of my life which, when I look back, I laugh my head off," Elba told The Westmorland Gazette. In addition to being executive producer and creator, Elba plays Walter, a character based on his own father, Winston, who also works in a Ford factory.

The series shows Walter's relatives moving from Sierra Leone — where Winston grew up — and acclimatizing to Britain. It includes typical sitcom plotlines, like Winston's friendship with his colorful neighbor and his campaign for a promotion, but it also addresses serious topics, including gentrification and racism more broadly. "In the first season ... we took a very bold attempt at what racism looked like in the '80s," Elba said.

Elba also hopes that the show will encourage networks to create more diverse programming. "When we started in 2018, the show was a departure from the Afro-Caribbean families we had seen depicted in various programs over the years," Elba told The Guardian. "Now having an African family at the center, I hope, means more people can see themselves represented."

He's a professional kickboxer

Those muscles aren't just for the screen. In 2016, the year he turned 44, Idris Elba decided to train as a professional kickboxer, recording the experience for a Discovery documentary series, Idris Elba: Fighter, which aired the following year.

Elba explained to TRAIN that he'd been doing kickboxing drills to keep fit since his 20s, but he'd never trained to fight anyone before, which was "a totally different thing." Elba said that previously, he was mostly doing three-minute drills with a boxing bag and light sparring, but for the fight, he also started doing "pads, sparring, running, battle ropes, and skipping." And the sparring got more intense. "They were going for me," he said.

It all led up to a professional fight in October 2016, and CBS Sports reported that he won the bout, which took place in London, Elba's home turf. And he still hasn't thrown in the towel. In 2020, it was announced that he would host documentary series Idris Elba's Fight School, training young people from disadvantaged backgrounds how to kickbox.

Elba said that the experience of meeting fighters around the world was "a dream." But he had help from someone closer to home. Warren Brown, who stars opposite Elba as DS Justin Ripley in Luther, is a two-time Thai kickboxing world champion, having boxed for ten years before trying acting.

Going from Mandela to Marvel was tough

No one would deny that Elba can master intense roles. He's arguably most famous as Stringer Bell and Luther, his directorial feature debut Yardie is a crime drama, he played Nelson Mandela in a biopic, and he produced and starred in the child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation.

However, Elba's resume proves that he's not above light-hearted projects. There's his sitcom In the Long Run, his cameo in The Office, and his lead role in Netflix's Turn Up Charlie. He's also appeared in fun action movies, including Prometheus, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Pacific Rim, and Star Trek Beyond. He was one of the best things in Hobbs & Shaw, and he's even the voice of an animated cape buffalo in Zootopia and a sea lion in Finding Dory. Plus, he's perfect for Bloodsport in The Suicide Squad.

Elba's most famous action role is all-seeing Asgardian guard Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, these aren't always the most satisfying movies to make. In 2014, he admitted to The Telegraph that after immersing himself in the life of Nelson Mandela for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, he struggled to take reshoots on Thor: The Dark World seriously. "There I was, in this stupid harness, with this wig and this sword and these contact lenses. It ripped my heart out," he said. But he still came back for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War.

Idris Elba is busy behind the scenes, too

In addition to being an actor on screens big and small, Elba has been doing more behind-the-scenes work in the last few years. In 2013, he founded Green Door Pictures, a production company with a mission "to champion diversity of thought." The company is behind Elba's sitcom In the Long Run and now-canceled Netflix comedy series Turn Up Charlie, starring Elba as a DJ turned nanny in London. Netflix also picked up the company's movie Concrete Cowboy, starring Elba and Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin as an estranged father and son.

In 2018, Elba made his directorial feature debut with Yardie, adapted from a novel about Jamaican gangsters in 1980s Hackney that became a cult classic when it was published in 1992. Elba read the book in his 20s, and although his heritage is African-British, he connected with the setting, especially since the main character was also involved in the DJ scene.

It took four or five years to make Yardie, but despite the slog, Elba has plans to direct again. "I really enjoyed directing. ... The weird feeling is being the guy that's first in and last out and answering the questions and having that patience. Then you're months in a dark room, trying to create magic from what you've got," he told The Guardian. But his ultimate ambition, he told Luxury London, is, "To direct a film in which I'm playing, and do the score on top of it."

More than half of Americans want Idris Elba to be James Bond

The idea that Elba should take over as James Bond when Daniel Craig finally retires from the role has been around since at least 2011. It's become even more popular since Craig started making it clear that he's done being the world's most famous secret agent. In 2018, a poll in The Hollywood Reporter claimed that 63% of Americans wanted to see Elba play the British spy. Elba even got in on the fun — at least initially. In August 2018, he tweeted, "My name's Elba, Idris Elba", and a month later, during a DJ set at London's Olympic Park, he teased the crowd with a remix of the famous theme.

However, where Daniel Craig tried to talk his way out of being James Bond, Elba actually succeeded. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2019, he said that although he found the opportunity to play Bond fascinating, the racist backlash that followed even the suggestion that he could play the previously always-white character understandably put him off. "You just get disheartened when you get people from a generational point of view going, 'It can't be.' And it really turns out to be the color of my skin. ... That's a difficult position to put myself into when I don't need to," he said. In 2018, he supported a woman taking the role, so he's probably happy that Lashana Lynch will be the first female 007.

Idris Elba's 2016 speech to Parliament went viral

In 2016, during protests over yet another Oscar nomination list packed with white filmmakers, Elba made a speech to the UK Parliament, calling for MPs to work on diversifying British film and TV. The 30-minute clip was shared 10 million times on social media within 24 hours.

In the speech, Elba explained that the parts he'd been offered as a young Black actor in Britain were one-dimensional stereotypes. He said, "When a script called for a 'Black male', it wasn't describing a character. It was describing a skin color. A white man ... was described as 'a man with a twinkle in his eye'. My eyes may be dark, but they definitely twinkle!" He explained that the problem wasn't that he couldn't get roles in Britain, it was that the roles were always the same. "I could only play so many 'best friends' or 'gang leaders.' ... I knew there wasn't enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead," he said.

Elba pointed out that other underrepresented groups face the same problem, including disabled people, gay people, and women. "Black actors are seen as a commercial risk. Women directors are seen as a commercial risk. Disabled directors aren't even seen at all," he said. To help change this, he asked MPs to "get all commissioners and content creators to think about diversifying at the beginning of the creative process, not the end."

Idris Elba and his wife recovered from COVID-19

Being ahead of the crowd isn't always a good thing. On March 16, 2020, Idris Elba and his wife, Sabrina Dhowre Elba, posted a video on Twitter, in which he explained that he'd tested positive for COVID-19 after coming into contact with someone else who had the virus. He said he self-quarantined immediately. As a refresher, that was just five days after the World Health Organization officially declared that the world was experiencing a pandemic. Just days later, his wife confirmed that she'd also tested positive.

Even less was known about the outcomes and symptoms of the disease in those very early days. Elba later said that although he and his wife thankfully didn't get symptoms, the lack of information was tough on their mental health. In July, he told Radio Times, "I was asymptomatic. ... So, therefore, on that scale, not bad. Mentally, it hit me very bad, because a lot was unknown about it. ... So the mental impact of that on both myself and my wife was pretty, ah, traumatic. I needed the lockdown to try to get over it."

After recovering, the couple became U.N. Goodwill Ambassadors, supporting a $40 million fund launched by the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, designed to help farmers and food producers in rural areas through the pandemic.