London-born Elba, who is best known for his starring role in US series “The Wire”, told a meeting at the Houses of Parliament how he worked as a tyre fitter and at a Ford motor plant before forging a career for himself as an actor in Britain.
But he said he was forced to move to the US to take the next step in his career because of a lack of major roles for black actors in British television.
It is highly unusual for a star of Elba’s profile to come to the Houses of Parliament and his speech drew around 100 MPs plus others involved in politics, who gave him a standing ovation.
“I got to a certain point in my career where I saw the glass ceiling,” he said to a packed committee room.
“I got so close I nearly banged my forehead. I was busy, I had lots of work but I realised I could only play so many best friends or gang leaders.”
He added: “If I aspired to be on the level of the Denzel Washingtons or the Robert de Niros of the world, then I had to reinvent myself.
“I didn’t go to America because I couldn’t get parts, I went to America because I was running out of parts.”
Elba’s breakthrough role in the US came in gritty Baltimore crime series “The Wire”, which ran from 2002-2008.
The star, whose father came from Sierra Leone and mother from Ghana, is now touted as the possible first black James Bond and plays the lead in crime drama “Luther”, one of the BBC’s most successful shows.
He urged British television executives to fish for talent more consistently among people of diverse backgrounds and called for targeted policies to help level the playing field.
“I used to fit tyres in Forest Gate and now I make movies in Hollywood — the difference between the two is opportunity,” Elba said.