'Snowfall' Star Damson Idris Says the FX Crime Drama Has the Viewer 'By the Throat'

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Image via Prashant Gupta/FX

FX’s Snowfall, which returns for its fourth season on Wednesday, Feb. 24, is a slow-burn of a television series. It’s quality television, but it’s a show that takes its time to build. That’s not even trying to say that the first season of the series is wack—it’s better than most of the series being discussed on the timeline—but for those of you who might be too used to binging a series in a day, Snowfall takes its time. I remember hearing from a few heads in the know that Snowfall was that show, and I’d not tapped in until this scene from Season 3 spread like wildfire. In it, Franklin (played by the 29-year-old British actor Damson Idris), an intelligent young man who helped spread crack cocaine to the streets, checks his lifelong friend Leon (Isaiah John) during a car ride. It is a moment full of intensity wrapped in a wise message about checking yourself that made me decide, that day, to get my Snowfall catch-up on. Yes, I just admitted I was late, but during a conversation with Idris via Zoom, that seemed to be quite normal for this show.

“The interesting thing about the show is from Season 1,” Idris explains, “[the] biggest stars in the world were watching it, but the people weren’t. It was like, ‘Wow, Naomi Campbell loves Snowfall, but I could still walk on the street and no one notices me.’ Then coming around the pandemic—it’s horrible to say this, but [it] actually helped a lot because people were at home and they had time to binge. They run out of shows and a lot of people were holding off from watching Snowfall. It’s a show that’s close to home. Many people, their families directly dealt with crack cocaine and they didn’t really want to, they didn’t want to give into that nostalgic feeling cause it could take them on a journey and kind of launched some of that PTSD.” That’s a fact; as a kid who grew up with “CRACK IS WACK” as the slogan, but also knowing that Black and Brown people needed some kind of plug to the cocaine, it’s refreshing to have a series as educational as Snowfall is also be gripping and engaging. It’s a series drenched in ‘80s pop culture with a dynamic lead and an engrossing story that’s flush with the right music, great costuming, and somehow still being slept-on by those who should know.

2021 marks the 10th year of Damson Idris’ acting career—he jokingly says he’d like to forget the first short he was in, and insists his real debut as an actor came when he was 21. “I was initially trying to be a footballer, soccer player and it didn’t work out. Acting kind of found me, man. I got my first play through a link-up at university with a fellow student. I remember getting that first reaction on a theater production from the audience. I said my first line and they were all laughing, and I kind of froze. In that moment, I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is what I want to do. I want to be able to connect to people.’” It’s what a series like Snowfall does on a number of levels.

“[Snowfall] caters to Gen Z because they get the educational side to what their parents always spoke about,” Idris explains. When I first saw the Crack documentary on Netflix, I chuckled to myself, because it’s what Snowfall has been saying for three seasons with archival footage and interviews. The series, which does have a dense storyline, takes you back to the dawn of the crack cocaine epidemic from three different perspectives: the CIA operative Teddy McDonald (played by Carter Hudson), the Mexican cartel/crime business side, and Franklin Saint (Idris), a 20-year-old Los Angeles drug dealer who learns about freebase, flips it into crack cocaine, and becomes a whole druglord. There are some gruesome murders, a lot of questioning the US government and its involvement, and the aftermath on crack flooding South Central. The show is deep, and for someone who grew up in an inner city, you remember things. Idris says the series “caters to ‘90s, ‘80s, ‘70s, [and] ‘60s babies who have a nostalgic feeling when they watch Franklin walking down the street. ‘Wow, that reminds me of my older brother,’ or ‘That reminds me of my uncles.’ That caters to people from all walks of life.”

Kwame Patterson and Damson Idris on FX's 'Snowfall'
Image via Byron Cohen/FX

Franklin isn’t your typical drug dealer on TV, though. He’s the head of a strong criminal organization, getting into laundering his funds and buying property in his community. He understands the totality of what he’s doing in the street, but with the idea that, “I want to leave some spots of this world better than we’ve made it.” During one of the early screeners we received, Franklin’s mother, Cissy Saint (powerfully played by Michael Hyatt, who we need to have a conversation about at some point), hints at the one thing that I wanted to know from Franklin: “When is this going to end?” The idea of being able to somehow stop being the head of a criminal organization sounds great, and it’s no doubt easy to just say, “Oh yeah, in a year or two,” but when it comes to Franklin and what he’s involved in, there are a number of factors that make that difficult. I wondered, “Does Damson Idris straight-up ask Snowfall writers how this is all going to end?”

“Always, always,” Idris admits. “It’s always two options with these stories: death or prison, and Franklin’s pretty much already done both. We always talk about that. The interesting thing about Snowfall is through Franklin’s existence, he is birthing [more] Franklins, so the audience is going to be torn. You’re going to fall in love with other characters this season who are taking a different path and who have a different mentality to Franklin, which gives him room to explore different areas. ‘Do I want to get out clean? Do I, one day, maybe want to stop selling drugs and be the mayor of this community?’ There are so many different ways and so many different directions that the show could go in because it’s growing so much as the seasons unfold. And as you say,” Idris affirms, “it is getting better. Those are always the best shows.” In mentioning how the creative surrounding Snowfall grew stronger as each season aired, Idris agrees, commenting on the foundation Snowfall’s writers, directors, and cast have built, “brick by brick” as Franklin told Leon in the car.

