Damson Idris on Saying Goodbye to ‘Snowfall’
Damson Idris has been trying to prepare viewers for a tragic end to Snowfall for years. Over six seasons, we’ve seen his protagonist Franklin Saint go from a determined South Central neighborhood kid eager to take his family out of poverty to a cold-blooded multi-millionaire drug-dealer. The FX drama, which was one of the late director John Singleton’s last projects (he died in 2019), is a retelling of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1980s Los Angeles and the CIA’s—fictional—involvement in it. We see Franklin graduate from selling weed to becoming the biggest crack dealer in the country as he partners with Teddy, a government operative flooding the streets with drugs to bankroll the CIA’s black ops.
That relationship soured going into the show’s sixth and final season, when Franklin’s attempt to quit prompts Teddy to rob him of his fortune. The depths that Franklin sinks in search of his money chart his final descent into true antiherodom. In the end, Saint doesn’t die or go to jail—but he is left completely alone, with the family members he dragged into his criminal organization dead (his uncle Jerome, played by Amin Joseph), incarcerated (his mother, Cissy, played by Michael Hyatt), or in the wind, like his best friend Leon (Isaiah John), who moves to Ghana. He becomes a homeless alcoholic, much like the absentee father he spent most of his life hating, stumbling like a ghost around the same neighborhoods he used to run.
Idris’s magnetic performance as Franklin, who transforms from an eager kid to dead-eyed capitalist, powered the show from when it found its footing in season three and even through shakier seasons like five. In a just world, he’d have at least three Emmy nominations by now. But Idris tells GQ he’s just happy that above all else, he and the show’s creative team delivered an ending that he’s certain Singleton would be proud of. (In the final scene, set in 1990, drunk Franklin walks by a bespectacled South Central kid filming a movie in the hood and yells, in an ad-lib Idris came up with, “Y’all ain’t gon win no Oscar!” GQ spoke to him about Franklin’s point of no return, the alternate endings to Snowfall that were considered, and coming up with some of the final season’s best lines off the cuff.
Ending a series is one of the hardest things about making serialized television. How did you guys land on leaving Franklin where you did?
Well, we always really knew that it would end in tragedy. This is a guy who’s done some horrible things, and karmic retribution is real. You have to be accountable for your actions. We definitely fought, from very early on actually, to try and make Franklin as dislikeable as possible, so that if audiences were still on his side, we knew we had them. There would be an ongoing joke, all throughout the show, that, “Man, no matter what we make Damson do, they always love him.”
I remember at the end of Training Day, they wanted Alonzo to die in the worst way because he was a foul guy, right? We spoke about Franklin dying, or Franklin going to prison, but it was a predictable ending. But to live like exactly what he despised, his father, was a testament and was truthful to so many Black men of that time, who walk around Skid Row today, muttering to themselves and everyone else that they used to be the shit, and they used to have all the money in the world, and no one believes them. And that’s the feeling we wanted to create with Franklin’s scene. And it was a whirlwind, man. We shot the ending sequence over two days, I think.
I just remember, when I first walked on set, Susan, our script advisor, was crying in a corner, and everyone was just really affected, because—I’ve heard so many viewers say “I feel like Franklin is my cousin” or “That’s my brother, that’s my uncle, that’s my son.” We didn’t want a fairytale Hollywood ending where he rides off into the sunset, because there’s no message to the young people today who are in that world. We wanted them to see that there is a third outcome that’s even worse.
And were you a part of those conversations with showrunner Dave Andron—or even going back to Singleton, when he was still with us—about how the show might end?
I was fully in it. Me and Dave would talk extensively about how it was going to end. And we dabbled with so many [alternatives]. Like, maybe he completely loses his mind and he’s in a loony bin. There were so many ways to show the effects of him losing his soul. But Skid Row was always something that floated in the air. There was an alternative where it was going to end with a drone shot from Franklin. He’s taken a swig of his drink, and then [the camera] goes high, and you see all these tents, and it reveals that he’s now on Skid Row. But we thought ending where it began, right there on that street with those palm trees, was more poetic. Him ending as his father, of course. And him actually finding what he always wanted, which was freedom.
