It’s late at night and you’re navigating through the depths of the Internet when you accidentally stumble upon a YouTube video. In this clip you find two unlikely figures sitting side by side for an interview. They are Lena Dunham and Idris Elba. In the interview Dunham is unsurprisingly and reliably candid and goes on to explain her complicated relationship with texting. Elba, on the other hand, is a surprise. He charmingly delves into a tale about how he accidentally tweeted a shirtless photo of himself that was meant for a girl. He’s optimistic about his misstep though, quick to add, “It could have been my nuts.”
The video could have been a viral sensation; it could have inspired GIF sets, cover photos, and Twitter trends. Sure it has a little over half a million views, but so do videos of unimpressive kids with unimpressive skills on America’s Got Talent. So the relative flop begs the question: why isn’t Elba hitting the ten million mark?
Yes, this is a flippant way to delve into a more serious matter. We have an actor who has led one of the most critically acclaimed TV dramas of all time, has had a recurring role on one of the most beloved TV comedies of all time, was briefly idealized as the perfect and next James Bond, and has played Beyoncé’s husband—a role any intelligent man would consider a highlight among his other credits. Elba has everything working for him.
But despite these achievements, despite being a critical darling for some time now, he hasn’t exploded in the way so many less deserving figures have. He has been on the threshold of real big fame for a while now, but for some reason the fuse runs just short of the fireworks. What’s keeping him from that?
Idrissa Akuna Elba was born in Essex, a county just northeast of London. His father is from Sierra Leone and his mother is Ghanaian. As a teenager he began DJing, first helping his uncle at weddings before creating his own company with a group of friends. In the late '80s he left school and won a place at the National Youth Music Theatre, whose alumni include Jude Law, Sally Hawkins, Orlando Bloom, and Eddie Redmayne. Elba’s family wasn’t able to afford the program and he was fortunate enough to be a recipient of a £1,500 grant, courtesy of the Prince’s Trust (a charity set up by Prince Charles). While at the theatre company he continued DJing under the moniker Big Driis, and he also worked at a Ford subsidiary. It was around this time he made his first foray into TV, the medium that has proved to be the most fruitful for him—although not at first.
After taking on a few supporting roles in British television shows, including the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, the soap Family Affairs, and the detective drama Ultraviolet, Elba moved to New York. There it took him some time to get his first major TV gig.
“It was, ‘Let’s not go for stereotypes,’ Elba told the New York Times in a feature tied to the release of his latest film, Beasts of No Nation. “There was only a handful of young black actors that had any chutzpah. It was sort of like an open highway for me.”
Like so many other actors trying to make it in the biz, Elba landed a guest role on Law & Order (Kerry Washington coincidentally had one of her first roles in the same episode). His American TV debut led him to an audition for David Simon’s HBO drama The Wire, which, unbeknownst to Elba and the rest of us, would go on to be considered one of the most influential TV dramas of all time.
“I auditioned for Avon Barksdale [Stringer Bell's drugs boss] and when I didn't get it, it was a kick in the teeth,” Elba revealed to The Guardian. But on the same day my baby girl was born, they told me I'd got the part as Stringer.”
The Wire is a comprehensive drama that takes a hard look at law enforcement and at different crime sectors in Baltimore. It has since been immortalized as a pivotal series that changed the TV landscape, particularly in the nuanced ways it confronts race and class. Although Elba didn’t land the role of Avon Barksdale, which ended up going to Wood Harris, he was eventually cast as Russell “Stringer” Bell. Stringer is initially Avon’s second-in-command before eventually leading the Barksdale Organization, a drug dealing gang. Although ruthless, Stringer wants to legitimize the business—somewhat—and takes economic classes at a community college. For playing Stringer, which he did for three seasons, Elba received raves.
“From the very first episodes, Idris demonstrated the abilities and dynamics of being a breakout star. It was all there in the first dailies, actually,” Simon told a reporter at the Baltimore Sun in 2013. “The first scene we saw was his confrontation in the pilot episode when D'Angelo reports to the towers only to have Stringer demote him to The Pit. The presence, the fluidity of the performance—the authority of the character, it was all there in those first lines.”
Although The Wire was cheated of awards recognition, only receiving two Emmy nominations during its six-year run, Simon was certain of Elba’s future success: “The writers would often joke that in an extremely strong cast of actors, Idris was the future film star trapped within an ensemble drama. Maybe not in The Wire, but in whatever followed, he was about to become a male lead, if not a full-blown feature career.”
The sad joke is that the blow-up never really happened. After leaving The Wire in 2004, Elba led Sometimes in April, an HBO television film about the Rwandan Genocide, before going on to appear in several high-grossing but otherwise unimportant film projects; he had minor roles in American Gangster and 28 Weeks Later. While neither offered him anything as meaty as what he found on The Wire, that didn’t stop him from looking. If there was a turning point in his career it was in 2009, when Elba made a series of guest appearances on The Office, dabbling in a genre that was the polar opposite of what he had—as of then—been known for. He played the stoic Charles Miner, the Vice President of Northeast Sales for Dunder Mifflin and adversary of Michael Scott.
Of his brief, but memorable stint, A.V. Club critic Keith Phillips said, “Idris Elba has been so good at portraying a heartless professional it almost doesn’t seem right for anything to break through his icy exterior.”
