Damson Idris, the one actor recently catching the attention of millions on social media as we watch him twirling around topless to WizKid Blessed- for him this is “the greatness of seeing a black man who is joyful, something we don't get to see very often.”
Interview by Vivian Iroanya/ /
Photography Hamish Brown
Growing up in Peckham in South East London, Idris is the youngest of six children. Raised in a Nigerian single-parent household, he praises his family for swerving him out of ‘trouble’ and supporting him through his acting journey. “I was lucky to have three older brothers, it was like having almost three dads in a sense. I was fortunate to have a mother who stuck close to me like water and rice. And even if I ever did slip or get manipulated in any way, I wasn’t too far away from home, which is testimony to being African. It was almost like I was stepping into Nigeria when I was coming home. And when I walked out the door, I was stepping back into London.”
His breakout role at age 23 was FX’s Snowfall where he plays Franklin Saint, an emerging “street entrepreneur” in Los Angeles. The show, which was recently renewed for a fifth season narrates the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic in America.
“The opportunities will keep rolling in because we attract anything that we desire. If it's good, it's already yours, you just need to grab it.”
But when starting out, Idris said he wished he knew about the importance of kinship and togetherness in the industry. “At the beginning, I was taught ‘you need to rip everyone’s head off, you need to outshine everyone.’ That was the mentality I had. But now, I understand the closer we are together, the greater we all are. And if one wins, we all win. As everyone knocks down the barrier, a barrier is knocked down for you too.”
Indeed, Idris’ ambition to leave for the US has led him to play, alongside Snowfall, an episode in Black Mirror called Smithereens and Netflix’s sci-fi action film Outside the Wire with Anthony Mackie. Now his friends’ list includes Jay-Z and Beyonce amongst others. “I was at a party in 2017 with my red wine, and then out of nowhere, Naomi Campbell, Diddy, and Mary J Blige came running up to me saying, ‘Oh my God, we love you.’ This was when season one of Snowfall came out. And you know, I’m fresh out of London, I didn’t know anything about fame or what that was. To see these people who I admire show me love was like an out-of-body experience. I was thinking to myself, ‘what is happening right now,” Idris recalls.
“Talent is always undeniable and will always get you to where you need to get to, no matter where you are.”
His static rise, however, hasn’t been without rejections. “There were a lot of rejections. It was every single day, I was like ‘Wow I’m really gonna make it in acting?” he laughs. “There’s a part you really want, a part you feel you’re fantastic for and it doesn’t go your way. And then you go home and you cry under your bed.”
But how he overcame these failures was by finding role models such as Idris Elba and Denzel Washington and living vicariously through his peers like Daniel Kaluuya, Michaela Coel, and Letitia Wright. “I really was looking up to these people and being inspired by them. I understood that ‘man if they could do it, I could do it too.”
“You can navigate around social media and find people like yourself who are in the light and use them as inspiration, look at their journeys, and see if you could almost mimic it and walk that path too and it will lead you to somewhere. Whether you have access to them or not. Subconsciously, they’ll help you without even knowing,” he explains.
“I really was looking up to these people and being inspired by them. I understood that ‘man if they could do it, I could do it too.”
Idris is also committed to ensuring access to “codes” for young people which are secrets in navigating the industry. The late John Singleton, the creator of Snowfall, shared these with him. “You can never know everything and even when you’ve done it all and you’re sitting on yourself and your name’s Robert De Niro…still, you don’t know it all. And that’s how you truly get far because no one could really do this by themselves, I promise you. As soon as you get to the top, there’s a way down. And as you are falling there isn’t anyone there to hold your hand.”
The recent BAFTA nominations saw an incredible lineup of actors in a greater push for inclusion. Idris explains how a lot has changed since he left and appreciates how diversity in the industry is encouraged now more than ever. “When I left in 2015, there weren’t many opportunities, and the gap between myself and the Idris Elbas looked unattainable. It seemed like a position I could never reach if I stayed in the UK at that time. Now I have so many friends from the UK who have never stepped foot in the US but have gone on to win BAFTAs, Evening Standard awards and are doing amazing things just from working in the UK.”
"To see these people who I admire show me love was like an out-of-body experience. I was thinking to myself, ‘what is happening right now,”
For this reason, Idris says opportunities are now everywhere around the world, not just in America. “As much you strive to work in the US, also strive to work in the UK and Africa. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Make sure this is something you want to do because it’s incredibly difficult to uproot yourself from a country you’ve known and go solo to another country. That takes a certain mindstate and not everyone is able to pull it off. Many people burn in that process. Talent is always undeniable and will always get you to where you need to get to, no matter where you are.