One afternoon in 2015, at a hotel in L.A., Damson Idris’ phone rang as he was taking a dip in the pool. To answer, the British actor — who had flown to Hollywood to try to win the lead role in John Singleton’s FX crime drama Snowfall — inched his way through the deep end, holding tight to the edge because he was (and is) unable to swim.
“I got to my phone and I’m hanging on the side,” Idris recalls, sitting down to talk after a photo shoot in West Los Angeles. “And John Singleton is like, ‘Can you hear me? You got the part, man!’”
In shock and celebration, the then-23-year-old — who’d been in the Snowfall audition room eight times for the role and funded his trips to the States by working in a sneaker store — launched himself backward, landing in the middle of the pool. “This little kid was like, ‘Daddy! That man’s drowning!’” he says, laughing.
Seven years later, Idris is swimming comfortably in the deep end, at least by Hollywood measures. Now 30, the actor has turned Snowfall’s drug kingpin Franklin Saint — a wide-eyed teenager who quickly becomes the biggest distributor of rock cocaine in the world — into one of the best antiheroes on TV. His “try me” head tilts, calculating demeanor and sweaty, stress-induced meltdowns catapulted Snowfall to the most watched series on FX in 2021 — two years after Singleton died as a result of a stroke. And deep into its run, the show has done the improbable: season five debuted Feb. 23 with 4.5 million viewers, up 43 percent from season three, and 13 percent higher than season four.
Idris’ stardom and cachet have risen as well. He has posed in his drawers for Calvin Klein and in January walked the runway for Prada in Milan. He texts with Idris Elba about the ultimate fate of Franklin Saint. (Elba’s advice: “Make sure they kill you. Otherwise, you’re going to walk around, and your whole life, people are going to be like, ‘You should bring Snowfall back.’”) He also has partied with Jamie Foxx at his house, received piano lessons from rapper Saweetie (as seen in a video he posted) and watched the 2022 Super Bowl en suite with Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Rihanna.
By Idris’ account, he’s never actively pursued these starry social connections. “The best thing about my life, I haven’t reached out to any of these circumstances, so I know it’s genuine,” says Idris. “The only person I ever begged was John Singleton. And I begged him because I said, ‘Hey, if I get this part, I promise you, I won’t let you down.’ And, hopefully, I haven’t.”
Little did he know, he needn’t have begged Singleton for the role. Snowfall showrunner and co-creator Dave Andron recalls being floored by Idris’ audition tape. “I was like, ‘Where did you find him?’” Andron says. “The [California] accent was really strong already. He’d never really even spent time in the States. And he just had everything. You bought him as a boy genius, you bought the charisma.”
Andron’s only hesitation concerned whether Idris could evolve with the character. At one of the auditions, Andron presented Idris with a scene five years into the future in which Saint murders someone he loves. “When I saw [Damson] do that, in my mind, it left no question,” Andron says.
The premiere episode of season five is set in the summer of 1986, a 15-month time jump from where season four ended. Franklin Saint and his family, who have become multimillionaires by distributing rock cocaine, have it all: private jets, penthouses, matching horses. But they also have the CIA breathing down their necks, and must tread lightly to manage rival gangs and even their own egos.
“Shows about drugs can be two things,” explains Idris. “They could be glamorizing a horrible life. Or there could be something you learn from.”
Idris points out that while viewers have 20/20 hindsight about the effects of crack on a community, in 1983, when the show begins, no one knew the devastation it was capable of. He points to the character of Melody Wright (Reign Edwards), Franklin Saint’s neighbor and the daughter of a police detective. She tries crack at a party the night before she’s due to leave for college and becomes immediately addicted; Saint and her father try endlessly to help her, to no avail.
“I think [Snowfall] gets compared to the likes of The Wire, or The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, because you are able to empathize with the characters,” says Idris. “And you are able to see drug abuse in a completely different way than you might have seen it before.… You learn something from it while being entertained.”
This season, Idris is also a producer on the show. When he first saw his name listed next to his new title, “I was like, Oh. My. God. Wow. I’m going to wear suits to set every day now!” he jokes.
Author Walter Mosley, who is a writer and executive producer on the show, recounts a particularly “emotional” meeting among Snowfall higher-ups when “tough decisions” had to be made. He declines to give specifics, but recounts how Idris stepped up: “Damson came in and said, ‘Look, we have to do what’s right. And that’s it.’ Everything evened out after that,” says Mosley. “Because number one on the call list says we’ve got to do what’s right. So…. OK. And I could tell that he understood that he needed to do that, regardless of how he felt.”
Growing up in England, the actor — born Adamson Alade-Bo Idris — was the youngest of six children raised by a single mother in Peckham Estates, which he describes as similar to the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn (where Jay-Z was raised). By age 10, he was headed down a “bad path,” he recalls without elaborating. His mother, who emigrated from Nigeria, threatened to send him “back to Africa” if he didn’t straighten up. The family soon after moved from Peckham to a better neighborhood nearby. “If I’d stayed in Peckham, I know I would not be an actor today,” says Idris, who divides his time between Los Angeles, London and Lagos, Nigeria. “That’s when the dream to be more than my circumstance started.”
Idris had spent his formative years watching HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and doing impersonations of Bernie Mac and Chris Tucker. He studied drama at Brunel University London and in 2012 won his first acting job in a production of the play Pandora’s Box.