All the star players, we were very involved with the [show] bible and where our characters were going to end. And that’s great. That’s the way, as a performer, you want it to work on a TV show.
One thing you just said about Franklin being free reminded me of one of the more debated tweets that’s been out there since the finale ended. Someone said that, in a way, it was a good ending for Franklin, because he didn’t have the CIA or these other burdens on him. Are we supposed to feel like that’s a silver lining in that regard?
One hundred per cent. We saw what this kid went through for six years. But it goes back to the conversations I’ve had with people on the homeless situation in LA. They don’t have a mortgage to pay, they don’t have responsibilities like that. And I’m not generalizing, but there are a great number who choose, “This is how I want to be.” And that was kind of an anchor for me for Franklin. He’s just one with LA right now. And that ending, man, honestly, for me, I was actually trying my hardest to fight back tears. We had had so many different versions [of the ending]. There were times where I was just completely out of it. I was doing a full-on Viola Davis snot bubble. There were times where I’m walking by and I’m screaming at the police, “This is my mama’s house.” Like, crazy. And then there were times where he’s like, [I’m] good. And that was the one we landed on, man, because it made so much sense. We’re seeing through Leon’s eyes at this point. And we’re seeing a guy who’s not necessarily given up, but he’s one with it. He’s accepted it. Yeah.
What was it like for you that day, getting into that mindset? It seemed like the costuming really played a part.
Everyone kept teasing me, “Damson, you’re too handsome. It’s hard to make you ugly.” I was like, “Let me get this bloodshot eye.” And then we added the hair. My beard doesn’t connect [laughs] So our makeup lady added the hair. And I was like, “my lips look too fresh,” so she put the cracks around my lips and colored my teeth, and I didn’t shower. Luckily, I didn’t smell too bad. We added a bunch of sweat. I asked the costume department to give me trousers that were too big, so he’d always have to pick them up. I wanted everything to be discolored with clothing. I’d get some alcohol and I’d palm it on my hand and I’d rub it on me so I could smell it. And all of those things contributed to just disappearing in it. But the best thing about playing these final moments of Franklin for me, and Dave said this to me, he was like, “Hey man, you’re going to have an opportunity to be funny.” Franklin never smiles. He hardly ever laughs. Especially this season. So I had an opportunity to smile and laugh. We got to ad-lib a bunch. The, “Sexy chocolate like me,” that was ad-libbed. And yelling to the Singleton character, “You ain’t going to win no Oscar.”
And then the final moments [with Leon] man, “You’re my best friend. Best friend I ever had, and I’m proud of you.” The whole crew was just in turmoil. Everyone was crying, man.
You ad-libbed that?
Yeah. And everyone just knew that we had done something special. All great things have to come to an end, but end them right, man. We’re all so proud of it. But more importantly, we know that John Singleton’s proud of it, too.
It did feel like you all came into this season with renewed energy. Final seasons are great because they can be gloves off, no holds barred. It felt like season five flailed a little because it was essentially marking time before the chips could fall. Did you feel that way too?
One hundred percent. At the start of season five, I remember everyone saying, “This season is about just seeing how crazy the money is. People from South Central on horses and in penthouses.”
And Franklin’s private plane.
And on planes. We really wanted to earn that. But at the same time, underneath it, there was still a rumble of turmoil. We’d still go back to South Central and see the truth of the situation, of the crack cocaine epidemic. And then by the time we got to season six—performance-wise, from season one, I’ve always wanted to make Franklin as gangster as possible. I was 23 years old on social media, reading people calling me a wimp. Grown women would come up to me in season one and they’d be like, “Now, I know you got beat up real bad the other day, but you need to grow some balls and get your money back.” So by season six, I said to everyone, “Look, this is it. I can’t walk away from this without feeling like Capone.” This is the other end of this kid, this guy who’s lost his soul. Moments like “Cook then, n-gga” [when Franklin burned a disrespectful cook house underling’s face on a hot stove]. That was ad-libbed, too.
