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August 17, 2018

Found in Translation

Bringing a bit of Peckham to South L.A. helped Damson Idris to channel his American character in FX’s Snowfall.

Virginia Pelley
  • James Dimmock

Meeting John Singleton's mom might have been the toughest part of Damson Idris's audition for the FX drama Snowfall.

A native of South East London's Peckham district, Idris was ordered to not be British for a whole day while walking around South L.A. with the director. They talked about music, and Idris had his picture taken on the blue bike that Tyrese Gibson rode in Singleton's film Baby Boy. Singleton was acting like he already had the part, the actor recalls.

"Then his mum came and figured out in seconds I wasn't from America."

Singleton cast Idris anyway in his ambitious show, which traces the origins of L.A.'s crack cocaine epidemic in the early 1980s. Idris studied rappers to learn an American dialect for Franklin Saint, a likable recent graduate of a private high school. He starts dealing drugs to help his mom and eventually becomes a kingpin in the crack industry that nearly destroys his South L.A. neighborhood and so many others.

Some may wonder what a Brit knows about inner-city Los Angeles, but Idris says he noted many similarities with London's distressed areas, "poverty being the biggest one, but also relationships with parents." The youngest of six kids raised by a single mom, he adds, "A lot of people in Peckham didn't have dads — they were either locked up or just not around, like mine, unfortunately."

He says his older brothers, "who kind of lived that life of Peckham," helped steer him in the right direction. But he also says he understands Franklin's refusal to be tokenized, and why he chooses the drug game over college.

Playing Franklin is complicated, says Idris, who saw the drug's lingering fallout while hanging out on L.A.'s Skid Row to prepare for his role. "At first I was taking so much of that in that it was influencing my performance and creating a sort of remorse, which was bad." In season two (now airing), Franklin's struggle to move from boyhood to manhood — personally as well as "professionally" — deepens, as the stakes heighten.

"Having something to lose is always exciting onscreen," Idris says. "Franklin is smart enough to know the drug game is unpredictable and detrimental to people around you, but there's a love interest. That's going to be his kryptonite."

Viewers can catch up on Snowfall on demand and on FX Now.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018

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