“Even [with] stuff like ‘brick by brick’ [from the ninth episode of Snowfall’s third season, “Blackout”],” Idris says, “there’s a bit of me where I start Season 4 like, ‘Let me try to talk ‘brick by brick’.’ There’s a little bit [of a] rapper in me, ‘Let me make a better intro.’ Meek Mill’s always trying to beat that Dreams and Nightmares intro. Through Season 4, you’ll watch the first episode and [say], ‘That’s my favorite episode.’ Then you’ll get to Episode 3, you’re like, ‘That’s my favorite.’ It keeps going on. We understand that the rhythm of the show, it’s like watching Game of Thrones. ‘I don’t trust anything right now. I love this character, but he could die at the end of this episode.’ That is the greatest form of television. This season, we have the viewer by the throat.”

Idris continues, breaking down Franklin’s perspective going into Season 4. “From Season 3, I think Franklin was kind of comfortable. He was like, ‘All right, this is me. I’m the boss. What I say, goes.’ By the end of Season 3, reality hit him that he could lose his life and he could lose everything in an instant. So Season 4 is basically Franklin rebuilding his spirit and putting himself back together. The beauty of it, for the viewer, is he immediately doesn’t become a James Bond. You don’t know if he’s going to be the villain or not. That’s why it’s more exciting.” Idris knows and has likely thought about this more than most, as he stays in character as Franklin throughout the shoot. It made the walking cane Franklin uses a part of what Idris has to deal with, day to day. “I would walk with the cane wherever to go and get lunch. It’s actually interesting trying to get lunch when you have a cane. You’re trying to balance the boxes and then you’ve got to go back for the drink. But it all helped me, the action of staying there all day. As soon as I put the costume on, I stay in it. This isn’t a game, man. We’re here to make history. And if the sparring partners I have on this show from Angela Lewis to Amin Joseph, to Isaiah John to Michael Hyatt, and Carter Hudson, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, everyone brings their A-game. Everyone is totally on point, constantly in character and it just raises the stakes and raises the prestige of the show.”

Damson Idris in FX's 'Snowfall'
Image via Prashant Gupta/FX

It helps when you have dynamic directors like Karena Evans, who’s already been shifting television with her work on P-Valley and the upcoming Gossip Girl reboot hitting HBO Max, of which she directed the first two episodes. “She [is] the youngest director to work on our show,” Idris recalls, “but she walked around like an absolute G. Everyone respected her. She was the first director who I knew she was directing the show before she came in. People [were] like, ‘Hey, that young director’s coming in, Karena.’ [Daniel] Kaluuya’s hitting me up, like, ‘Yo, hey, Karena’s about to direct.’ Everyone was ready, everyone was prepared, but the way she just took to it, man, it was just beautiful to watch. I can’t wait to collaborate with her again. She showed us all in our greatest light. She showed our strengths, but also stretched us away from our weaknesses, pushed us. She’s fantastic. I think it’s the actress in her that makes her so great at talking to actors. She can just pull stuff out of me in great ways. Episode 2, Season 4 is an absolute banger,” Idris exclaims. And he’s right, but we’ll discuss that after you’ve seen it.

Evans’ work on that episode of Season 4 was coming to an end around the time the quarantine was hitting last year, and with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the globe, production didn’t pick back up until October of 2020. Idris reflects on the experience, saying that it taught him “that our industry will strive through anything and we will stick together. Wrapping Season 4, knowing the anticipation that the viewers have for the show, it just made it all that [much] more worth it for the viewers who watch that with that in mind. These are people who’ve sacrificed and risked health to put art into the world. That’s really special. It’s really important, but it speaks to the future of our business. It’s the reason why I was open to even working in a pandemic in the first place.”

The work Idris has been putting in is getting notice. He started 2021 alongside The Falcon and the Winter Soldier star Anthony Mackie in the Netflix original film Outside the Wire, and while Idris is obviously looking to get into more movies, he has his eyes on the other sides of the industry as well. “I’m also interested in producing, which I’m doing now and creating my own work,” Idris shares. “That’s the interesting side [of] the business for me now, because it’s a side that people who look like us haven’t been in for a long time. The ability to create opportunities for the younger generation, those who haven’t been in the light. I think that’s my true calling. I’ll do a movie once a year to prove that I still got [it]. I want to use my platform to bring work to places that wouldn’t have the opportunity if I wasn’t involved. That’s what it’s about.”

That sentiment lines up with why Damson Idris’ portrayal of Franklin Saint in Snowfall is so important; he brings out the raw spectrum of emotions, from the (few and far between) times he experiences pure joy to the hunger to be on top to the realization of what he’s doing to his community. And like Franklin Saint, Idris’ motivation is to pay it forward, give his people more opportunities. And what do we get out of it? Nothing short of one of the most relevant pieces of television to hit the small screen in the last five years.

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