Damson Idris flew into America in the back row of an economy flight. Three days later, he flew out first class. Forget an overnight success — the kid was an overflight success, thank you very much (“They had cutlery and everything!” he says). And while that’s a nice advertisement for the land of opportunity and the caprice of the American Dream and the relative largesse of the Hollywood expense account, it’s an even better endorsement for Damson Idris — the boy at his best in the deep end.
Take the final audition for the role that made the name. John Singleton, the late, legendary director of Boyz n the Hood, met Damson (fresh off the plane) in South Los Angeles, the setting for his new crime drama Snowfall.
“‘Be in character. Don’t be British. Be American,’ he told me,” Damson remembers. “I was petrified.” They walked around for a whole day — the kid from South London and the Grandfather of South Central — “Just meeting everyone in the community.”
Damson didn’t break character once. No one suspected a thing. Later on, while he was sitting in a hotel pool on Wilshire Boulevard, Damson got a call. “John said: ‘You got the part, man!’” he remembers. “I can’t swim — so I immediately started drowning.” (Some deep ends, of course, are trickier than others.)
Nowadays, there are three-storey billboards down on Sunset Boulevard with Damson’s face on them. When the actor met Jay-Z and Beyoncé, they wouldn’t believe that his accent, as the 19-year-old crack dealer Franklin Saint, wasn’t genuine. (“I watched your show on tour, I really liked it,” Jay-Z told him.) In America, Damson hangs out with Diddy and sits on Jimmy Kimmel’s sofa. After a few too many red wines, he says, a transatlantic drawl begins to creep in to his voice. For most British actors, breaking America is the great, insurmountable hurdle of their careers. For Damson Idris, the only challenge is escaping its hard Rs.
All this lends our shoot and interview — in a quiet, suburban studio near Parsons Green — an eerie sense of calm-before-the-storm. It seems highly improbable, after all, that Damson’s Stateside fame won’t soon catch on in his hometown, too. The gulf stream is in his favour. And you simply can’t negotiate with gravity.
“I love London because I can come here and be invisible,” he says. “But that’s how life works today. No one knows who you are — and then lots of people do. The power of art is being put in the hands of the people. You don’t need to be given a shot. You can make it happen yourself.”
Tell me about your family. You’re the youngest of six kids, aren’t you?
My oldest brother works in banking, the one underneath him is a lawyer, the one underneath him works in IT. The two girls younger than them are project managers. And then I’m an actor. So I kinda feel like I could have been a stripper and my mum would have been like, “That’s fine.” We’ve already ticked every box. Being the youngest makes you a spoiled brat a bit. I got my head slapped a lot. Still do. It’s great. Keeps you humble. I try not to be the centre of attention, but it just kind of happens. But we’re all stars. I like to pull the personalities of my family and put them into the characters I play.
You were a reluctant actor when you started out…
I wanted to be Ronaldinho. I wanted to be Christiano Ronaldo. But acting really did find me. I had to go to university because I’m Nigerian — my mum would have slapped me across the head if I hadn’t. And I always loved American Pie, so I wanted to have that university experience! I think I was extremely lucky. Wanting to play sports and then falling into acting doesn’t happen for everyone. Having fun, not knowing what it’s going to lead to… and then someone coming out of nowhere saying you’re pretty good. It’s hard to believe that because you kinda feel like you don’t deserve it.
You seem to have met lots of your heroes already. Is there something they all share?
They all have this aura. I don’t know if they always had it. When I talk to these people, they’re really knowledgeable. They’re wise. It’s like they could be 20, 30, 40, but they have the wisdom of someone who has lived forever. I remember when John Singleton passed, at his funeral, someone got up and said: “He lived only for 50 years. But he lived three-to-four lifetimes.” And I kinda feel like that’s the vibe I get from those people. That they’ve seen it all.
You’re known to be good at accents. Do you ever lose your own?
Too many red wines will do it. Yesterday was Halloween, and I had my Renaissance Italian mask on. I was trying to be cool and low key in my tuxedo: everyone else was dressed as witches and things. I was the weird guy in the tux. And everyone kept saying: “Why are you talking American?” all night. But it’s interesting because I dive so deep into these characters. It’s important to come back to London, to be around my family and remember who I am. People act all day. People who aren’t actors act. When you’re doing an interview like this and you’re trying to be professional — that’s you acting. I noticed that from a young age.
I want to put a question you posed on Twitter back to you: “Should critics with no historical or cultural relation to a specific piece of art be given the power to certify whether it is good or not?”
That tweet came about because I watched a movie by Idris Elba called Yardie. And I just remember it being negatively spoken about in the press. I went to see it with a bunch of people who are Jamaican, who are from inner-city London. And it was the greatest experience — full of laughter, full of joy. These are the people who should critique the movie. Something like Snowfall, which is so specific to a culture — I believe that the people of South Central should be able to say whether it’s good or not. Then the rest of the world can critique it.
In your episode in the last season of Black Mirror, the off-stage villain was a social network called Smithereen. Do you think social media is a force for evil?
I think there are positives. But for young people, the architects of our future, social media is based on instant gratification and constantly trying to redefine your identity and be something that you’re not. I think that’s poisonous.
That episode, ‘Smithereens’ — it spoke to today. We always see Black Mirror as future times. But that episode was today. My attention span is getting worse. It’s a shame, really, because you go out for dinner with a friend and as soon as they go to the bathroom you have to check your phone. It’s about filling that hole. What did we do before phones and social media? Does anyone really know? Maybe we just stared at each other…
What are some of the more unusual reactions people have had to your roles?
I get a lot of messages about my performances stopping people from ending their life. That always chokes me up. I always reply to those people, whether it’s true or not. Regardless of any award, any amount of money or fame — that’s going to be the most important thing. Art is a reflection of life. It’s an artist’s job to uphold that integrity. There are so many stories out there that could heal people.
I’d say the most impactful roles I’ve played are Franklin in Snowfall and Eni in Farming. Both those movies taught me that the cures to suffering in all of humanity are love and opportunity. Now I see life like that. If someone’s having a bad time, give them an opportunity. I feel like that’s my calling for young people. As my platform rises, I’d love to give back to young people, give them opportunity.
You’ve spoken before about the importance of having good taste. What do you mean?
I feel like the way you dress has an impact on your decisions, your ethics, your morals. Especially where I came from in South London. I’d love to see a day where everyone was wearing suits instead of tracksuits. What would that day be like? Travelling is the cure for ignorance. Having good taste is something I took, like a sponge, from all the different places I went to. Edward Enninful had a huge impact on how I saw fashion. James Bond, too, of course. Sidney Poitier.
But my mum more than anybody. I remember when I was five years old, and it was my birthday, and all my school friends were in Reebok Classics and tracksuits. And here I am in a golden three-piece suit. All I was missing was the cane.
What’s been your biggest style extravagance?
The first job I ever did in acting was a play called Pandora’s Box, at the Arcola Theatre. I made £300 for it. The first thing I did was to go out and buy a pair of £350 Prada shoes. God knows where I got the extra £50. At the time it felt like I was buying a house.
Are they your most treasured possession, do you think?
No, I think my cousin has them now! I remember when I flew out for the final audition of Snowfall, I flew economy. And then they flew me back first class. But I still have the economy boarding pass — just to remind me where I came from.
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