Actor Damson Idris poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Nov. 1, 2021. Idris was named one of eight breakthrough entertainers of the year by the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
LOS ANGELES — Damson Idris transformed from his real life British-speaking Nigerian persona into a canny drug kingpin character with a West Coast accent on FX’s popular crime drama “Snowfall.”
Idris made his presence felt as Franklin Saint, a young street-minded entrepreneur who was educated in an upper-class neighborhood, but determined to get into the drug game to take care of the people around him. Through the critically acclaimed show, his popularity has grown exponentially over the past four seasons.
Along with serving as a co-producer of season five due next year, Idris’ breakthrough role landed him other opportunities on other projects such as television shows “The Twilight Zone” and “Black Mirror” along with films including “Farming” and Netflix’s “Outside the Wire,” starring him with Anthony Mackie.
“It’s the foundation of my career,” Idris said of “Snowfall,” which was co-created by John Singleton, who died in 2019. The series focuses on the genesis of how crack cocaine became a rampant epidemic in Los Angeles’ inner city neighborhoods in the 1980s.
“Sometimes, I talk as if I’m already 90 years old and I’ve seen my career,” he said. “It’s so weird. I think in 40, 50, 60 years, people will talk about and refer to (the series) and be like ‘Oh man, I remember when he did that and look what he’s doing now.’ I think that’s a remarkable thing. I love the show for that.”
For his career-defining work, Idris has been named among The Associated Press’ breakthrough entertainers of the year alongside Rachel Zegler, Simu Liu, Adrienne Warren, Ruaw Alejandro and more.
The Nigerian actor grew up in Peckham, south London, but he didn’t know anything about the drug epidemic in the United States until he visited Los Angeles for the first time and saw Skid Row — an impoverished area inhabited by the homeless. He auditioned so well for the role that he said Singleton didn’t know he was from London until “way later in the process.”
Before Idris’ rise, he said Singleton gave him advice about humility — a lesson that still sticks with him.
“Everyone you meet on the way up, you’re going to meet on the way down,” he said. “So just be nice to everyone. That’s something I’m learning and mastering today. I’m fortunate not only to be the lead of the show, but also be a young producer. That could come with a lot of ego and a big head. But if anything, I’m even nicer now to everyone. That’s something John taught me. He empowered people. That’s something I strive to do. I’m learning so much every day.”
In preparing for “Snowfall,” Idris said his upbringing in Peckham helped him relate to the plight of Black people’s struggle in South Central Los Angeles.
“There are so many categories that correlate: From single fathers (and mothers), to poverty, to drugs to crime to police brutality to racism,” he said. “I definitely feel in the U.K. that there are similarities between Black British culture to African American culture. I feel like my upbringing assisted with me understanding and having empathy towards people of that lifestyle in South Central.”
For Idris, doing impersonations has been his calling card since he was a kid. His acting career unknowingly started when his family made him perform in front of them.
“You remember at the beginning of Eddie Murphy’s ‘Raw’ and Samuel Jackson says ‘That boy got talent’? That was literally my upbringing,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what acting was, but I was impersonating these people from Martin (Lawrence) in ‘Bad Boys’ to whatever since I was 5 years old.”
Idris, 30, is a part of a long line of British Black actors who have found success on American soil including Idris Elba, Daniel Kaluuya, David Oyelowo and John Boyega. He said acting is embedded at an early age for their culture by them going to the theater when “we’re babies.”
“I think when we see you guys on the screen, we are instantly locked in because we feel a connection,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that you guys don’t get the opportunity to see our stuff, too. Most of the time when we come here, Americans think ‘Oh, he’s all tea and crumpets.’ They think I live next door to the Queen. I don’t. But that’s changing.”
In the future, Idris said he would love to someday portray Eddie Murphy or Sidney Poitier on screen and maybe a musician. He said next year will be a pivotal moment for his career.
“My career could either skyrocket or I’m going back to Peckham,” he jokingly said. “In 2022, I’m really excited about playing a lot of real people from the past and producing.”
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