Damson Idris is on his game

The actor has levelled up during lockdown. With Netflix’s Outside the Wire and a new season of Snowfall, we ask: how did he do it?

Talking to Damson Idris is — and I mean this in the nicest way possible — a massive drag. It’s disheartening. Demoralising. Depressing, even.

How can that be, we hear you cry? He seems so charming! Well, he is. He’s humble, laid-back and can hold a conversation like nobody’s business. But, still, it’s a drag. Why? Because, somehow — against all odds, setbacks and social distancing — Damson Idris has had a very, very productive year. And we — well, we haven’t…

Last June, the young British star was signed by Hollywood juggernaut agency CAA; a huge rubber stamp of industry-accredited approval. Over autumn, he masked up and squeezed in a television shoot, wrapping the entire fourth season of his hit US television show, Snowfall. And, just last week, his latest film hit Netflix, with Outside the Wire becoming the streaming service’s most-watched release upon its debut. 

‘Productive’ hardly covers it. And here are the rest of us, still wrestling with banana bread recipes.

“But I’ve also probably played Call of Duty and FIFA around nine to ten hours a day,” Idris laughs from Los Angeles, assuring us that he’s not been too successful during the last 12 months.“I also downloaded DuoLingo. I’ve learnt one word: ‘Hola’. I’ll stick with that, though. I’ve always wanted to learn languages. Spanish, Italian, French — I’d love to pick them all up.

“What else?” he murmurs. “Oh, I really wanted to order a saxophone, but I didn’t want to destroy my neighbour’s lives…”

Now this is more like it. A mundane and monotonous lockdown experience we can all relate to. And Idris, who has spent most of the last year locked-down in Los Angeles, can take the tedium one step further. For, like so many of us, his professional and personal life for the last year has been reduced to the endless microphone checks and awkward interactions of Zoom. 

"I really wanted to order a saxophone, but I didn’t want to destroy my neighbour’s lives…”

“Oh yeah. My whole life has turned to Zoom,” says the actor. “Zoom’s like my best friend. From table reads to production meetings, everything’s virtual. The other day, I actually spent ages looking online at different-shaped ring lights. That’s the new thing I shop for! 

“But seriously,” he adds, “I think there’s been a silver lining to these lockdowns. And I think what they’ve personally done for me is force me to answer the question: Who am I outside of ‘Damson Idris, the actor’?”

It’s a big question. And one certainly worth exploring. But let’s completely ignore it for a moment and instead focus on who ‘Damson Idris, the actor’ actually is. After studying drama at Brunel University London, the young Peckhamite cut his teeth with bit-parts — cropping up in Casualty, Doctors and films including Riz Ahmed’s City of Tiny Lights and Liam Neeson thriller The Commuter. In 2016, he landed the lead role in Snowfall, a drug-dealing drama created by Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton.

Since then, he’s found further fame in Black Mirror, The Twilight Zone and the hugely arresting British film Farming — before landing the co-lead in Netflix’s new hit, Outside the Wire. Shot in Hungary and Budapest in 2019, the sci-fi action thriller sees Idris play drone pilot Lt. Thomas Harp, acting alongside Avengers star Anthony Mackie.

“Anthony Mackie is, I consider, my big brother,” says Idris. “I talk to him all the time. During the process of filming Outside the Wire, he gave me loads of codes to help navigate my acting career. But he also gave me advice about how to navigate wider life. 

“I was so excited to get the film done,” he adds, “because it was my first action movie. With regards to the stunt work, it’s something I’ve always tried to incorporate into my character, but it was imperative for me to do my own stunts. I wanted the camera to be able to capture every emotion on my face — and for that to add a thrill into scenes of a physical nature.”

Damson Idris is clearly on his game. The man is still in his twenties (he turns the big 3-0 later this year — “Thanks for reminding me!”) but he’s got a clearer understanding of and appreciation for his craft than many actors twice his age. But the acting game isn’t Idris’ only passion — as he’s keen to reveal.

“I’m always playing soccer!” he laughs. “My whole life I’ve played football. I support Manchester United — the greatest team in the world. I’ve never been to a game, though, which is blasphemous. When I grew up, in my area of Peckham, you’d always see United on the TV — but you were never going to get to Manchester. You could hardly afford to get to Brixton!”

How far he’s come. After winning the role of Franklin Saint in Snowfall, Idris now splits his time between London and L.A. — around four months of the year at home in London, and the other eight filming the crime drama in California. 

“And it’s beautiful working on a TV show where you get to flesh out a character,” he says, “Because the viewer will only become more and more in tune with that character as the show goes on. They go from being a character in a show, to a person in that viewer’s life.”

And being a stable, steady player in the industry, Idris says, is more important than ever. As a Brit living in America during 2020, the young actor was forced, first-hand, to confront some of the most intense social change of the last two decades. On his doorstep, events from the pandemic to the Presidential election unfolded — not to mention the ground-breaking Black Lives Matter movement.

“Nina Simone said that an artist’s job is to reflect the times,” considers the actor. “And, for me, being in America — around so much racial tension — it forced me to be a part of the conversation. Whether I wanted to be or not. It forced everyone to step up and do their part as best they can. It pushed the conversation forward with me. With my white friends. With my black friends. All of us just came together as friends. I think it really pushed humanity forward so that our generation — and the generations to come — are able to live in a better world. 

“And we’re already seeing changes in the industry,” he continues. “Look at Outside the Wire. It’s an action movie with two black leads. That’s got to be one of the first times we’ve seen an action movie with two black leads — and robots! So there’s definitely strides being taken. And Bridgerton! I’m loving that, and I don’t think that’s a show that would have been made even five years ago. I just hope that these steps in the industry trickle through into real life, and this divide is lessened.”

“Nina Simone said that an artist’s job is to reflect the times...”

Damson Idris is looking to the future. Even when he lists his acting heroes, they aren’t the established grandees you’d expect. They’re his peers — people like Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, LaKeith Stanfield and Michael Ward.

“They’re the people making real change in this industry,” Idris explains. “They’re doing amazing things. But, because they’re young and new, people don’t seem to cherish them yet. They might even see their success as a fluke. But I want to give flowers to these people, my peers.”

Coincidentally, they’re also mostly British; a welcome lifeline this year to a home he’s not been able to visit. But, splitting his time between L.A. and London for the last four years, Idris has bested any homesickness. There’s only one thing he’ll never stop missing.

“Family. Always family,” he nods, before quickly adding: “And Nando’s. Now there’s a restaurant that isn’t in the States nearly enough. Washington D.C has one, I think, and Chicago. Hopefully I can bring a Nando’s to L.A. in the near future. Maybe that could be a new career…”

It’s a taste of London Idris misses most when gaming with his friends. Back in London, they can Deliveroo PERi-PERi Chicken Butterfly to their hearts’ content.

“Although,” he laughs, “because I’m eight hours behind them, it could be 3AM in London and we’ll be talking and they’re getting hungry because nothing’s open. 

“But yeah, I’ve been gaming a lot,” Idris nods. “Call of Duty. FIFA. I’ve always been into games. I’d actually say it’s picked up more in recent years. We all game — my entire friendship group. And we’ve got all the gear — all the headsets and gamer chairs and things like that. Maybe this is why I’m single…”

Want more actor interviews? Check out our latest cover feature, with Matthew McConaughey…

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