Damson Idris on Switching From the Crime Saga of ‘Snowfall’ to Full Action Mode for ‘Outside the Wire’

Damson Idris has walked the streets of ‘80s Los Angeles as CIA wars abroad introduce crack cocaine into neighborhoods and traversed strange realms in twisted, dystopian fantasies. These roles in shows like “Snowfall” and “Black Mirror” have defined his emerging career as an actor who can reach versatile dramatic heights. But in Netflix’s “Outside the Wire,” Idris gets his chance to jump into the world of high-octane action. The film stars Idris alongside Anthony Mackie as Lieutenant Thomas Harp, a combat drone operator in the year 2039. It is a future where androids are sent into combat alongside human troops. But Harp is a soldier all too common now, who fires on targets from the safe distance of a console. A split-second decision during a raid results in Harp firing a drone missile that kills several U.S. soldiers. To give him actual frontline combat experience, his superiors send Harp to a war zone where the United States is standing between Ukrainian rebels and Russian troops. Leo (Mackie), a stern commander, becomes Harp’s superior in the zone and recruits him for a mission to stop a warlord from attaining the ability to fire nukes at the United States. 

Idris recently shared with Entertainment Voice how it felt to go from character-driven dramas to android-driven spectacle. Along the way he also dived into the world of modern drone warfare, which raised an awareness in the actor on how combat in today’s tech-centric reality leaves an impact on psyches and behavior. For Idris it deepened the themes of a movie featuring lots of craft in its visual effects.

You have been doing notable work in drama recently, particularly in “Snowfall.” What drew you to this adrenaline-pumped action piece?

Mostly the fact that I hadn’t done it before. As an actor you’re searching for things you haven’t done before and things that challenge you. I was actually petrified coming into this role. But once we started it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I tapped into my childlike nature and that sense of imagination that’s in all of us. I was truly able to see after watching the finished product, just how amazing the film is and how spectacular sci-fi is. All the CGI and special effects, it’s truly astounding what you can create out of nothing.

The world of the film feels so vivid in terms of its visual effects. But it’s also a role that requires you to do a lot of stunt work. You’re a soldier in the line of fire in Ukraine. What kind of preparation did you go through physically for the role?

This was something me and director Mikael Håfström spoke about vividly. It helped that my character is actually very green. Harp is this hotshot drone operator who sits in a chair all day eating gummy bears, fiddling with a joystick and watching locations from far away. So when he’s thrust into a war zone I wanted him to have no experience. I didn’t want him to be this amazing, “John Wick” type. I remember watching Keanu Reeves training for those movies and wondering, ‘am I going to have to do that too?’ I remember watching him hitting all the marks with Halle Berry. I spoke with Mikael and wondered if maybe Harp doesn’t have to look so cool when he runs, maybe he doesn’t know how to carry a grenade launcher. He can be very instinctive and frantic. I hope that shows on screen.

You mentioned “John Wick.” Were there any other movies you watched to prepare to do a genre you had not acted in before?

Definitely. I watched “A Good Kill,” “Eye in the Sky,” and just really tried to understand the PTSD and trauma many soldiers face, and how that makes them colder or really assess if they’re doing the right thing.

Yes, even though it’s set in the future and there’s all this advanced tech going on involving androids, this debate about how drones are changing the nature of warfare is very contemporary.

What I learned was that a lot of these guys just follow orders. A lot of these guys, just from the videos I watched, are quite cold. It’s this attitude of, ‘this is my job. My job is to watch this location. Yes, that little girl there sells milk every Monday and that little boy plays football and has a family. But as soon as the target is designated, I’m pushing that button and not holding back.’ I’ve heard there are some cockpits where they try to lessen the stress of it, where a drone pilot, once they lock the target can step out and someone else comes in to push the button. But just going forward as humans it’s something to really assess because it’s all it’s going to lead to is a world like “Outside the Wire.” Artificial warfare is altering how we see conflict and see the casualties of war. 

Your co-star in this movie is Anthony Mackie, who is of course a veteran of some pretty big action movies including some little franchise called “Avengers.”

(Laughs) Yeah, just some little movie no one’s heard about.

What was the dynamic on set between you two and what did you learn from him about making this kind of movie?

Anthony Mackie was just such a joy because immediately the chemistry was there. He took me on as a little brother. Aside from being a seasoned actor, he sought out my work, he watched my shows. We had actually acted in the same season of “Black Mirror.” He was educating himself on me on an artistic and personal level. That’s something a lot of actors don’t do. I instantly admired him. From being a cook in a kitchen trying to showcase my talent to a 195 million subscribers is a pretty big deal. That’s a story I’m going to willingly tell throughout my career going forward. But in regards to action, he is the best in the business. His focus is astounding. I mean, this guy was learning yoga and martial arts to get into the mindset of his character. I would sit down and watch him rehearse again and again these fight sequences. I was just in awe. But it also let me know I can do it. The main thing he taught me was to be focused. He also made me understand there are no egos on set. Everyone here is here to do a job. The finished product is even better if everyone treats it as a family project.

You’ve done it all, from TV to film, dark dystopia to now sci-fi action. What you have planned next?

I’m honestly just interested to see what the universe brings to me. There’s been some fantastic opportunities that have landed on my table. Due to Covid and everything going on I haven’t been able to do them yet, we even had to suspend production on “Snowfall” for a bit last year but that’s coming back next month. Very excited for that. But I’m generally excited for the future. I understand that everything through God is for a reason. So I can’t wait to keep inspiring through my work and keep proving to young people in the arts it’s all possible.

Outside the Wire” begins streaming Jan. 15 on Netflix.