As an actor, producer, director and musician, Idris Elba is one of the UK’s greatest exports. When he’s not fighting alongside Norse gods, he’s passionately supporting new and emerging talent, from all backgrounds. And now he is the recipient of one of BAFTA’s highest honours, the Special Award.
The following is an extract from the official 2020 Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards brochure. Our press release announcing the news can be found here.
Contour by Getty ImagesIdris Elba OBE is a man of many parts, an in-demand actor who somehow finds time to DJ, direct and run a successful production company. He is both internationally renowned and respected for his craft, as well as a champion for the next generation and an inclusive industry.
“I was deeply honoured. It’s been a very strange year and it’s such a nice moment to be recognised by my industry.”
“I was shocked and deeply honoured to be honest, man,” says Elba about learning he was to receive the Special Award, one of BAFTA’s highest honours. “It’s been a very strange year and it’s such a nice moment to be recognised by my industry.”
Elba was set on becoming an actor from his early teens, but boys from his ordinary East London background – he is the son of a Ghanaian mother and Sierra Leonean father, who worked at Ford’s Dagenham plant – are frequently denied the rarified chance to make it in acting. Elba, however, received a £1,500 grant from the Prince’s Trust, which helped him study at the National Youth Music Theatre. “It was a godsend. Getting in to the theatre was hard enough, but then you needed money to afford travel and a contribution to your living. I couldn’t have done it without that money,” says Elba.
His first fully fledged television role was on children’s show The Boot Street Band, and he was soon landing parts in the likes of Absolutely Fabulous and The Bill. But Elba was ambitious for more. “At the time, the pinnacle [in the UK] was to get on Casualty, The Bill or Silent Witness,” he says. “I’d done all of those... I remember looking at actors across the pond and [thinking] ‘I could have a piece of that.’”
So, Elba moved to New York and guested in such long-running shows as Law & Order (2001) and CSI: Miami (2003). Then he landed the role of Stringer Bell in David Simon’s Baltimore-set crime saga The Wire, a series that is rarely absent from lists of television’s greatest ever. His American accent was so good many of Elba’s fellow cast and crew did not realise he was a Londoner.
“Luther was amazing and one of the biggest contributors to my career and my life.”
“I’d been living in America for a long time and I was really into the culture and the culture was in me, so the accent was a lot easier. I remember coming back to do Luther and speaking in my own accent, and that was a bit odd,” he laughs. “Luther was amazing and one of the biggest contributors to my career and my life.”
“I want to open the door for others to come in... I am positive about the future. The needle has moved significantly.”
The prolific actor has not looked back since and has parallel successful careers in both film and music. In 2013, he formed production company, Green Door Pictures, which has provided opportunities for new and emerging talent. The company’s intent is emblazoned across its website: ‘Diversity. Opportunity. Inclusion.’ “I want to open the door for others to come in,” he says. “I am positive about the future. The needle has moved significantly.”
Green Door’s biggest hit so far, Sky One comedy In the Long Run, is described by Elba as “a love letter to the 80s”. It’s a world away from the violence of Stringer Bell and John Luther. “If this world was to fall off its axis, at least there’s a piece of material that shows what East London was like,” says Elba. “In the Long Run’s also massively important to me. My old man died seven years ago and I play him in it. It’s a salute to him and his life, and the life that set me up to being who I am today.”
Words by Matthew Bell