From Guillermo del Toro to Cary Joji Fukunaga: Idris Elba’s 10 best performances
“Waking up in truth is so much better than living in a lie.”—Idris Elba
British actor Idris Elba is famous for his memorable performances in top shows like HBO’s The Wire and BBC’s Luther. He has been nominated four times for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film, winning one, and was nominated five times for a Primetime Emmy Award. Apart from acting, Elba works as a DJ under the moniker DJ Big Driis (or Big Driis the Londoner) and as an R&B musician. Given his significant impact, Elba was later featured in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list in 2016.
Elba dropped out of school in 1988 when he won a place in the National Youth Music Theatre thanks to a £1,500 Prince’s Trust grant. He supported his acting career by working odd jobs and began auditioning for television roles in his early twenties. His first acting role was in Crimewatch murder reconstructions and in 1994 he appeared in a BBC children’s drama called The Boot Street Band. A year later, Elba landed his first significant role on a series called Bramwell.
Here, on his 48th birthday, we take a look at some of the best performances in Idris Elba’s celebrated career.
Idris Elba’s 10 Best Performances:
10. The Dark Tower (Nikolaj Arcel – 2017)
Nikolaj Arcel’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s eponymous novel stars Elba as Roland Deschain, the last of the Gunslingers. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Deschain aims to hunt down the Man in Black (played by Matthew McConaughey), who killed his father and is a threat to society. Although the film wasn’t received well, Elba was praised for his engaging performance.
“What brought me was this opportunity to make something original,” Elba said. “Something that was definitely going to be an exercise for the imagination of any audience, whether you read the books or not. Getting to play a gunslingin’ hero, that was my main one. Outside of wanting to work with Matthew [McConaughey] and Nic [Arcel] and the Sony team, it was really about this page one fantastic new idea, new film, new concept, new franchise, new hero.”
9. Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin – 2016)
Idris Elba shines as the mysterious antagonist Krall in Justin Lin’s 2016 sequel to J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot. He shrouds his motivations and history with a veil of ambiguity, harbouring a deep hatred for the United Federation of Planets — of which Captain James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) and his crew are members.
“What’s interesting about him is that he has a real beef with what the Enterprise stands for,” Elba explained. “Krall’s a character who’s deeply steeped in hatred—in my opinion, a well-earned hatred—for the Federation. It felt quite political. There’s a relatability to what’s happening in our world. Not everybody’s happy with what everybody calls the good guys.”
8. Thor (Kenneth Branagh – 2011)
Elba is great as Heimdall, an omniscient Asgardian God who acts as a divine gatekeeper. The actor maintains his composure and is intimidating at the same time. He appeared in all three Thor movies but his most memorable stint as Heimdall occurs in the 2011 film when Loki manages to slip past him.
Idris Elba praised the director, “I loved working with Kenneth. He’s a very dedicated, generous director. He’s very descriptive. He’s an actor. So he understands sort of our actor’s point of view, dilemmas, fears and whatnot. So we spent a lot of time doing that, and in my role, it’s a small, pivotal role, but even with that character he gave a lot of time and dedication to building that up.”
7. The Office (Greg Daniels – 2005 to 2013)
The Office’s (US) success was largely built on its brilliant central cast, starring the likes of Steve Carell and John Krasinski. Elba plays a major role in the fifth season as Michael Scott’s superior and was later the interim manager. He was immune to Jim’s charm and fans disliked him for his “no-nonsense” attitude but Elba deserves major credit for putting up a solid performance as an unlikeable replacement for the great Michael Scott.
Elba confessed that he had a lot of fun while working on the character, “He has quirks, you know. He’s a corporate guy, yes he is, but he puts on a show. Everything he’s sort of learned he’s learned from sort of self-help books and stuff, and you know, in business manuals.
“And then when he – you know, like when we do the sort of on-camera, what they call a talking head, you know, you get to – he starts to reveal who his real personality is. I’m having so much fun. I never get to do comedy, so Charles Miner is my…comic relief.”
