Jack of all trades! Idris Elba has taken on a wide range of roles throughout his decades-long career, from drug kingpins to legendary historical figures.
The British star first caught the acting bug while growing up in Hackney, England, and credits a local theatre newsletter for giving him his big break. Elba scored a few big jobs in the ’90s, appearing in a number of BBC television series including Bramwell, a medical drama set in the 1800s in which he played one of his first significant characters, a thief who lost his wife in childbirth.
After joining the soap opera Family Affairs, Elba moved to New York City and brought his talents to the stage in a 2001 production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. The following year, he took on the role that would make him a household name: Russell “Stringer” Bell on HBO’s The Wire. Though his character’s time on the series was ultimately cut short, Elba and the show’s creator, David Simon, had an inspiring connection.
“I remember saying to him, ‘Idris, you may not know it yet, but you’re a leading man, and you’re about to have an incredible career,'” Simon said during a March 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, recalling the tough conversation they had after discussing Stringer’s final episode. “You say goodbye to a lot of good actors and think, ‘Man, that guy’s a great actor, I hope he finds work.’ But with Idris, it was different. You just knew.”
When Elba left the HBO drama, the acting world became his oyster. He dipped his toe into every genre, from historical drama to comedy to thriller, and carried on the legacies of strong black male leads like Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier. His resumé includes partnerships with some of the industry’s most iconic writers and directors, including Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon.
When it comes to choosing his roles, Elba admitted to THR that he likes the challenge of moving from one genre to the next.
“My career is more like a buffet, and I like it that way,” the DJ and rapper said in 2019. “It’s what keeps me alive and interested.”
The following year, however, Elba wasn’t in the headlines because of his undeniable talents. Instead, the actor’s health became breaking news, as he revealed in March 2020 that he had tested positive for COVID-19 during the global coronavirus outbreak.
“It sucks,” he said in a video at the time. “I didn’t have any symptoms. I got tested because I realized that I was exposed to someone who had also tested positive … Now is the time for thinking about each other. There’s so many people whose lives have been affected — from those who have lost people that they love, to people that don’t have it and have lost their livelihoods. This is real.”
Scroll down to relive some of Elba’s most memorable roles throughout his career.