Elba spent his twenties going back and forth between New York and London, looking for work. In New York he would stay in Brooklyn, where he’d work on his American accent at a Fort Greene barbershop called Ace of Spades. He had an on-and-off relationship with a woman who lived in London, and when he was 26, they decided to get married. “I liked the idea of being married,” Elba says. “I was focused in on what I was trying to do in my life. And my girl supported me.”
But whatever roles there were in America, Elba wasn’t finding them. He DJ’d at New York dives to help make rent, worked for a while as a bouncer at Carolines, a comedy club. He and his wife moved around a bunch. “I had to keep going back and forth to New York, to London, to try and make a bit of money real quick.” Back in the States, Elba’s wife “didn’t adjust to the culture as quickly as I did.” And he was gone a lot. “We just had a hard time. The next thing you know, we broke up.” The timing was bad; she was pregnant. Elba began sleeping in his Astro van. “The apartment we had lived in together was in Jersey City. So when I left, I was sofa-hopping here and there and got to a place where I was parking it in Jersey somewhere and just camping down for the night.”
What did you think when you were laying your head down at night to go to sleep in a van?
“I mean, it was like, ‘Fuck, where did I go wrong?’ I had a lot of promise in England, you know? ‘What the fuck are you doing here? Your visa’s going to run out soon. You’re going to have a baby. What the fuck are you doing?’ That’s what’s going through my head.” He got a call about a show HBO was putting together called The Wire. At first he was trying out for the part of Avon Barksdale, Stringer’s boss, the lethally impulsive crew leader. “I was studying in my van for the auditions,” he says.
What did you know about Baltimore drug dealers? Was that an intelligible thing to you?
“Yeah, it was, because I was running with cats. I mean, I was DJ’ing, but I was also pushing bags of weed; I was doing my work. I had to. I know that sounds corny, but this is the truth.” He says he’d sell drugs at Carolines, and meanwhile all these successful guys would come through: D. L. Hughley, Dave Chappelle. “All those black comedians, they knew me as a doorman.”
Finally getting cast on The Wire as a criminal the likes of which television audiences had never quite seen—a Wealth of Nations–reading drug lieutenant with ambitions to take over not just Baltimore’s drug trade but also its undervalued waterfront real estate and pliable local politicians—put an end to that. By this time, Elba had an apartment in Jersey again, and the character had become a local hero. “I remember when Stringer Bell died, man, the neighborhood knew I was there. They fucking camped outside my house.” Eight, ten, twenty dudes outside his apartment, yelling up at the window: You kidding me, man? Yo, why you ain’t tell us, String?
After The Wire, Elba got work, but not great work. He played soldiers, criminals, mechanics, explosives experts. He had a part as a motorcycle-riding warrior priest opposite Nic Cage in a Ghost Rider sequel. He played the lead in a Tyler Perry movie, acted opposite Beyoncé in Obsessed. Discreetly he began recording music under the name Big Driis—quiet storm jams, rap bangers, deconstructed covers of Michael Jackson songs. It was a way of marking time, of sharing certain feelings for which he had no other outlet. “I was getting a lot of offers to play more gangsters,” Elba remembers. “Didn’t want that.” But not much else came.