6. The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau – 2016)
In the 2016 live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book, Elba steals the show with his wonderful voice acting as the antagonist Shere Khan, a merciless tiger who is out to get Mowgli. He is intimidating and relentless in his pursuit, putting his fierceness on full display. For his wonderful performance, Elba received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance.
The actor commented, “I’m very proud to be doing it. The Jungle Book was a film I watched many times as a kid and it’s hard to believe I’m voicing Shere Khan, although I have to admit Baloo was my favourite character. I’ve always loved cartoons. They give a lot of joy to young people and they spark their imagination. It’s beautiful to watch their faces light up when they watch them.”
5. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro – 2013)
Elba plays Marshal Stacker Pentecost, an officer of the Pan Pacific Defense Force in Guillermo del Toro’s action blockbuster. When an interdimensional portal releases giant monsters called the Kaiju into the Pacific Ocean, he serves as a pilot for one of many gigantic robots called Jaegers. Elba is inspiring as a war hero and a rousing leader.
“From Guillermo I learnt how to make a big film,” Elba admitted. “In television you come in, there are two cameras maybe, you set up a nice wide shot. In ‘Luther’ we spend time making sure a shot is a Luther shot. But with Guillermo, when he stepped on the set and I learnt what it is to do big ‘pushes’ as you say your line, and ‘sweeps’ [with the camera]. It is quite impressive.”
4. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (Justin Chadwick – 2013)
This 2013 biopic features Elba as the famous South African leader, Nelson Mandela. It follows his revolt against Apartheid and chronicles the subsequent period of imprisonment for his involvement in the armed resistance after the Sharpeville Massacre. Although Elba looks nothing like the historical figure, he is convincing as Mandela and resonates strength.
Elba revealed, “It was compulsory that I knew that there was a man that’s sitting in jail that’s been there forever because he fought against apartheid. My dad flew the flag for Nelson Mandela and any freedom fighter in South Africa. I used to listen to World Service News just to understand the situation.”
He added, “You know, as a young kid at that time I was very much having to pay attention to what was going on. And I remember how surreal it was when I was playing the scene where he walks out”
3. Beasts Of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga – 2015)
Set during a period of civil war in Africa, Elba delivers a powerful performance as Commandant. He is a ruthless warlord who trains a young orphan (played by Abraham Attah) to join his group of guerrilla soldiers. Elba combines a paternal authority and a killer’s sensibility as he navigates the hellish landscape of war. He received a Screen Actors Guild Award as well as an Independent Spirit Award for his performance.
“There’s a lot of real estate in the film to hate somebody,” Idris Elba said. “But anyone can play moustache-twiddling evil, you know? It’s tougher to play someone like this as a human being. Because then you can’t just dismiss that person. You have to confront him.”
2. Luther (Neil Cross – 2010 to present)
Elba stars as Detective John Luther in BBC’s eponymous show. His on-screen chemistry with a cunning serial killer called Alice Morgan (played by Ruth Wilson) is compelling, making Luther a gripping watch. For his portrayal of John Luther, Idris Elba has won several awards including a Golden Globe as well as a Critics’ Choice Television Award.
“Well, I left England before I had reached the pinnacle,” Elba recalled. “Working at BBC, at the head of one of the top dramas, is a tradition for great actors. I was in America, working as hard as I could because The Wire gave me an international springboard, which the BBC picked up on.
“We came together at a perfect time because the BBC wanted to do something a little courageous with their dramas, and I wanted to step into an area where I also could produce some work, so it was a perfect marriage. It also gave me the opportunity to do the one thing that I wanted to do for a long time, and that’s head a drama at the BBC.”
1. The Wire (David Simon – 2002 to 2008)
In this critically acclaimed drama series, Elba plays the role of Stringer Bell. He is the second-in-command to a drug empire that is run by his childhood friend. Bell is a highly nuanced, intelligent character and it is undoubtedly Elba’s most memorable role.
Speaking about his character, Elba said, “I celebrate the fact that he dies. I have a problem with the glorification of a drug dealer and America is fascinated with that world. We’re celebrating the very fucking problem that America has in its hood. But Stringer Bell was no role model. He ruled the people who worked for him through fear. So it was good that Stringer died.”