Snowfall star Damson Idris portrays the multi-layered & headstrong drone pilot Lieutenant Thomas Harp in the Netflix film Outside the Wire. While this is his first foray into a big-budget action film, Idris is no stranger to complex and deeply memorable roles. As the lead of Snowfall, FX’s hit drama where he plays the complex and ambitious Franklin Saint, as he navigates the drug game in 1980s Los Angeles, during the crack epidemic. Idris brings freshness and authenticity to both roles, which ensures his longevity in the business.
Complex recently got to chat with Damson Idris about his approach to Harp, developing camaraderie with his Outside the Wire costar Anthony Mackie (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) who portrays Leo, filming during a pandemic, working with esteemed director Karena Evans (P-Valley), legacy, and so much more!
Outside the Wire has a lot of twists that I was not expecting. What stood out to you about Harp when you got this script and did you find yourself anticipating the surprises?
The biggest thing that stood out for me with Harp was the arc and journey that he goes on throughout the film. When we meet him, he is a guy who sits in the chair all day, eating gummy bears, and fiddling with a joystick. To go from that guy at the start of the film to someone who saves the world was exciting to me. I've always been infatuated with epic stories, and epic action movies so as soon as I had an opportunity to be in one, I jumped on it.
When we first meet Harp, he is on his last leg career-wise, right? This is kind of his last chance with the military when he meets Leo, who doesn't really conform to the military, it creates an interesting dynamic. Tell me about what think Harp learns as a man and as a soldier from Leo.
Harp learned so much from Leo. He learns that sometimes you need to do the right thing rather than just obey orders. He's infatuated with his combat skills, of course, since Leo is a top-secret Android officer. When people watch this movie, they’re going to see Anthony do stuff that he’s never done before. He's been great at the action before, but this time it's on a whole different level. Some of the intricate fighting sequences he does are to be marveled at and Mackie's process involved studying jujitsu and yoga to get into some of these fight stances. Harp looks at Leo and how he operates as a Marine, and it puts his job into perspective. Through his partnership with Leo, his whole outlook on casualties or war and humanity’s relationship with technology changes.
You’re right, when we first meet Harp he is pretty black and white in a lot of ways, Leo opens his eyes to the shades of grey in the world. What were some of the biggest physical and professional challenges of bringing this type of complex character to life?
The biggest thing I did when preparing for Harp was to not prepare as much as possible with regard to his physical nature. I didn't want him to be this amazing, cool guy who looks sexy when he runs and who is great at shooting. I wanted him to be really green and 10 steps behind on everything that was happening.
The biggest challenge was running—people don't realize running on screen is a lot of work and it could go really wrong. If you fall down, you're falling down in front of a lot of people. Also, the gunfire was a huge challenge. As an actor, I like things to be as real as possible, but after some of those first gunfire takes, I asked for those air plugs real quick (Laughs). Aside from that, this was my first time having to act against a green screen and truly believe that something was there that isn’t. So, working with CGI and trying to imagine a long six-foot-tall pole with a green tennis ball on the top of it is a robot, was exciting but definitely a challenge.
You said you wanted to make sure that Harp was 10 steps behind in everything that he did. How did they impact the relationship you were building onscreen with Anthony?
Anthony's like my big brother, so it was really difficult. We met through a mutual friend prior to shooting and I of course was familiar with and admired his work. The first time I met him in Budapest, we were sitting down at dinner and we were the only two Black guys in the film, plus working in Hungary there weren’t a lot of Black people behind the camera either. So, there was an instant rapport that we had that maybe some of the people around us wouldn’t always understand that brought us together and bonded us. He would constantly tease me and make fun of my process, but it was just to loosen things up for me. So, I think that translated to the character because when you first watch Harp, he is this upright guy who believes in what they’re doing, and then he kind of comes out of his shell as the movie unravels. The real relationship between Mackie and myself plays hand-in-hand with the two character’s relationship onscreen.
I agree. I think that in Harp's journey, he actually ends up becoming who he was always meant to be, it just takes these extreme series of events to get him there. While Harp is a dynamic character, most people are more familiar with your lead role on Snowfall. How do you navigate the balance of not being typecast and seen only in a specific way?
