Elba was born in Hackney, London. His father Winston was a Sierra Leonean who worked at a Ford motor factory, and his mother Eve was a Ghanaian who had a clerical job.Elba's parents married in Sierra Leone and later moved to London. Elba was raised in East Ham, and shortened his first name at school inCanning Town, where he first became involved in acting. He began helping an uncle with his wedding DJ business in 1986; within a year, he had started his own DJ company with some of his friends. Elba left school in 1988 and won a place in the National Youth Music Theatre, thanks to a £1,500 Prince's Trust grant. He worked in various jobs, such as tyre-fitting and cold-call advertising sales, to earn an income between roles in Crimewatch murder reconstructions.
After a supporting turn on a 2001 episode of Law & Order, Elba landed a starring role on a 2002 HBO drama, The Wire. From 2002 to 2004, Elba portrayed Russell "Stringer" Bell in the HBO drama series, perhaps his best-known role in the US. In 2005, he portrayed Captain Augustin Muganza in Sometimes in April, an HBO film about the Rwandan Genocide. Elba appeared on the 2007 BET special Black Men: The Truth. Elba appeared as Charlie Gotso in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, filmed in Botswana. The series premiered on 23 March 2008, Easter Sunday, on BBC One, receiving a high 6.3 million viewers and 27% of the audience share. In January 2009, it was reported per Variety that Elba would portray Charles Miner, a new rival to Dunder Mifflin regional manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) forNBC's The Office. Elba appeared in a six episode story arc later in the 2009 season as well as the season finale. In September 2009, Elba signed a deal to star as the lead role in the 6-part BBC television show Luther, which aired in May 2010. In October 2009, it NBC announced Elba as executive producer of an as yet untitled legal drama. He appeared on Showtime's The Big C in 2010. At the 69th Golden Globe Awards telecast on 15 January 2012, Elba won the Award for Best Actor in a Series, Mini-Series, or Motion Picture Made for Television for his role on the BBC crime thriller series Luther.
In 2007, Elba signed on as the lead of the 2007 film Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls, playing Monty, a blue-collar mechanic who falls in love with an attorney helping him gain custody of his kids, and finds the relationship and his custody hopes threatened by the return of his ex-wife. He appeared in 28 Weeks Later (2007) andThis Christmas (2007), which brought in nearly $50 million at the box office in 2007. In 2008, he starred in the horror film Prom Night and RocknRolla. In 2009, he starred in horror film The Unborn and Obsessed.The latter was a box office success, taking $29 million in its opening weekend.
Elba's next film was Legacy (2010), in which he portrayed a black ops soldier who returned to Brooklyn after a failed mission in Eastern Europe, where he undertook a journey looking for retribution. He starred in Dark Castle's adaptation of DC/Vertigo's The Losers, under the direction of Sylvain White, in the role of Roque, the second-in-command of a black-ops team out for revenge against a government that did them wrong. Filming took place in Puerto Rico and the movie was released in April 2010. Elba appeared in the 2010 thriller Takers, also starring Hayden Christensen, Chris Brown, T.I., and Paul Walker. He played Heimdall inKenneth Branagh's 2011 Thor film (based upon the Marvel Comics superhero of the same name).
In August 2010, Elba signed up to portray the title character in a reboot of James Patterson's Alex Cross film franchise. However in February 2011 he was replaced by Tyler Perry. Elba appeared in the 2012 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, playing an alcoholic warrior monk tasked with finding Ghost Rider. In February 2012, Elba confirmed that he would portray Nelson Mandela in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is based on the eponymous autobiography. In June 2012, he portrayed Captain Janek in Prometheus. Elba joined the 2013 film Pacific Rim in the role of Stacker Pentecost.
In January 2014, Elba confirmed that he would be starring in a film adaptation of Luther.