Damson Idris on the ‘Tragic’ End of ‘Snowfall’ and Dating Lori Harvey
During Snowfall’s sixth and final season, Franklin Saint, played by Damson Idris, declares, “I want the life I was so close to having I could taste it until they ripped it away.” “They” refers to dirty CIA agent Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) and his Aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) and Uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph), who’ve conspired to upend Saint’s drug empire.
At the end of Season Five, McDonald stole $73 million from Saint after working with him to flood the streets with crack cocaine, and his Aunt Louie usurped him to become South Central LA’s Queenpin. Things come to a head in the season finale, which saw Franklin point a gun at his aunt, threaten to kill her, and then steal her stash of drugs and money to get back on his feet.
“[Franklin] truly is isolated and one by one the people that love him are turning their backs on him,” Idris says. “And he’s now a cat in the corner who has to strike.”
The FX series’ most impressive feat is transforming Franklin from a bright-eyed, inexperienced teenager to an archcriminal who told his aunt “there’s nothing I’m not prepared to do” to get what he wants. Idris, along with the show’s writers, have imbued Franklin with all the best traits of the crime drama antihero: enterprising, charismatic, and thrillingly temperamental, with remnants of empathy for their loved ones. Thanks to the efforts of showrunner Dave Andron and the writing team, Snowfall has continued to capture the 1980s LA first envisioned by the series’ late architect John Singleton, where the U.S. government has flooded the streets of Black communities with drugs.
I spoke with Idris the day after Snowfall’s final season premiere event, where he says the cast and crew danced and reminisced on what they’d accomplished until midnight (before keeping the festivities going at an afterparty with Drake). Idris says shooting the final season felt like a more solemn affair that reflected the gravity of what was being filmed.
“I kind of kept to myself, I wasn’t going out [on set],” he says. “And the arc of the character and where Franklin is going to end up, although it’s a tragedy, it’s also inevitable. But at the same time, unpredictable. And we’ve seen these stories before. Franklin’s one is going to really, really stab people in their hearts.”
Idris talked to Rolling Stone about all things Snowfall, his upcoming role on Donald Glover’s Swarm, and how he feels about dating in the public eye.
How are you feeling a week away from the Season Six premiere?
Today we had our sixth and final premiere, which was really special. I got to see everyone as a part of the show, so that was brilliant. And I got to say goodbye to some people too. So I’m in a warm, fuzzy [mood] today. I’m really excited for the show to come out because as each episode airs, I’m really going to be saying goodbye to moments. Moments that I’ll never get to do again.
I know you said you have fuzzy feelings based on the final premiere event. Are there other feelings that you’re reckoning with in recent days?
It’s bittersweet. Very rarely do shows get to six seasons, so we’ve been extremely fortunate. I think there’s only 2% of shows that make it how far we made it, let alone be in the most-viewed shows on FX. It really is a lot of accomplishments. So now I have this weird feeling of: We and I have set the bar so high, what’s next? How do we top that? How do we get that feeling again? It’s like in basketball: he wins the championship and then the next year he doesn’t. So I’m incredibly patient now and I’m just breathing and sticking with God and waiting for something as special as Snowfall to come around a corner knocking.
You all had the final table read in January. How did it feel for you after you finished the final scene?
I was crying like a little baby at the table read. I said to everyone, “I’ll save the tears for later and the goodbyes for never.” But just reading those lines and going from scene to scene and closing that script and hearing the amazing words from everyone towards me, I already felt like it was a job well done even before we started filming the finale. And on the last day of filming, it was interesting because it was such a whirlwind of a day and I was extremely exhausted. And I got to a point in the day where I said to myself, “OK, I’m ready. I’m ready to go home, ready to end this.” And then they yelled cut, and that’s a wrap on Damson Idris. And all of a sudden I didn’t want to go home anymore. The show is full of family. The best shows are. We have relationships outside of filming, so we’ll always see each other again, but not getting to work with each other and collaborate with each other, it’s something I’m truly going to miss.
I heard y’all ended up staying till midnight at the premiere. What were y’all doing? Just reminiscing?
Oh man — reminiscing, dancing. Everyone’s families were there. It’s really beautiful to see my mother and John Singleton’s mother standing and dancing. They’re actually the same height. I was really just taking it in and giving out love. Then after we all went to a Drake party at Delilah and everyone got to meet Drake. That was cool.
