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."
The actor then took a paternity test that settled the matter. "To be given that and then have it taken away so harshly,” he says, “was like taking a full-on punch in the face: POW.”
He said the experience was surprisingly "freeing."
"You know, the truth is — like, even admitting it, I'll probably get laughed at for the rest of my life. But it is just tragic, and it happened," he said. "But I wasn't knocked out. I stood right ... back up, and I ain't aiming to take another punch in the face ever again. Do you understand what I'm saying? It happened to me. I moved on.”
"I've not been an angel in my life, either — do you know what I'm saying? So to a certain extent, what goes around comes around. But for me in the future, I'm about being comfortable. That's it," he added, clarifying, "Now that I've achieved some of the things that I've wanted to achieve, I'm not going to be a slave to it all of a sudden. I respect the artist that lives that way. The people that just go, 'You're going to hate me for what I just did, or you're not going to understand why I made that film or that record or whatever, but what you are watching is someone that's living their life.' You know: I’m not watching you; you're watching me."
The incident is where he drew inspiration for a rough door-slamming scene in "Luther" that happened to have his character in the same emotional place he'd been.
"You have to understand, I had just gone through the worst thing in my life with, you know ... " he said. "So 'Luther' came at a time where, you know, it was gaga therapy for me, man. Stupid. I was like, 'I'm going in ... ' And that is what I ... did. I'll tell you: I did that take, and I remember the room ... Indira Varma, the beautiful Indian actress — beautiful girl .... The crew were at this end of the room, all packed in. Indira was over there. And I ... let go. Like, all kinds of ... happened in my head. I mean — blitz.
He said he really messed up the door. "The emotion was going so long after the ... actual scene was ended that everyone sat in silence. Indira was in ... tears; I was in tears."
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