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British actor Damson Idris brings L.A.'s '80s crack epidemic to life on 'Snowfall'

British actor Damson Idris brings L.A.'s '80s crack epidemic to life on 'Snowfall'
Damson Idris, lead actor of FX's "Snowfall," a series about the crack cocaine epidemic in L.A. in the '80s, is photographed in Los Angeles. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When British actor Damson Idris auditioned for the role of young street entrepreneur Franklin Saint in FX’s “Snowfall,” a drama set during the infancy of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1980s South-Central Los Angeles, he was given more than lines to read. He was issued a challenge.

John Singleton, the Oscar-nominated director of “Boyz N the Hood” and co-creator-executive producer of “Snowfall,” drove Idris to the heart of South Los Angeles and told him to get out.

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"He kicked me out of the car and was like, 'Go! Survive!'" Idris recalled recently, laughing at the memory. "'If you can survive, then you got the part.'"

Idris not only pulled through but even managed to convince the locals that he was American. That is, until he was introduced to Singleton's mother.

"I see his mum and I say something really British like, 'How lovely your hair looks today,'" he remembered. "And she turns to John like, 'He ain't from here, huh?'"

Malcolm Mays as Kevin, Damson Idris as Franklin, Isaiah John as Leon in the pilot of FX's "Snowfall."
Malcolm Mays as Kevin, Damson Idris as Franklin, Isaiah John as Leon in the pilot of FX's "Snowfall." (Mark Davis / FX)

The 26-year-old actor actually hails from Peckham, a "South-Central equivalent" in London. He resumes the role of Saint when the series returns Thursday for its second season.

"If you took five kids from South-Central and put them in a room with five kids from Peckham, you'd have some trouble figuring out who's from where," Idris said. "And that's the beautiful reason why I'm able to relate so deeply to Franklin and I'm able to play this character."

Despite his instinctual understanding of the character, executive producers weren't originally thrilled at the thought of casting a Brit in such a quintessentially African American role.

"Frankly, the fact that he's British makes him not necessarily the ideal guy to play Franklin," admitted showrunner Dave Andron. "We had a lot of discussions about it. But ultimately you need somebody with real star charisma. Otherwise, nobody's going to watch your show. And he's talented off the charts."

To help Idris achieve a higher level of authenticity in his portrayal, producers tapped Westside Connection rapper WC to coach Idris in the accent and mannerisms of a South L.A. native.

"With Damson, he's a smart kid and he's one of the best actors I've ever, not just worked with, but seen," said WC. "A lot of people don't realize the talent that this kid has."

Through WC, Idris got a deep-dive into "not just gang culture but African American culture growing up in the inner city of South-Central Los Angeles," the rapper said. "He understands the lifestyle. He works hard, he can act his ass off and he continues to ask questions."

Damson Idris, lead actor of FX's "Snowfall," a series about the crack cocaine epidemic in LA in the '80s, in Los Angeles.
Damson Idris, lead actor of FX's "Snowfall," a series about the crack cocaine epidemic in LA in the '80s, in Los Angeles. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

"I feel like in order for me to play a character like this, I really need to live in his skin," Idris said. "I needed to really talk to people like WC, like John Singleton, and listen to the music of the time and really understand what it means to be a teen in South-Central L.A. in the '80s. And what that means for someone's soul."

By the end of the first season, Saint has evolved from a conscientious kid who dabbles in weed dealing to help his struggling mom to an emergent drug kingpin almost single-handedly responsible for introducing crack cocaine into his tight-knit, working-class neighborhood. The new season picks up with Saint struggling to keep up with the demands of his growing organization.

"We've moved on about six months since the final episodes of Season 1, and we're now moving into the winter of 1984," Idris said. "Over that time he's accumulated a lot of cash and for that reason, not only does he have outside forces wanting to take him down but also conflict within his own crew, his own family. So we're seeing Franklin evolve into the boss that he was destined to be."

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"I think you're seeing a young man fully begin to understand his power," added Andron. "You always understood that he was more charming and a bit smarter than most. But this season sees him really glimpse what real power is and start to control a system that has up until now controlled him."

It was crucial to both Idris and the showrunners to portray Saint with complexity and nuance rather than as a stereotypical, one-note drug dealer as well as to avoid glamorizing the drug trade.

"We all know where this is headed," Andron said. "I don't think there's anybody watching who doesn't understand that this is going to end in a pretty awful place for people. It's a scourge. It's a horrible thing and we're not trying to have these guys out buying cars or doing flashy [stuff]. It's not a wish fulfillment story, it's a tragedy."

Idris is aware that his character and the story are a provocative topic that needs to be handled with care.

"I feel like it's a huge responsibility [to get it right], and for that it must be treated with the utmost delicacy and prestige,” he said. “I wanted to bring etiquette to this. Often with these stories, it's stereotypical and it glamorizes a certain depiction of African American males and our communities. But I didn't want that to happen. I wanted this to be a show which educates you. It's not a documentary, but you are learning something and you're able to look at this time and be able to understand why many people in our communities are how they are today."

He added, "The most important thing for me when playing Franklin is to keep his innocence and to show his empathy. He doesn't know what he's doing is going to mean for 2018, but at least as a viewer you can see that he's doing it for supposedly the right reasons. He wants to get his mom out of that situation and he wants to better his life and that's something I feel a lot of people can relate to and understand. Franklin Saint could be anyone."

Damson Idris, lead actor of FX's "Snowfall," a series about the crack cocaine epidemic in L.A. in the '80s, in Los Angeles.
Damson Idris, lead actor of FX's "Snowfall," a series about the crack cocaine epidemic in L.A. in the '80s, in Los Angeles. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Idris ends and Saint begins the moment the actor arrives on set and dons his character's costume, traditionally the boyish, ’80s-appropriate uniform of a polo shirt or baseball T-shirt and dark jeans.

"Then I'm Franklin straightaway," he said. "Go into makeup, I'm Franklin. People are like, 'Good morning, Damson!' I'm like, 'It's Franklin!'"

Though there's no word yet on whether the series will be picked up for a third season, next up Idris will star in Adewale Agbaje's "Farming" about the black leader of an all-white skinhead gang. And after that, he'll appear in the upcoming fourth season of Netflix’s anthology series "Black Mirror," joining the ranks of fellow young breakouts (and friends) Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), fellow British actors who’ve played Americans.

Said Idris: "I'm in a position now where I get to kind of sit back and choose what roles I want to play or choose what roles I want to give my energy to."

"Snowfall" Season 2 will air on FX on July 19 at 10 p.m.

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‘Snowfall’

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)

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