Idris Elba: From Hackney to Hollywood

Dawn Alford

16 September 2021

As he turns 49, actor, DJ, producer, director and style icon: Idris Elba, one of film and TV’s most irrepressible talents, talks playlists and Prince Harry

16 September 2021 Dawn Alford


t’s a long road from Hackney to Hollywood, and Idris Elba has made the journey with aplomb. Over the past decade or so, he has not only become one of Britain’s best-known actors, but also emerged as an international superstar and a style icon, regularly appearing on lists of the world’s best dressed – and picking up an OBE along the way. There have been recent appearances in BAFTA-nominated productions (Molly’s Game), a directorial debut (Yardie) and box office-busting turns in Thor and the Avengers franchise.

Elba also played a role at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Everyone from George Clooney to David Beckham descended on Windsor Castle and Elba entertained the acclaimed guest list from the DJ booth, playing “all that sort of funk stuff era from the 80s that always gets people up. It doesn’t matter if you like trap or you’re 10, you’re gonna like those songs,” the 46-year-old laughs of his post-nuptial playlist. (The royal friendship continues: Elba married his third wife, model Sabrina Dhowre, in April 2019, and the former royal couple reportedly gave them a £7,000 artwork by the Connor Brothers as a wedding gift – a print featuring the caption ‘Why Fit In When You Were Born to Stand Out?’.) 

Elba’s DJ role at the royal party befits a star who, despite having made his name as an actor, refers to music as his “first love” and worked as a DJ under the name Big Driis from his teens onwards. He credits his eclectic musical tastes to his parents – his father worked at the Ford factory in Dagenham and Elba, who was brought up on a Hackney estate, might well have ended up following the same path, had music not beckoned.

Idris Elba in Luther

“I grew up with reggae and dancehall and I was always mixing cassettes with my favourite songs. But my parents loved calypso, blues, jazz and even country, so I always listened to everything,” he explains. “I started DJing first as a way of making money and, at the same time, it was a way of expressing my creativity.” Music, he says, is a “universal language, and a good DJ acts as a vibe-builder. My challenge as a DJ is to go to a club or an arena, figure out the environment and the mood, and get the whole crowd tuned onto the right frequencies. I want to be able to get everyone hooked on the beat and the mood so that people are going ‘Wow!’”

Like Elba’s on-screen profession (he started out in Crimewatch reconstructions), his career in music was not blessed with overnight success. Now the situation is very different. A once-in-a-lifetime booking like the one he undertook in May 2018 numbers among other high-profile (pre-pandemic) events. “I’ve gone through some tough times when I was working a lot as DJ earlier in my career,” he admits. “But now, with Coachella and a lot of other gigs I’ve been doing, I feel like I’m really able to make the most of that work. That’s important to me because music was my first love and it’s very different from what I do as an actor. I’ve been DJing more often in the last few years because I get so much pleasure and creative satisfaction from that.” His ultimate ambition? “To direct a film in which I’m playing, and do the score on top of it.”

Few would be able to rise to such a creative challenge, but Elba has already shown himself more than adept at combining his acting, directing, DJing and producing talents. He also finds time for other projects. He was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the Prince’s Trust a decade ago – a £1,500 grant from the Trust enabled him to train with the National Youth Music Theatre when he was a teenager and he has since credited this with “changing his life”. In 2015 he broke the Flying Mile land speed record at Pendine Sands in Wales, and he is currently unbeaten at kickboxing, albeit after only a single professional bout undertaken while filming 2017 documentary Idris Elba: Fighter.

“I like to challenge myself and face down my fears,” he nods. “I’ve had this need to make sure that I’m not being prevented from doing something out of fear. That’s why I’ve done a lot of challenges like racing cars or going back to kickboxing, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I think there’s so much we can achieve if we have the will to do it.”

His own experience bears this out. In typical style, Elba’s earliest brush with the idea of becoming a movie star typifies the potent combination of anti-establishment cool and self-confident ambition that lies at the heart of his continued success. “I skipped school one afternoon when I was 16 to go see Once Upon a Time in America,” he smiles. “I was inspired by Robert De Niro; I was blown away by his performance. The next day I told my acting teacher in school that I wanted to be like De Niro. My teacher, who believed in my talent, told me that it was important to pursue your dreams and that one day I would become a great actor. That set me on my way.”

Before the pandemic shut down filming across the globe, Elba managed to add a few more blockbuster strings to his cinematic bow. He can already boast a CV resplendent in its variation, running from gritty cop thrillers like Luther and The Wire, which brought him international attention, to animated efforts such as Zootopia and the live-action version of The Jungle Book. His pe-pandemic ventures included a part in the divisive big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats – in a cast that counts Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen and Jennifer Hudson among its number – and a spot across from Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Jason Statham in a spin-off of the billion-dollar Fast and Furious franchise.

Idris Elba in Fast & Furious

“I really enjoyed this chance to work on a big action film because you learn a lot from that experience,” Elba says of the latter role. “Dwayne and Jason are masters of that genre and when you’re on a big set like that it gives you the feel for how that kind of a movie works. It’s one more step for me.” True to his word, 2021 saw Ekba switch comic book allegiances and join the cast of DC's The Suicide Squad as Bloodsport, while the next 12 months promises roles as diverse as cowboy Rufus Buck in Netflix Western The Harder They Fall, voicing Knuckles The Echidna in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and starring opposite Tilda Swinton in George Miller's fantasy romance Three Thousand Years of Longing.

The ladder, however, has not always been easy to climb. “I still remember the bad times, having to sleep in a van for a couple of months in New York and going to auditions in the morning and earning a little money DJing at night,” recalls Elba. “It was tough to get any decent work because no one liked my accent. I didn’t really feel settled until I got The Wire and that changed everything. I’m still shocked by how I’ve managed to reach these great heights after 25 years of hard work and a lot of struggles. But it makes me want to work harder than ever.”

Given his new taste for big action films, what of his long-running fan-tease around the possibility of becoming Bond? It seems as though the possibility of Elba stepping into Daniel Craig’s shoes and taking on the role of one of Britain’s most celebrated tough guys has been nothing more than good-natured ribbing after all. Craig’s stint as James Bond will end with this year's No Time To Die, but Elba still seems like an obvious choice to be involved with 007, even if it’s not in the title role, as many first assumed. A film series with such long-standing pedigree surely amounts to exactly the kind of project that Elba is still determined to chase down on his seemingly indefatigable push to scale new heights professionally.

On that score, he says with a laugh that he has become very good at managing his time and energy. “I try to plan things ahead and then it’s just a matter of organising your schedule and doing one project at a time. As long as you love what you’re doing, it never really feels like work.” When it comes to energy, he is certainly not lacking. “We all have dreams and desires, but we often don’t get to realise them. For a long time, I’ve believed in going out there and doing things, instead of just thinking or wondering about doing them. I like being able to go out and do all those things I’ve dreamed about. Life is for living.”

Read more: In conversation with celebrity photographer Andy Gotts