How Idris Elba's Career Demonstrates That You Have To Be Bold If You Want To Succeed
Idris Elba is in the zone. Like LeBron James this time last year, Pharrell circa 2004 and Obama after that speech at the DNC, the London-born actor is hitting a stride in his respective career.
It's that special point during which the shots keep draining, the hits keep coming and the people hang on his every word.
For Elba, it means that in a galaxy of talented actors, his star is burning the brightest. In short, he couldn't be any more popular right now.
In the rearview mirror are his high-profile performances in “Pacific Rim,” “Thor: The Dark World” and “Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom.”
Ahead of him, a rumored future in the ever-coveted role as the new James Bond and gracing the cover of Vanity Fair's 20th annual Hollywood issue, with Julia Roberts cradled in his lap and George Clooney flanking him on the right.
The cover, in a way, is symbolic. Elba has earned his way amongst the elite of the film industry. But if the British actor seems untouchable now, unbreakable even, it must be said that he hasn't gotten there without already having been broken down.
“I mean, it was like, 'F***, where did I go wrong?' I had a lot of promise in England, you know? 'What the f*** are you doing here? Your visa's going to run out soon,” Elba told GQ's Zach Baron, as the actor remember his toughest times. “You're going to have a baby. What the f*** are you doing?' That's what's going through my head.”
Those were the thoughts that crossed Elba's mind as he spent lonely nights in New Jersey sleeping in his van. The ice-cold ladies man of an actor was then a humbled nobody, separated from his pregnant wife and their Jersey City apartment. After being resigned to turning his Chevy Astro Van into a makeshift home, Elba wondered, “How did I get here?”
The answer comes down to an episode that Elba remembered vividly for GQ. He first embarked on the path to stardom at the prestigious National Youth Music Theatre in England with the help of a grant from the Prince's Trust.
Like most people in the arts, Elba soon discovered that the road to success was very much a bumpy one.
To fund the notoriously unglamorous life of an upstart actor, a young Elba took up jobs as a tire fitter, shop clerk and DJ. Most notably, though, he was once a factory worker at the Ford automobile plant where his father had been working for 30 years, a site that would later symbolize the most pivotal moment of his life.
Like most who have big dreams, Idris Elba needed to make a big move, which required a bold decision. He'd had enough:
“F*** this world,” he said in a moment of consequence-less rebellion during a “joy ride” around the plant in the manager's sports buggy.
That manager was his father, and by the time the actor returned the keys to one infuriated father, Idris had little reason to care. Having already purchased a one-way ticket to New York City the night before, he walked out and never looked back.
“The next day I was in New York for the first time,” Elba told Baron.
For a man being interviewed in the luxurious confines of an Ibiza hotel (where Elba was for the October 2013 issue of GQ), staying at the Union Square YMCA upon arriving at the Big Apple might feel lightyears behind him.
But what could be a distant memory should be at the forefront of the mind when considering just how far the actor has come.
With his VISA only allowing him to do legit work as an actor, Elba did everything from bouncing at clubs to selling weed to keep his acting career afloat in New York.
“You got to remember, I was hustling back then,” he told Esquire's Sanjiv Bhattacharya. “And I mean huss-ell-ing. I was working the door at Caroline's comedy club. Selling weed, 10 spots, everything, just to make money because the acting weren't coming in fast enough.”
Soon, the actor did indeed find himself at rock bottom, in his van, asking himself all those questions. It was in that same van that he would practice his lines in preparation for an audition to star in “The Wire,” an HBO series that ran from 2002 to 2008.
That audition led to him capturing the role of Stringer Bell, which he executed to perfection for what would become one of the show's most memorable performances. Roles in shows and films, such as “The Office,” “Daddy's Little Girls,” “Obsessed” and “Luther” followed, the last of which earned him a Golden Globe.
Elba's latest on-screen role in the biopic “Mandela” additionally epitomized his ability to capture and internalize a character.
“I stood up and talked to these extras. I'm looking them in the eye, and I know what they're thinking,” Elba told Vogue's Nathan Heller in regards to the natives who knew and experienced the real-life revolutionary.
“'You're not South African. You don't look like Mandela. Show me something.'” By the time the film wrapped, Heller says, they were calling Elba, Madiba.
In some ways, the actor's story is not unlike many others — parents who are unable to relate, the feeling of being in a state of non-progression.
In the same way that Elba came to a point when he said, “Screw everything,” on that late night at the Ford factory, others may find themselves at a stage where only a change of environment (or an equally significant change) would aide in their own personal progression.
It's a scary window to look through, but Idris Elba's career shows a glimpse of what it can look like on the outside for those willing to jump through it.
“In England, there's only so much work for actors, period, never mind if you're black,” he told Esquire. “So I was like, nah man, I want to be with Denz and them. Wesley and them. Those were my idols. Denz, Wesley and Taye Diggs.”
Because of his audacity to make that one bold move, Idris Elba continues to creep ever closer to standing side-by-side in comparison and competition with those very idols.
Top Photo Credit: WENN
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