Snowfall showrunner Dave Andron told The Hollywood Reporter that Season Six would have a consistently darker tone than previous seasons. Did it feel that way to you? And if so, can you speak to how that dynamic affected your process?
Well, you could always feel the energy of the crew after the first take. There’s times where we have serious scenes, but the crew is still kind of laughing and joking around. I would say throughout this whole season because of the tone, the crew took on that tone too. Not that everyone was miserable, but everyone understood that they had to be on their A-game because the actors are, the directors are, the cinematographers are. And it just created greater art. Especially going from Episode Four to the end, the world’s going to see just the headspace that Franklin’s in.
And with regards to my process, it affected me deeply. I sat in the trailer more times than not. Usually, I’m kind of floating around, joking around with the crew and talking to everyone. I kind of kept to myself. I wasn’t going out. And the arc of the character and where Franklin is going to end up, although it’s a tragedy, it’s also inevitable. But at the same time, unpredictable. And we’ve seen these stories before. Franklin’s one is going to really, really stab people in their hearts.
Andron said that he felt like the story had to ultimately be a tragedy. Do you feel that way? Do you feel like the only pathway for this series was in tragedy?
Well, from Season One, the funny thing is, it was audience members who would come up to me in the street and say [drops English accent], “Hey, you better not die! You better not die. You better make all the money in the world and you better ride off into the sunset on a big boat.” And they would always say that because we’re so used to the drug dealer not making it. So it was so beautiful for us to toy with those expectations. When people watch crime dramas, they’re taking in all the information and all the knowledge they have from other crime dramas. It’s almost like watching an episode of a zombie show where the actors and the characters don’t know if a zombie bites you, you’re going to turn into a zombie, but the audience does. And then that’s how I feel Snowfall is. Andron and the various writers are brilliant at being able to play with those expectations and then flip them on their heads. So I am just really excited for people to go on this final journey with Franklin and see where it ends because we really did give it our all.
What are some of the biggest themes that viewers will see at play this season?
The fracturing of the family was always a pivotal theme in the show. For me personally, too, I’m a big family man and that was the biggest thing I connected to Franklin with. And then this last season, he truly is isolated and one by one the people that love him are turning their backs on him. And he’s now a cat in the corner who has to strike. And it’s horrible to see Frank in that way because this is a sweet kid who made so many sacrifices, not only for himself, but for the people around him. But now he trusts no one and now he’s genuinely thinking for himself and sticking with his own motives, and that’s creating a monster.
What do you think are the biggest lessons to be gleaned from the fracture of the Saint family? Is it as simple as, don’t mix money and blood?
Wow, I think that is a great one. I think family and business is always difficult. You always want to work with the people that are close to you, but sometimes those lines can get crossed and it’s messier than dealing with the stranger. I will say, Franklin, in my opinion, should have empowered the people around him a bit more. That would’ve been better for him and just kept them close, kept them in the loop. But as we all know, the drug game is a dangerous one. And people get greedy, as I know he did and as many people do, and that is what fractured everything. So I honestly feel like there’s nothing Franklin could have done. This was inevitable. And when Manboy was dying, he said it. “You think these people won’t turn on you.” Well, they did.
Do you feel like if Aunt Louie was a man and had the same ambition, Franklin would have accepted her a little bit better than he did?
It’s an interesting question. As we monitor Louie this season, she’s coming to terms with the fact that she’s never respected regardless of her power, regardless of her being the sole reason that Franklin was even able to sell that first brick off to Claudia. She’s never been respected. She’s always taken a backseat. And now she wanted to be at the forefront. She wanted to feel more than because her whole life, she’s been stepped on by men. And I do feel like there is a superhero complex that a lot of the men have around Louie. And I think that is to their own detriment, underestimating her. Maybe if Franklin did empower her or maybe if she was a man, things would’ve been different.
I’ve heard you reference that you sought to keep John Singleton’s vision of LA’s transformation at the forefront of the story. I was wondering how well you think you’ve done that, and how do you think he would feel about the way things have concluded?
Singleton was brilliant because as passionate as he was from the very beginning, he truly did empower the players to run with the show. He gave us the show. He gave us the confidence to go off into our different sections and do the best job possible. He was a major collaborator, so I think he’d be incredibly proud of where we’ve got to. This show at the forefront was juggling three stories. And that’s something that’s very hard to do. And as we centralized it, as the seasons went on, the clarity got better, the show got better, the viewership got better, everything got better. And that was always John’s plan.