Idris continued to work onstage, eventually landing at the Royal National Theatre. Shortly thereafter, his manager suggested he audition for Snowfall.
While the series has always received strong reviews, and Idris has garnered a few nominations for his work (including from the NAACP Image Awards and the BET Awards), the Emmys and the SAG Awards have yet to take notice of the show or Idris.
“It’s a shame. I’ve spoken to so many [actors from The Wire],” says Idris. “And I always ask them, ‘How’s it feel? You made magic. Something that people are still referring to as one of the greatest shows of all time. And you guys never received the accolades.’ And they say, ‘It’s a shame.’ So that’s as simple as I could put it.”
More humbling than not receiving an award is the fact that Denzel Washington, one of his favorite actors, doesn’t know who Indris is. Last year, after Idris uploaded a video of himself to Instagram impersonating the two-time Oscar winner, a red carpet reporter asked Washington if he had seen Idris’ video or even knew who he was. Washington was oblivious. “I don’t know who that is,” he said, adding, “No disrespect to Damson.” To many viewers, it also sounded like Washington said “Dancin’,” not “Damson.”
Idris quickly heard that Washington was talking about him. “My phone was blowing up,” he says. “People are like, ‘Denzel’s talking about you.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. He finally knows I exist. He must’ve seen my work.’ And then, it was like.…”
Idris begins to impersonate Washington. It’s spot-on. “Never heard of him,” Idris riffs. “I won’t care if that man died.”
Idris thought Washington’s answer was hysterical, taking the apparent mispronunciation a step further and changing his Twitter name temporarily to Dancin’ Address. “You need that from the giants,” Idris says. “This truly is my idol. And that moment was precious for me.
“It just keeps me focused,” he adds. “And one day, maybe he will see [my work]. When I go to sleep, I often fantasize he’s at home bingeing Snowfall and being like.…” He slips into an impersonation again: “That boy pretty good.”
Outside of Snowfall, Idris has landed roles in Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot; Black Mirror; Outside the Wire, a 2021 action flick that pairs him with Anthony Mackie; and 2018’s Farming, in which he plays Enitan, a self-loathing Nigerian teen who becomes a skinhead.
“I was taught by my family to love yourself, to love your skin, to live unapologetically in your Blackness and your African-ness,” says Idris. “Whereas Eni was the absolute opposite.”
Case in point: In another Instagram clip from 2021, Idris quipped he was CEO of the Dark Skinned Society. It’s a playful name for a group of mostly British friends, all of whom are deeply hued. “Growing up, in our culture, everyone wanted to be light-skinned.” Idris recalls. “It was like, ‘Ah, man, you ain’t no Lil’ Romeo.’ The chocolate brothers never get any love.”
In the video, he’s hanging out on Sunset Boulevard with music stars Giggs, Santan Dave and Not3s; footballer Daniel Sturridge; and Daniel Kaluuya, whom Idris met in London circa 2012 while doing voiceovers for a BBC Radio 4 play. “London’s a really small place,” Idris says. “Whether you work in acting, music, sports, you know everyone. Out here, the States are so far away from each other. You might not ever meet each other until you all finally make it. But in the U.K., it’s like, ‘No, I saw you when you were doing those horrible TV shows. And now look at us in L.A.’ “
Not everyone is so happy about this British invasion. In 2017, Samuel L. Jackson famously wondered why Black British actors were in such seemingly high demand and if Black American actors would not be better equipped to perform as Black American characters. Jackson wasn’t the only critic, of course, just the loudest.
It’s a subject Idris has come prepared to answer. He rattles off a list of Americans who have played British or African characters, including Washington in Cry Freedom, Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.
Idris says he understands the frustration of those with complaints, but notes that “it can’t be a one-sided thing. Because in some instances, it’s like you want British actors to just disappear off the face of the earth, and only play Brits!” He says the key to successfully portraying someone of a different culture is respect and understanding.
He references his own work with L.A. rapper WC, who is Idris’ dialect coach on Snowfall and helped him sound like an authentic South Angeleno. But Idris says WC taught him so much more. “What Dub taught me was something that I’m going to apply to every character I play,” Idris says. “It was the essence. When you talk about culture, when you talk about how people stand, how they walk, how they have fun, how they laugh, is a really specific thing. It’s a regional thing. The interesting thing about that is that it doesn’t just apply to a British actor.” He continues, name-checking Snowfall castmates who hail from Atlanta, New York and Detroit. “[WC is] teaching everyone how to be L.A., not just me.”
Idris hopes to make a film about Lawrence Anini, a Nigerian bandit who was killed by a firing squad in 1987. He has obtained the rights to Anini’s story and hopes to shoot the project in Nigeria. “I want to bring as much work to Nigeria as possible. I want to present Nigeria in a prestigious, elevated way.”
He also fantasizes about starring in a biopic of fellow Nigerian Fela Kuti, the late activist and Afrobeat pioneer. “When I was growing up, my oldest brother, Jay, he would be banging Fela Kuti throughout the house. I just loved how daring [Kuti] was. He would get onstage in just pants. He really embraced African culture and pushed Nigerian music to a global standpoint. And that’s what I like to do with my acting. I want to push the culture.”
This story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
#Damson #Idris #Snowfall #AntiHero #Denzel #Washington #Hollywood #Reporter