In terms of his film career, 2009 presented Elba with Obsessed, a thriller also starring Beyoncé Knowles and Ali Larter. Elba plays Beyoncé’s husband, a decent man who finds himself being stalked by an office temp, played by Larter. The film did well at the box office—perhaps due to the infamous fight scene between Knowles and Larter—but was otherwise a critical disaster. Still, Obsessed was one of Elba’s bigger roles, and, perhaps even more significantly, the film paved the way for the following gem: In the New York Times review of the film critic Stephen Holden said, “The movie’s most disturbing aspect, of which the filmmakers could not have been unaware, is the physical resemblance between Mr. Elba and Ms. Larter to O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson.” Besides being dumb, Holden’s remark reveals something disconcerting about the film industry and how it’s programmed to work against people of color.
In the Guardian interview writer Stuart Davies noted, “Is the idea that because you're big and black [Elba is nearly 6ft 3in and has the build of an American footballer] and the femme fatale is blonde and white, you're O.J.?” Elba responded, “I think so. The acceptance of integration is immature in America. In England, it's not so much of a thing. In America, having a black guy and a white girl is a difficult thing for them to get their heads around. That's why Jungle Fever was such a big deal there.”
While Obsessed is by no means a peak moment in Elba’s career, the inappropriate comments made of his role, and Elba’s response, perhaps point to a larger struggle marking his career.
It’s difficult not to make this a conversation about race, because, well, being black has undoubtedly contributed to Elba’s bizarre, enigmatic career trajectory. Already in an industry that provides few and/or mediocre roles for people of color, Elba is at an automatic disadvantage. It’s not because he’s not good-looking, which he totally is (he was People’s runner-up for Sexiest Man Alive in 2013), or because he’s not capable of working across genres, which he totally is, but his inability to “make it big” is all an institutional problem. Based on his track record, or at least his more successful endeavors, one can surmise that Elba is a great, multifaceted actor who has been pigeonholed, not offered the opportunities given to the Pitts, Coopers, and DiCaprios. How are you able to have a fruitful career in Hollywood when a prominent film critic seamlessly compares you to any black man—even black men outside the acting world?
It makes sense why he constantly finds himself working in TV, which, as of late, has proved to welcome diversity in a way Hollywood has yet to. Since 2010, Elba has starred in the vastly underrated BBC drama Luther, playing workaholic detective John Luther. The role has earned him three Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe win, and two other nominations. The success of Luther (at least critically) has also presented a shift in his film career. He played Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom—which earned him another Golden Globe nomination—and went on to have supporting roles in Thor, Prometheus, and Pacific Rim—all blockbusters that have done extremely well critically and commercially. They weren’t leading roles, but in all three he’s put forth memorable turns.
Around the time that we began to see this new Rise of Elba, the Internet got hyped with the idea that the actor could be the next to play James Bond, a decision that would also make him the first non-white actor to inhabit the role.
"There was this thing on CNN where they had a discussion saying that if there's a black president in the white House we now need a black Bond. And then the idea just spread like a virus. People kept coming up with ideas as to who should play the role, and then people in the blogosphere said what about Idris Elba,” he told the Guardian. “Even Daniel Craig said in an interview that the world is ready for a black Bond."
Working against him—or for him depending on how you see it—is a comment made by the current writer of the book series, Anthony Horowitz. In an interview with the Daily Mail Horowitz said, “‘For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It’s not a colour issue. I think he is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.” Fortunately, the Internet retaliated against Horowitz, whose comment is of course “a color issue.”
Regardless of the hype, Elba has repeatedly stated that all the sensationalizing wouldn’t help his case and, if anything, would probably turn the producers off. But as of now, there haven’t been any announcements regarding who will be Daniel Craig’s successor.
Anyway, it appears Elba is finally getting the much-deserved attention he should have been receiving post-The Wire. His latest project, Beasts of No Nation, is a devastating film that chronicles the life of a child soldier. Since premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, it has launched Elba into Oscar contention. In addition, it’s directed by True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga and will be released on Netflix—a groundbreaking move in itself.
While success could easily be measured by the frequency in which one is working—something Elba hasn’t had much of a problem maintaining—as fans it’s also a pleasure to see someone hardworking and immensely talented receive the notoriety, and by extension the opportunities, that others are getting.
Therefore it’s heartening that his upcoming projects hold such promise. He’s got another Luther season in the works, he’s playing Shere Khan, the villainous tiger in Jon Favreau's upcoming Jungle Book adaptation and will have a role in Finding Dory, the much-anticipated sequel to Finding Nemo. In terms of his chances at true stardom, he’s also following Benedict Cumberbatch and Eric Bana in playing the villain in the third Star Trek film. While not much has been revealed about his role in the new Star Trek, Elba provided fans with an expected treat this summer.
We’re back on YouTube. It’s just as late as it was the first time. Chris Pine walks out onto the U.S.S. Enterprise. He’s wearing a tight long sleeve and skinny jeans and is joined by Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, and John Cho. They are doing a short promo as part of a charity effort. Suddenly Elba pops out, sporting shorts and a t-shirt. Then the magic happens. Dance music starts to play, we get some strobe lights, and Elba stands out in front of the pack before getting on the floor and full on breakdancing. He’s a marvel.
He can do it all. So what's taking so long?