At the heart of John’s storytelling is South Central. So honing in on Franklin Saint as we finally get to Season Six is exactly what John would’ve wanted. And truly showing his community and the various communities and how they would be working-class neighborhoods, just trying to make ends meet, which eventually turned into war zones because of this crack cocaine. I think when the world and John sees that, I think you’re going to be incredibly proud of the story we told.
What do you think Snowfall added to the pantheon of TV dramas?
I think Snowfall has been able to stick to an original form of storytelling with some sprinkles of modernness too. And then just for me, maybe slightly biased, but I think this is the best crime drama show of all time. So yeah, I love it that Snowfall’s going to be able to be spoken about for a hundred years, that people are going to hold it alongside the ranks of The Wire and The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, which are shows that I love. And that’s the only thing I ever wanted. I didn’t want this to be a show that did 60 episodes that people forgot about. Now this is a show especially for Black people that we could look at and be proud of. A show with spectacular cinematography, beautiful writing, and fantastic acting. And that is job well done.
How do you feel Franklin compares to some of the other protagonists and lead characters of the other shows you just mentioned?
Well, apart from Walter White, who was a real influence on me, very rarely do we see the drug dealer transition into the empire owner. I think it’s a system many shows are adopting today. And I do believe it’s because of Snowfall. It’s following that young boyish, innocent green kid and seeing him lose fragments of his soul and make decisions that he doesn’t want to make. Decisions that you know he’s not built for, but he has to make in order to stay in power. That formula of storytelling and character arc is something that’s beautiful to see. And if you look at Franklin Saint from Episode One, Season One, and if you look at Franklin Saint Episode 10, Season Six, this truly is a transformation. It’s the person who’s unrecognizable. And I believe seeing Franklin Saint still showing that glimmer of purity is what separates him from a lot of other drug characters out there that were often one-note.
In your prep for becoming Franklin Saint, how much did you study what Bryan Cranston did with Walter White?
Bryan Cranston is amazing, first of all. Shout out to him and just those early episodes of Breaking Bad where you could just tell he had no idea what he was doing and you’re like, “Oh, this guy’s going to die in Episode Two.” I wanted to create that feeling for an audience. And I did in the first season. Every episode, Franklin’s getting beat up, he’s getting shot at, he’s getting kidnapped, and you’re just like, how is this guy going to get out of this? There’s no way this guy’s going to survive. But he does. And Bryan Cranston’s ability to show vulnerability was something that really inspired me. Andy Serkis, Planet of the Apes, his Caesar really inspired me. His movement, his vigilance, his paranoia, the way he moved around his pack of apes really influenced me and my movement with Franklin Saint. And then of course the OG, Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas, those are the three characters that I looked at that I wanted to take the essence and put into Franklin Saint.
Snowfall hasn’t been nominated for Golden Globes or Emmys in the past. How much weight should we put on award shows if their selection committees don’t reflect the people at large?
I believe the biggest thing, a correlation I saw with — they call us “Black shows,” which I don’t know if I’m used to it yet, but these shows, they’re not reviewed. You know, look at a show like Snowfall and you see per season maybe 10 people have reviewed it, actual esteemed critics have reviewed it. But you look at a show like Ozark or a show like Euphoria and they’ve had thousands of reviews. So either people aren’t watching it or they just really don’t care because they feel that they aren’t of our culture. So they’re almost scared to talk about it. They’re scared to say whether it’s good or bad. And I say to those people, start saying whether it’s good or bad. That’s the first step. The second step is: it’s not about winning, it’s about feeling welcomed. It’s about being recognized, and it’s about people doing work and feeling that someone cared and someone saw that hard work.
And I constantly commend people like yourselves at Rolling Stone and Men’s Health and The New York Times and a bunch of other outlets who have supported the show from the very beginning. But more people need to support shows like this because that’s the only way someone like Gail Bean or Angela Lewis is going to put on a dress and go on a red carpet and be amongst her peers. Otherwise, she’s just going to go to work and go home, and there’s something weird about that. We need to start involving people more. It’s not about winning, it’s about feeling like you are part of something.
I never got a chance to ask an actor this question: I often hear rappers affirm their artistic license by comparing themselves to actors playing a role — whether it’s you, whether it’s Al Pacino as Scarface, etc. How do you see that overlap from your craft and songwriters in terms of depicting a drug lord, but not actually being that person and having the artistic right to do so?
