JACKET: COACH. T-SHIRT (VINTAGE): COURTESY OF WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND. STYLING: ALASTAIR MCKIMM. HAIR: DUFFY/STREETERS. MAKEUP: MARK CARRASQUILLO/STREETERS. MANICURE: YUKIE MIYAKAWA USING DIOR BEAUTY/KATE RYAN. SET DESIGN: PIERS HANMER. PRODUCER: CAROLINE STRIDFELDT/LOLA PRODUCTION. PRODUCTION MANAGER: TERESA BERGEY. RETOUCHING: GLOSS STUDIO NEW YORK. DIGITAL TECHNICIAN: NICHOLAS ONG. SPECIAL THANKS: RED HOOK LABS.
HOMETOWN: Peckham, London.
UP NEXT: Snowfall, John Singleton’s new ‘80s-set FX series about the rise of crack epidemic; the action thriller The Commuter, co-starring Liam Neeson.
BECOMING AN ACTOR: My mum was like, “What the hell are you thinking?!” She wanted me to be a footballer, which is weird. We’re Nigerian. The cliché is, “Be a lawyer. Be a doctor.” I’m the youngest of six. My oldest brother, he’s a regional manager. The one underneath that works in IT, the one underneath that is a lawyer. And then my sisters are business managers. I was like, “Mum, I think we kind of ticked those boxes in the family already, so let me do something else.” She was like, “Okay, play football. You like that.” I’m 18 trying to be a footballer, it’s not working out. I love American Pie, so I’m like, “I’m going to go to university.” I had no idea what I wanted to study. My sister was like, “Don’t do business studies because I did it and I hated it.” I was like, “I’m going to do sports science then.” She was like, “Don’t do sports science.” “What should I do then?” She was like, “Do drama.” I was like, [groans] “Okay.”
I did drama and TV/film studies and there was this famous actress in the class called Catherine Tyson. She was like, “Hey, you’re really good. You should meet this reader.” I met the reader, she bribed me and told me I would get 100 pounds. I did the play, for the reading, got my 100 pounds, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s the end of my acting career.” It was called Pandora’s Box. They called me like three months later and were like, “We’re turning it into a full length play, and we want you to play the character.” That was it. I did the play. Audiences and agents and people came up to me asking for autographs. An agent came and said, “You remind me of a young Will Smith.” I was like, “Okay, yeah, I know who Will Smith is.” So it found me. I didn’t find it.
INDUSTRY BEGINNINGS: I kept getting plays, and then I did the National Theatre, which is one of the most esteemed spaces in London, and I was like, “I kind of want to do film now, or TV.” So then I started auditioning for stuff like Doctors, the cliché roles that every young British actor goes through, just to see what the world was like.
WELCOME TO HOLLYWOOD: One of the first roles [my manager] sent me was Snowfall, to do a tape for John Singleton. I was like, “Oh my gosh. I’ve seen this guy’s movies! He’s a big deal right?” I auditioned through a tape and then a week later, I flew over to L.A. I flew back to London, and then they said, “We need you back again.” Bear in mind, this is all on my own dime. I am broke. So I’m flying economy Delta, staying in these horrible AirBnBs with people who have like 25 dogs and then trying to say to them, “I’m an actor.” And they’re like, “Oh are you, really?” I fly back to L.A., I meet John at his office, and we’re walking in this park in South Central, and it’s full of crackheads. And I’m trying to keep an American accent. That was the most nerve-racking thing in the world.
My hero is Denzel Washington, and then I looked at someone around a similar age to me who was American who is also an idol, Michael B. Jordan. I studied them for the accent, and incorporated it and found it myself and with the character of Franklin. I remember being in the swimming pool on Wilshire at this hotel thinking, “I didn’t get that.” And then he calls me and is like, “Can you hear me? You got the part, man.”
Then I immediately started drowning, because I can’t swim. The announcement came out while I was in the air on a flight to London, so when I landed my phone was like [mocks buzzing sounds]. Literally my life changed.
FIRST CRUSH: First, now, forever: Rihanna.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN STARSTRUCK? When I was around 12, I played a bit of rugby alongside football. There was this thing in London for the Queen called the Jubilee. The teacher pushed me to the front, and the Queen was coming through, shaking everyone’s hands with her little white gloves. I was like, “Oh my god, you’re the queen!”
RITUALS: When I walk into a space and it’s the first time we’re shooting, I touch everything. People look at me like I’m a crazy person, set designers are like, “Damson, what are you doing?” But I’m like, “I have to do it, otherwise I don’t feel like I’ve been here before.” That’s my major ritual. It kind of spread among the set of Snowfall, and by like episode three, people started to respect it, and they’re like, “Okay. Dams is doing his thing.” That’s one of my major rituals. Prayer, of course. And I’m starting to move into the fashion of not knowing the lines too well, particularly with TV. Being a bit more loose, not being so set in my ways. I love Kendrick Lamar, and I was like, okay, in music, the greatest artists go into the studio and they didn’t have the words written before the beat. They hear the beat, and then they write to the beat. Or they’re just in the studio and come up with it. I’m like, “Hmm. How can I apply that to my acting?”
DREAM COLLABORATORS: I think his name is Denzel Washington? I don’t know, I can’t remember. I think I’m pronouncing it right. He’s phenomenal. I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor, but once it found me I looked at whom people were saying were great. I looked at who I wanted to be like that. Not just in acting, but in their personal life as well. Being a well-rounded person, a fine example of good taste and prestige and class, that’s what I really chased, so he was the person that did it for me. And then it’s so funny, because once you find your idol, you then find their idol and it opens up this whole new thing. Denzel introduced me to Sidney Poitier.
WORST AUDITION: There’s been so many. Let me think. There was this audition very recently. Oh my gosh. So the director—fabulous director, fabulous project, it’s going to be a great project [laughs]—we auditioned and then at the end he said, “Okay, I want to do something fun. I want you to gradually turn into a monster.” I was like, “Pssh. Alright, cool. Let’s do this.” He was like, “I want it to be gradual. I want it to be from one to ten, turn into a monster, and in complete agony and pain, and at the end, I want you to be at eleven. Go!” I fall to the ground, I bang my back on the wall, I start fake peeling skin off, dropping teeth out. I start gagging and fake vomiting, literally nearly lost a tooth, went straight to the casting director and then by the end I’m screaming spit, saliva is flying everywhere, and by the end I’m walking towards camera going [fake gasps]. It was the most embarrassing thing in the world.
WORST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED: “If it’s not working at 25, quit.” That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard, because I’ve grown to learn that this is an ageless industry. Bryan Cranston—he’s my absolute favorite. I think he’s phenomenal. I love Breaking Bad. Look how that changed his career and took it in a completely different way.
BEST ADVICE: I met Cuba Gooding Jr. at the premiere for American Horror Story. I walk in, first time in L.A, I’m seeing Lady Gaga, I’m meeting everyone. I met Cuba, and we obviously have the link of Singleton, and he says to me, “Just make sure you remember, everyone prepares for failure, no one prepares for success.”
IF NOT ACTING: I’d be doing something in football. I love football so much. I support Manchester United. Greatest team in the world! They’re having a bit of a struggle right now, but I mean, we’re not Arsenal. If I wasn’t an actor, I would definitely teach kids how to play football. Money’s… I mean it’s more important than fame, but it’s not that important to me, so that’d definitely be my thing. Find myself a good ol’ gal and have like 6 kids like my mum did, hopefully they’re all boys, and turn them all into Cristiano Ronaldo.