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He joined the cast of the soap opera Family Affairs He returned to England occasionally for a television role, such as a part in one of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries.
In 2001, Elba played Achilles in a stage production of Troilus and Cressida in New York City.
In 1995, he landed his first significant role on a series called Bramwell, a medical drama set in 1890s England.
He played a central character in an episode of Season 1, an African petty thief named Charlie Carter, who lost his (white) wife to childbirth and had to figure out how to support his newborn daughter.
Elba also starred alongside Abraham Attah in the film Beasts of No Nation which premiered in select theaters and on Netflix.
In 2019, Elba starred as the villain in Hobbs & Shaw, a spin-off of The Fast and the Furious franchise, and will play Macavity in Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats.In 2014, he starred in No Good Deed as a vengeful psychopathic serial killer.In 2015, Elba appeared as Heimdall in the superhero blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, directed by Joss Whedon.He also starred in Pacific Rim (2013), Beasts of No Nation (2015), for which he received BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor, and Molly's Game (2017).In 2016, he voiced Chief Bogo in Zootopia, Shere Khan in the live action/CGI adaptation of The Jungle Book, Fluke in Finding Dory, and played the role of Krall in Star Trek Beyond.
He credits The Stage with giving him his first big break, having seen an advertisement for a play in it; he auditioned and met his first agent while performing in the role.