Oh, you’re the ad-lib king on set, huh?
I’ve been watching too many rappers [laughs]. But I wanted [violent] moments like that [for Franklin], the killing of Teddy McDonald’s father, torturing Teddy, admitting that he was the devil at that funeral. Putting his hands around his baby mother’s neck. Everything was just foul, and I was really trying my hardest to make this guy irredeemable so the payoff works. And still, people will feel sorry for him, because he’s doing these things, not because he wants to, but it’s because he was pushed to. And I’m really proud of it. And I’ve spoken to FX—it’s a show that’s going to be on air forever. My kids are going to get to watch this show. It’s never going to go anywhere. And I believe it’s going to be a case study for the ’80s in America, and also just for young people who are in that world. And this is how it could end up, man. So pick up some books and go a different way.
I have to ask you two plot questions that are being hotly debated since the finale. FIrst: was Teddy actually going to wire the money? Like, if Cissy doesn’t shoot him, is there really a bank on the other end of that line and he and the CIA are going to let Franklin walk away with $37 million?
Oh yeah. I believe Teddy would’ve wired the money, and I believe Teddy would’ve double-crossed the CIA and gone off with Parissa and got married and completely changed his life. When he says to Franklin, “I think I’ve had my fill of you and me,” he means that. But in the back of people’s heads, this is the same guy who promised that he’ll let Franklin’s mother and father go away to Cuba. And then he still killed [Franklin’s father]. So yeah, I guess we’ll just have to leave that one to the imagination.
And second, what’s your read on Cissy’s choices in the finale? Because what she does informs where Franklin ends up. Shooting Teddy before the transfer goes through, shutting Franklin out, and spiritually advising Leon not to help him out financially. Why did she do that?
I believe she just wanted her son to survive. She didn’t want to put power in his hands. She says, “Franklin is lost.” And a man with power would do anything to the people below them. It’s like, “I’m not going to let you become a slumlord, I’m not going to let you become this shark who’s destroying the community anymore.” And she put two bullets in Teddy, but she also put a bullet in Franklin right there.
And this is why he screams, “You ended my life.” And after Leon killed that kid, man, he was on a path. He was kind of walking the line. He too had to separate from Franklin in order to fully live out his positive potential. We can go back and forth on it forever, but me personally, I think Cissy did the right thing, man. She was trying to save her son from being everything that she hates.
You mentioned this scene earlier, but that incredible exchange between Franklin and his aunt Louie at Jerome’s funeral, where she says, “You’re the devil,” and you say, “I know.” It felt like the scene every anti-hero show like Sopranos or Breaking Bad has, where you tell the audience, there’s no gray anymore. This is a really bad dude. What was the point of no return for Franklin? You say you’ve been trying to make him irredeemable for years. But at what point do you think he fully crossed the line where you’re almost surprised that viewers are still fucking with him?
Wow. A million things. Killing Teddy’s dad, an old defenseless man, was a big one. But when you realize that the only reason why he went back to save Louie [from being raped and murdered by a rival gang] was because she could potentially help him get Teddy, that’s when I was like, Oh, this guy is wild. And we played it as if he genuinely just didn’t want anything bad to happen to Louie. But at the same time, Franklin is a guy who is business first. Even when his mother’s locked up, he says, “There’s nothing we can do for her now,” and keeps it moving. But it’s a testament to the director, Logan [Kibens], in episode seven. We had done it one way, and, “You are the devil,” was actually an ad lib by Angela Lewis, by the way. That wasn’t written.
And she didn’t want to tell anyone what she was going to say. She wanted to save it for when the cameras were rolling.