Breathing, being calm, and focusing on life more rather than my career, that's something that the current times has taught me to do. The more you soak in life, the more experiences you have and the more you're able to project that onto your art. I make sure I’m developing new interests and doing the things I like, outside of work. just develop a new interest, finding stuff I like. I grew up in the hood and everyone around me were gangsters so, of course, being an actor, this was my first major role. But I'm 29 years old now and I'm interested in other aspects of life. I'm interested in kids, marriage, and travel. I think travel is one of the cures to ignorance and I say all this to say that all of these interests are funneling into the choices I make and the characters I play. So as much as fans love me on the corners, I hope they're ready to see me in different circumstances and to go on this journey with me.
I would love to see you in a romantic comedy, see you switch that’s a bit lighter where you can show your range as an artist.
I’m not 6’2 for nothing, bring it all on (laughs).
You bring up an interesting point though because 2020 was so heavy and dealing with the physical and emotional impacts of the global pandemic has changed a lot of our perspectives on life and work. Talk a little bit about how the pandemic has changed your approach to portraying these characters and what changes you’ve encountered while filming this latest of Snowfall.
Originally, we started filming Season 4 in February of 2020, and then we started hearing whispers of this virus. We thought we were good and then boom, March came and they said we were halting production for two weeks, which turned into 2021.
During this time, I got to sit back and identify who I am outside of acting, which has been really special to me. I am trying to learn Spanish, although it's not going well, and Duolingo does not like me (laughs). I've been watching a lot of movies and focusing on my family. I'm overseas right now and I'm having to FaceTime as much as possible. I spent Christmas and my birthday alone, but it put things into perspective for me. When we picked Snowfall back up this fall, it was a different and tighter set because of COVID. We have a lot more safety guidelines in place, but I’m not complaining. I'm just fortunate and thankful that I'm able to work during this time because being an actor, that’s not always the case. I am still young but I’ve led this show for four years, I just did Outside the Wire, I have done a lot of great projects, and my career is steadily moving. That’s not the case for everyone, so that’s why it is important for me to be in contact with a lot of young actors who are trying to get their break. This pandemic is really hard for them because they have a lot to offer, but a lot of productions have been halted or paused because of the current times, so it’s made me very thankful for the position I’m in.
Speaking of Snowfall, what can we expect from Franklin this season, and what was it like working with Karena Evans? She is such a dope visionary when it just comes to music videos and television, so what was that dynamic like working with her, and did she bring a different energy and freshness to Season 4?
My manager told me Karena was directing an episode this season, so I kind of had my eyes on her work. I was watching Drake's “God Plan” video and said to myself "Oh wow, this woman's incredibly talented." When she came on set the thing that was amazing to me about Karena was, despite her age and the stigma that comes along with it, she was not playing into that. A lot of people in this industry when they look at someone young they're like, "Aw, you don't know anything." No, this woman was walking around like an absolute G. She knew so much and was so well-versed on the show and her main goal was to create an episode that was going to be iconic. When you guys see it, you're going to see that she did a job well done and I can't wait to work with her in the future if she lets me.
With regards to what you could expect this season, the same old man. This is a show that's speaking of a time that's so important to American history and American culture and has so many correlations to what we're seeing today in the present tense. The after-effects of what crack has done to not only African Americans but Black people globally. So, I think it's just about telling that story truthfully, that's what people are going to see this season. But above all things, you're going to be on the edge of your seats. Franklin is making a lot of money now, but at the same time, the war on drugs is hitting very heavy. He's dealing with inner and outer conflict, he's dealing with trying to juggle the legality of his real estate business and running a drug empire. I'm sure you saw from that little teaser but Franklin is very vulnerable and less sure of himself compared to previous seasons. I can’t wait for everyone to see it!
I like that, I think it’s important to see all these sides of Franklin, especially him being a bit more transparent this season. Being a part of a historic show steeped in American history has to be a huge undertaking. And you’re contributing a body of art to the culture and for our community. So, what type of legacy do you want to contribute through your career, what does that ideally look like for you?
As an actor, my job is to put the art into the world and then walk away. It's not my job to comment on what people think of that art, I always say that. So, as I am thankful for being cherished and given my flowers in the present, in the back of my mind, I know everything I do today is for those who aren't here yet, those in a hundred years. So, my goal is to keep putting out art at a prestigious level and motivating as many young people as possible the same way Sidney Poitier motivated me.