An only child, Idrissa Akuna Elba was born and raised in London, England. His father, Winston, is from Sierra Leone and worked at Ford Dagenham; his mother, Eve, is from Ghana and had a clerical duty. Idris attended school in Canning Town, where he first became involved in acting, before he dropped out. He gained a place in the National Youth Music Theatre - thanks to a £1,500 Prince's Trust grant. To support himself between acting roles, he worked in jobs such as tyre-fitting, cold call advertising sales, and working night shifts at Ford Dagenham. He worked in nightclubs under the nickname DJ Big Driis at age 19, but began auditioning for television roles in his early-twenties.
His first acting roles were on the soap opera Family Affairs (1997), the television serial Ultraviolet (1998), and the medical drama Dangerfield (1995). His best known roles are as drug baron Russell "Stringer" Bell on the HBO series The Wire (2002) and as DCI John Luther on the BBC One series Luther (2010). He later starred in the films Daddy's Little Girls (2007), Prom Night (2008), RocknRolla (2008), The Unborn (2009) and Obsessed (2009). He also appeared in the films American Gangster (2007), Takers (2010), Thor (2011), Prometheus (2012), Pacific Rim (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), Beasts of No Nation (2015) and Star Trek: Beyond (2016). He voiced Chief Bogo in Zootopia (2016), Shere Khan in The Jungle Book (2016), and Fluke in Finding Dory (2016).
Idris Elba was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in the 2016 New Years Honours for his services to drama.