So then your reply of “I know,” is you reacting in the moment?
Exactly. And it worked so perfectly. And it was also insane because Logan, after the first take, she came out and she was like, “Yo, D. I could see the darkness in you. Enjoy it.” And it’s such an interesting note to give someone, right? Because it wasn’t me by that point. I was so immersed as Franklin, I was having nightmares when I’d go home. The character really did affect me. And that was the first time where I just accepted it, I accepted that this guy wasn’t the sweet kid that likes wrestling anymore.
So looking back on the whole journey now is there a season, an episode, a scene that stands out to you as a favorite?
It’s always going to be that last scene, man. I truly believe I ended giving everything I could as a performer in correlation to this character. And when he says, “You’re my best friend, I’m proud of you,” that’s something that I always wished my father said to me. So it kind of just came out. And Isaiah had hit a block and was struggling to get to the emotional place that he wanted to get to, and I said that. And he went straight up snot bubble, and so did everyone else. So that moment was really special, man. And it was just a perfect way to tee up the character, tee up the story.
And Dave knows that Kendrick Lamar is my favorite rapper. So to end the series on “Pride.” I remember [Dave] came to my house [to screen the episode] and we were watching it, and it ending with “Pride” [was a surprise for me]. I was like, “Yo, have you spoken to Kendrick? It’s good?” He’s like, “No, we’re going to speak to him.” I’m like, “What do you mean you’re going to speak? You need me to call someone? I’ll call everyone.”
Because that’s a big thing too, with editing. You could find the music to something and then an artist could be like, “No.” The end of season five, with [Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight]. It’s one of our biggest sequences. Now imagine if that artist said no—because he did say no. Twice.
Dave had to write a letter with tears falling on the paper, “Please, this is so important.”
Did you reach out to Kendrick yourself?
No, I didn’t reach out to Kendrick. The last time I saw Kendrick Lamar was at Crypto[.com arena] on his Mr Morale and the Big Steppers tour. But funny enough, the reason why it’s such a full circle moment, before the show was out, I was in Philadelphia, I went into the gym in my hotel at the Ritz, and Kendrick was in there with all his guards and his friends, on a bike working out. I wasn’t even in gym gear. I was just in normal clothes. I heard he was in there and I just went in there in some Christian Louboutins, some Louis, sitting on one of them gym balls. I just sat there and I was watching him. He didn’t know who I was. And then I slowly approached him, they let me through, and I was like, “Man, I’m a big fan, and I have a TV show called Snowfall. I’d love for you to come to our screening later.” He was doing the Damn tour, I think, and he’s like, [imitates Kendrick’s voice] “Yeah, we’re on tour right now, so we’re going to have to see if that’s the right situation.”
And it was so funny to tell him, “I’m playing a character from [your] neighborhood.” To us closing with his song. That’s a full circle moment for me. And it couldn’t have ended better.
How are you feeling now that you said goodbye to the character?
I feel great. Every character, when I’m finished, I take an exotic trip somewhere. I went to Trinidad and Tobago, and I left Franklin there. But now the story belongs to the people. And I love these debates that I’m seeing online. And I’m about to go see game four of the Lakers-Grizzlies right now, and I know I’m probably going to get hounded by a bunch of people at that game with their ideas and debating. I’m really proud of what we accomplished. And now, as a producer, it’s my job to create the future TV shows that could find a young kid like me and put him on a journey, or her on a journey to be able to live out her dream and perform to the best of her ability too. So that’s my next focus. Now I’m losing 20 pounds and I’m in race cars, getting ready for this Formula One movie with Brad Pitt.
Speaking of what’s next, I can’t let you go without asking about the rumors that a certain franchise might come calling for you. Would you be interested in that?
[laughs] Hey, I would love to throw a cape on with Marvel, man, if it’s the right one. But above all things, I’m a man of the people, and I tell art to reflect the times and to represent the people. So whatever character I play, the people have to be the ones to give it to me.
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