Damson Idris: The New Crop

November 26, 2019
The star of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s biographical drama Farming, returned to the UK for his first leading role in a feature film after making an impression on American series Snowfall.

Can we ask about you growing up and what attracted you to acting?

I had no idea what acting was. I always wanted to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, I wanted to play football. I say that acting found me because I was always pushed by my family to be a footballer. I wanted to be a footballer. And then I went to college and you had to do four A levels. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just do drama’. That’s the one with all the girls in it. And I did drama and my first play was A Raisin in the Sun. I played Walt. I got the highest grade in college in my year. I was like, ‘Oh, this acting thing’s kind of cool but yeah, whatever. Let’s get back to football’. And then I went to university. My mum was like, ‘you have to get a degree. Everyone else got a degree. You have to get your picture up on the living room wall’. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go, I’m going to do business studies’. My sister said, ‘I did business studies, don’t do business studies. Look how my life turned out’. So she was like, ‘Do something you like’. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do sport science’. ‘Don’t do sport science come on, why don’t you do drama?’ ‘Okay. That’s the one with all the girls in it. I’ll do drama’.

And I’m doing drama and an actress by the name of Cathy Tyson (Mona Lisa) was in my class and she says, ‘You know you’re pretty good. You should meet this writer’. So I meet the writer, I do a reading. 21 years old, did a reading for a play at the Arcola Theater called Pandora’s Box. I did the play. Femi Oguns from Identity Agency Group came and said, ‘Hey, you remind me of a young Will Smith’. I was like, ‘Oh, I know who that is. Fresh Prince, right?’ And then the ball was in my court from then.

I had an agent. I was able to sit on YouTube for hours and understand what the craft was. I went to part-time drama school. I was still at university learning the theoretical side of acting. I was instantly intrigued by Stanislavski. And then now I apply that to all my work.

We’ve read interviews with you where you’ve said that Denzel was…

My king.

Why not Idris Elba or any of the other great British actors?

I was always told from a young age was that you’ll never make it big here; something which is pounded into the heads of many young, black, Asian, any ethnic minority actor in England. The evidence is there, there aren’t as many opportunities as there are in America. My mum was like, ‘You need to go to America. That’s where everybody makes it’.

I spoke to Femi Oguns and then he got me in touch with a manager. One of the first shows she sent me to audition was a self-tape for Snowfall. My favourite movie is American Gangster, Denzel Washington. And you know he plays a character called Frank Lucas and this character was called Franklin Saint. I screamed and said, ‘It’s mine’. And then I had the audition and I was instantly American after the first audition. Sent the tape and I said to my whole family, ‘I’m going to be American at home until these people call me back’. Everyone’s laughing at me. Some people are like, ‘that’s not a good accent’. I’m like, ‘man, you don’t know what you’re talking about’.

And then they call me about a week later. My manager says, ‘can you be in LA?’ I’m like, ‘What? Be in where?’ Never been to America in my life. I go there, audition; audition another four times. I’m flying there and back and there and back. I have no money. My family’s gathering money, giving me £100 here, £200 there and then I get the part and my life changes. I’ve been acting six years and I understand the responsibility of the position I’m in with the people that are coming up, and being in a movie like Farming, it’s truly a blessing.

How did you meet with Adewalle? How did the role come to you?

We have a mutual friend, Michael London. He’s producer of Snowfall, so he told Adewalle about me. Showed him some Snowfall stuff. And then I sat down with Adewalle in London and then he spoke about the role, we spoke about his message, his upbringing, and then we spoke a lot on the phone when I was in New York. He was like, ‘Mate, if you don’t do this movie, you’re crazy.’

And then I auditioned, and he recorded me on his iPhone. It was really unconventional and informal, and we just worked at it and it was a beautiful collaborative experience. And we literally built this character together. He never said, ‘I would walk like this. I would say it like this’. He didn’t want me to mimic him, he didn’t want it to be a caricature, he just wanted it to be very organic. But I copied him when he wasn’t looking at me…

Were you shocked to learn that farming actually went on, or did you know about it having grown up in England?

No one knew. Google didn’t know. It happened to tens of thousands of people. How did we not know? It’s wonderful because this movie is really going to promote a dialogue on the foster system, on the identity crisis in our community which still happens today and many people looking to find themselves a sense of belonging. That’s why this movie is so important.

How did you feel playing the role in a period-set racially tensioned movie at a time where in today’s world where we are struggling with contemporary racial politics?

At the state of Britain today, it’s often swept under the carpet and people aren’t informed about it, particularly in these communities. They don’t know what’s really happening, they just know that bad stuff’s happening to them. It’s great to look at the past and look at history in order to move forward. I believe this is a healing movie rather than something to look away from. I think you’re definitely going to understand that this movie is about self-love and about the importance of loving other people and what that can mean to a community.

Farming is in cinemas now.

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