The 41-year-old British actor rose to fame as a drug kingpin on HBO's critically acclaimed "The Wire." He's also massively famous in Britain and is in his third season of the detective drama "Luther." He's had a guest spot on "The Office," starred in "Pacific Rim" and will appear in this fall's "Thor: The Dark World." He's also set to play iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and is currently filming "The Gunman" with Sean Penn and Javier Bardem in Madrid.
After moving to the U.S. from London, he and his then-wife got on the outs, so he slept in his Astro van.
"The apartment we had lived in together was in Jersey City. So when I left, I was sofa-hopping here and there and got to a place where I was parking it in Jersey somewhere and just camping down for the night." That's one of the places he prepared for his "Wire" audition too.
He used to be a drug dealer, and that's why "The Wire" was "intelligible" to him.
"Yeah, it was, because I was running with cats. I mean, I was DJ'ing, but I was also pushing bags of weed; I was doing my work. I had to. I know that sounds corny, but this is the truth." He used to sell drugs at Carolines, he said, a club where he worked as a bouncer and there he crossed paths (as a doorman) with comedians D.L. Hughley and Dave Chappelle. "All those black comedians, they knew me as a doorman."
Some Ford Fiestas are missing some parts because of him.
Just before he left for the U.S., he worked at a Ford factory under his father. He fell asleep at his post during a night shift and never got around to welding side panels to some of the vehicles.
He doesn't have a traditional home and barely sees his 11-year-old daughter.
She lives in Atlanta with his ex-wife. He usually just meets up with his daughter in hotel rooms or temporary spaces.
"I'm like a gypsy, man," he said. "We've had this relationship since she was 1. She's always on the road."
He's more comfortable being invisible than famous.
"I sort of blended into the background quite a bit [as a kid]," he said. "I wasn't the guy that was a big personality. I was the tall, silent, quiet type. ... I call it the invisible factor, On any ordinary street, walking down in London Soho in a cap, I'm just a ... tall black man walking along."
"Even with people looking at you, when you're playing a character, you're so hidden" Elba said. "There's a weird little thing there, where you just feel most comfortable being someone else, because then they're not really looking at you. Know what I mean?"
He believes anybody could have played Stringer Bell.
"That really is more about the writing of 'The Wire' than it is the performance. You know, Stringer Bell is a great character that was written. I happened to play him, but it could've been anybody playing that role," he said. "Listen, I think I brought Stringer to life my way, but 'The Wire' isn't a classic because of Stringer Bell. 'The Sopranos' was a classic because of Tony Soprano."
After "The Wire," he recorded music under the name Big Driis
The music included "quiet storm jams, rap bangers, deconstructed covers of Michael Jackson songs." That's how he made the best use of his time and provided an outlet for his feelings. "I was getting a lot of offers to play more gangsters," Elba said. "Didn't want that.” But not much else came.He never had a son.
"The celebration of having a son — from a man's perspective, it's massive," Elba said regarding 2010 reports that he was excitedly talking about his son with a girlfriend he had in Florida. That is, only to find out that the boy wasn't his. "It wasn't immediately obvious — well, it was, because he didn’t look like me. But it wasn’t immediately obvious what had gone down."