WHEN The Jungle Book opened to rave reviews on Friday, packed audiences were treated to a galaxy of star names or their voices at least. But no one in the lavish CGI Production had more magnetic quality or sheer presence than Idris Elba, the growling voice of Shere Khan, the tiger who hopes to become king of the jungle.
It is yet another triumph for 43-year-old Elba, a British actor who has climbed from poverty in East London’s Canning Town to the upper reaches of the Hollywood A-list, with leading roles in TV’s Luther, The Wire and Mandela. He has even been tipped to play Bond.
But if his professional drive for stardom has seemed relentless, Elba’s private life has been relentlessly troubled as those caught up in it know only too well.
Just a few weeks ago, he walked out on Naiyana Garth, the British mother of his two-year-old son. And now another casualty in the long-running and chaotic Idris Elba script has stepped forward with a story of her own.
This is Sonya Hamlin, a beautiful property lawyer and the ‘secret’ second wife to whom Elba was married for just a few brief weeks before, she says, he reached the devastating conclusion that she would get in the way of his career. She was heartbroken.
Today, in her first-ever interview, the 44-year-old gives The Mail on Sunday an unprecedented glimpse into the emotional life and the ferocious ambition of Britain’s biggest rising star.
“People were telling him he was going to ruin his career,” she says. “He was being told it was an important part of his image to be a single sex symbol in Hollywood and being married would damage that.
“It was very sad. Idris and I were madly in love, but he was getting a lot of flak for being married. Everyone was like, ‘Dude, you’re the hottest sex symbol!’
‘It wasn’t the right look’ that’s what they were telling him. I wanted to save the marriage.’
For her part, it was ‘pure chemistry.’ By that stage, he was well-known in America through his role on The Wire, an HBO crime drama set in Baltimore, but success had been hard-won. Raised in Canning Town, the son of immigrants from Ghana and Sierra Leone, Elba had worked at Ford in Dagenham before turning to acting.
“I didn’t really know who he was,” says Sonya, who studied law in London and Washington. “My friend just said he was a really nice guy. He wasn’t a superstar back then. Living in Maryland I was vaguely familiar with The Wire, but I didn’t know who he was.”
Back then, Elba had just finished a three-year run and was casting around for movie roles: “We met at a crowded gathering with a few other people,” she recalls. “But we hit it off. We meshed very well. He’s not shy and neither am I and we fell very much in love with each other.”
After a whirlwind romance, they moved in together in Maryland: “He loves to watch TV, and listen to music. We were very casual. We’d lounge around in jeans and a T-shirt.”
Then on April 8, 2006, they jetted off to Las Vegas, Nevada, to watch the Floyd Mayweather Jnr vs. Zab Judah’s boxing match. Sonya’s comments on facebook, where she describes herself as a ‘diehard boxing fan’, gives colourful insight into her tastes.
‘I must admit I love watching the weigh-ins,’ she writes. ‘Dudes be ripped up!’
But it was Elba who was the victor that night, persuading Sonya to elope for a secret marriage the following day.
“We didn’t go to Vegas with plans on getting married,” she says. “We were just chilling on sun-loungers early in the day by the pool. I was drinking a Mimosa, and we were talking, and were both in a great mood. We had talked about marriage before and how we would want to keep it plain and simple.
“We had been together several months already and knew it was right. We were both madly in love by then, and we were like, ‘Let’s just do it!’ We were both excited. It was a mutual decision. As far as we were concerned, we were going to spend the rest of our lives together.”
The couple sneaked away and went to a jewellery store in the hotel where they were staying: “He got me a beautiful diamond ring and we picked it and it was not cheap. He was generous.”
They hailed a taxi to the courthouse, picked up a marriage licence, and headed straight for the Little White Wedding Chapel.
‘It took several hours before we made it there, but neither of us was nervous,’ she remembers. ‘When you have that chemistry and you’re that much in love, why would you be nervous?’
She says they exchanged their vows as the sun set. Aside from the official, the only wedding guest was a complete stranger: Las Vegas Estate agent, Daniel Krastev, whom they persuaded to serve as a witness.
Back at the hotel they called their parents, and then celebrated in their suite with dinner, champagne and chocolates overlooking the Vegas Strip.
A honeymoon was hastily arranged, and the couple flew to Jamaica, still keeping their nuptials a secret.
Only six weeks after tying the knot, Elba decided he wanted to end it all.
Sonya sighs: “Some people used to say, ‘Why her?’ That’s what they were telling him. It used to upset him. He was like, ‘Why don’t people just let me be happy?’
“I couldn’t understand how it would damage his career because I saw actors like Denzel Washington being successfully married. But I don’t think those actors’ wives are running law firms.
“It wasn’t easy for either of us,’ Sonya continues. “We sat down here in Maryland and decided we were going to file. We wavered a couple of times. We were both just sad. He hugged me, of course. It was very sad.”