I know they need to start paying me. [Laughs] But no, many of my friends, from Pusha T to The Game to Snoop Dogg, have spoken about Franklin in their art and it truly is a beautiful thing to see. It shows that the show is crossing over. Music to me is storytelling, too. It’s fantasy, and you’re creating a fantasy for the listener. And often it might not be real, but you are telling a story and you’re taking them on an artistic journey. Nonetheless, I think a lot of people, especially rappers, relate to drug dealers because, especially rappers from inner cities, they were around that when they were growing up. They had an uncle, older brother or a guy on the block that they looked at and they saw Franklin in that person, or maybe they were Franklin and they decided to change their lives.
It’s not a glamorization as such. Because I’ve had such deep conversations with many rappers about this. It genuinely is the storytelling, and giving insight into a piece of history that has affected and stuck onto our culture for so long. We can’t rid ourselves of it, so we must embrace it and learn from it. So I commend people who see the confidence in characters like this and see the entrepreneurship in characters like this. I think that’s what they relate to rather than them killing people and stuff like that.
I have to ask: have you had a chance to talk to Denzel Washington since the hysteria of the red carpet mix-up last year?
[Laughs] I have not. I hope he’s seen the show by now. Hopefully he’s seen the show by now, but I have not. I will be watching the new Equalizer though.
Outside of Snowfall, you’re going to be co-starring in Swarm, a show co-created by Donald Glover. Could you speak a little bit about the show and what interested you in the role?
The reason I wanted to be in Swarm was because I of course wanted to work with Donald. I wanted to work with Dominique Fishback who’s, in my opinion, one of the greatest young actors of our generation. And I wanted to work with Chloe Bailey, who I think is incredibly talented too. So those are the reasons why I joined it. What I can say about it is probably nothing. [Laughs] But as you can see from the teaser, it follows a young woman who is infatuated with a Beyoncé-esque character and who is essentially going down a dark path through the worshipping of that character. And there’s many surprises along the way. I’ve seen three of the episodes. I will tell you it’s some of the greatest storytelling I’ve ever seen. It’s incredibly, incredibly funny, incredibly shocking. And it is pushing the narrative, pushing the ways in which we expect to see ourselves on screen. Donald Glover is so great at doing that, and I can’t wait for viewers to be forced to see something different.
I also saw that you were planning to play Rich Paul in an upcoming film. I was wondering how that’s been going for you?
It’s still early days. It’s still in development. We’re sticking a pin in that for now. I love Rich Paul, I love his story, and I just want to be a part of great stories which praise people in our communities who have truly done extraordinary things. So hopefully that one comes to fruition soon.
Being a public figure, what is it like dating somebody [Lori Harvey] that’s so public and so in demand? How do you balance the blogosphere and gossip while trying to maintain a relationship?
You stay at home and hide in the cave. [Laughs] No, I think my advice to anyone who walks down that path is to just keep it as regular and normal as possible and really, really connect to each other and not the outside forces around.
Was that something that took you a while to realize?
Yes. It’s just watching other people that I admire do it so greatly and just understanding that you don’t always have to show the world your personal life and that what you do for a living is an extension of yourself, and that’s your baby. And you need to protect that. You also need to protect your personal self too. And of course, it’s the topic of gossip, and the blogs want to talk about that over the work. I see that a lot. But they’ll get over it soon enough. And in a couple days someone else will be dating and then they’ll leave me alone.
Speaking of rap in Snowfall, were you able to hear Skyzoo’s The Mind of a Saint or did you hear about it?
I heard about it. I still need to hear that album. First of all, shout-out to him for, I mean, it’s so beautiful. A good friend of mine and also a producer on the show, Trevor Engelson, was the first person to tell me about it. I need to listen to that and then I’m probably going to hit him up and tell him where he is right and where he is wrong.
Was there anything else about Snowfall Season Six that you wanted to get off your chest?
I’m incredibly excited for more people to watch the show and for people to understand that this isn’t just some random drug show in a pool of other drug shows. This is one that stands alone. This is one that will stand forever. It’s never going to come off Hulu. It’s never going to come off FX. And it’s one that’s cherished by all of us. It’s our baby. We poured our hearts, blood, sweat, souls into it. I just hope people see the work and understand that this is the epitome of true art.