British actor Idris Elba is not afraid to take on epic roles. Think of his biographical portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – the life of anti-apartheid activist and the first black head-of-state and president of South Africa (1994-1999) and the 2015 American war drama Beasts of No Nation about a young boy who became a child soldier.
But Idris Elba is also not afraid to voice children’s characters, such as in the 2016 films The Jungle Book (as the tiger Shere Khan), Finding Dory (as Fluke the sea lion), and Zootopia(as Chief Bogo, the chief of police), and in the recent 2022 film Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as Knuckles.
Idris Elba (1972) was born in London with west African heritage – his father Winston, who died from lung cancer in 2013, was Sierra Leonean and his mother Eve is Ghanaian. Idris was their only child. He trained in theatre and did odd jobs, forming his own disc jockey (DJ) company. His first acting role was in 1994 at the age of 22 in Crimewatch.
The year 2016 was a big year for Idris, not only with voice-overs in three movies, and being named in the Times 100 list of the most influential people in the world, but also as a diversity advocate. In January 2016, Idris addressed the parliament of the United Kingdom regarding the lack of diversity of race, gender, and sexuality in the UK entertainment industry. His belief was that it was not good enough to have diversity of programming on screen if there was no diversity of people.
He gives back. He credits the Prince’s Trust, a UK youth charity Prince Charles – now King Charles III – founded in 1976 as helping to start his acting career. Idris supports this charity, as well as others.
He continues to make the Powerlist of the top 100 most influential people in the United Kingdom – most recently in 2020 and 2021.
Proud of his heritage, he learned to make ‘being different’ a positive experience, but he had to diversify his work to make a living between acting jobs. He diversified his work life – acting, voicing, DJing, singing, producing, presenting, doing commercials, writing, designing, kickboxing, appearing in music videos, and campaigning. Is he doing too much, diversifying too much?
In July 2021, he told a Guardian reporter that the diversification in work is all about creativity, which is a form of therapy for him, the “best suspension system I have for keeping me even … a lot of times I read something in a script and I think ‘I’m secretly dealing with that.’” By 2009, he said, “I was at a really dark, weird junction in my life. Lots of things were going wrong. Things were undoing, including my career.”
He got himself back on track with more work when BBC One broadcast Luther in 2010, a television crime series in which he played Detective Chief Inspector Luther. Now the series is set to become a crime drama film in 2023, with the title Luther: The Fallen Sun.
Diversity of work in his professional life translates to diversity of programming and hiring in the entertainment industry. Both are bridges to successful representation of real people in real jobs in real life.
Photographs: (portraits) factsfive.com; superstarsbio.com; and londoncalling.com