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Damson Idris, Star Of Outside The Wire - Exclusive Interview

Damson Idris stars in the Netflix original movie Outside the Wire as Lt. Harp, a disgraced drone pilot in the near future sent to the front lines as punishment. He's put under the command of Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), a secret android. The two fight alongside other humans and robotic soldiers called Gumps while tracking down a doomsday device.

This is Idris' first blockbuster-style movie. He's previously worked in smaller or more intimate productions, most notably as drug dealer Franklin Saint in John Singleton's FX crime drama Snowfall. Don't expect this to be his last major movie, either — he told us he's got his eye on bigger things.

Looper spoke with Idris before the movie dropped on Netflix. He told us about how he prepared by under-preparing, working with Anthony Mackie, and shooting a movie in Budapest. We also took some to ask him about his role in the Black Mirror episode "Smithereens" and how it helped put him on the path to Outside the Wire.

A prescient role

How did you get the role in the first place?

So it came across as any role back then. This is about two years ago, I had just finished doing, I think, season two or season three of my TV show. And it was just an audition tape. I was in London, I read the script, I loved it. I sent a tape and then they said "Yeah, we'd love to offer you the role," and I was in Hungary preparing for it. It was right after my TV show, so I had about a month and a half to prepare. But yeah, just from seeing, like you say, seeing the finished product, it was all worth it.

So your part was recorded in 2019, what's it like watching a movie that involves vaccine delivery to a war-torn area in 2021?

[Laughs] That is the greatest question in the world! Movies do this magical thing, man. You make them, and then all of a sudden the exact same thing happens in life. It's really weird, isn't it?


But with Outside the Wire, I think there's tons of stuff that correlates to modern life. And despite the fact that it's in 2036, I believe what it speaks to is the history of warfare and our relationship with casualties of war, our relationship with AI and technology and how that's rampant today and are we ready for Gumps in our reality. Are we ready for robots? Do we really need to assess and fix some of the problems we have today? This movie speaks to many times, the future and the past. And that's why it's so special.

Did you find your mind changing about warfare, about technology, about anything while you were making this or when you saw the finished product?

A hundred percent. I played Lieutenant Thomas Harp, who's a young hotshot drone pilot, who believes what he's doing is great. He believes he's God's gift to earth, but unfortunately he disobeys a direct order because he feels he's doing what's right. One thing I learned through my research, watching movies, like a Good Kill or Eye in the Sky and watching all of these war movies, was how so many soldiers have PTSD and trauma. And what that means for those soldiers going forward, when they're looking at a location from far, far away, with little kids playing and families. And just because a target is in that location, they need to press a button because someone told them to. With heart being thrust on the front lines of Marines, having that reaction, the first time he killed someone up close or having a reaction to the math of a drone strike, a button he's pressed so many times. As a human being it's made me see how difficult their jobs are, but it's also made me see that this is something that needs to come to an end very soon.

Working with Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie — how is it working with him?

Wow. So Anthony Mackie, above all things, is like my older brother. I call him and nag him more times than he wishes. But just coming into an action film for the first time, given the smaller parts that I've played in the past, it was beautiful to have someone above me to take me under their wing and for me to be a sponge, it's everything they do. The way he operates on a set and his relationship with the crew is infectious. He's so passionate about the work he does. And to see him off the 70-plus movies he's done in his career to still be happy? Lets me know that I could be happy in the future too. And one thing that isn't spoken of a lot is a lot of people in this industry aren't happy. They'll have it all but they're not happy. But Mackie isn't one. So it was amazing to watch him.

So Anthony Mackie, whenever he's on a talk show or doing an interview, he always seems like a guy who's having a good time. So you're saying that is what he's like?

Exactly. He's always goofing around, he's always playing jokes. He smokes probably about a million cigars a day. He's a character in itself, man! But his abilities, specifically with action sequences and his improvisation skills, it truly is something to marvel that he can completely switch a scene and turn it on his head, make it greater. I was always taught that acting is reacting and he is a giving actor. And that's the best compliment that he could ever receive as an actor.

And he's also a producer on this movie. So did you have to interact with him in a different way, as an actor and as a producer or, it was all the same thing to you?

Here's the thing: he wouldn't let me. He would not let me and that's because his main focus was protecting us actors, as a producer. He was heavily involved in the script as were many of us, but at the same time, he was almost a bridge between the actors and some of the creators who might not be on set every day. He made us feel incredibly comfortable from Emily Beecham, to Michael Kelly, to Enzo [Cilenti], to Pilou [Asbæk]. There was no ego with Mackie and those are the best actor-producers to work with, in my opinion.

Preparation and working in Budapest

So for your part in the role, you mentioned you did a little bit of research. How did you prepare for this role?

The biggest preparation for me was to under-prepare. Because Harp is in well over his head. So although they gave me gun training, I didn't want to be Keanu Reeves level. It's funny because I remember watching that Keanu Reeves video where he's going through and he's hitting every single target. I was like, "Oh, I can't be that good." I don't want to look cool running, I want to have a stitch when I'm running. This is a guy who sits in a chair all day, eating gummy bears. So for me, the preparation was to under-prepare — that created the huge contrast between Harp's inexperience and Leo's experience.

Well, I'm going to give you a bizarre compliment in that sense that you did look woefully unprepared and you did look uncool. [Laughter] It came across correctly.

[Laughs] Thank you.

I was nervous for you the entire time.

I think it was the Vaseline I kept requesting from makeup to splatter on my face. Leo's of course a prototype and Mackie as an actor, he sweats a lot. So the whole time his makeup lady would come over and blow in sweat off him. He's like, "I'm playing a robot, I can't sweat!" Meanwhile I'm telling my makeup lady, "Hey, put that on! Make me as shiny as possible!" So that was the beauty.

So you shot this in Budapest, a growing place for filmmaking. What's it like in Budapest?

Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. It's fantastic! The culture, the history of the city! It's a beautiful city. I mean, we stayed in — I believe it's Buda and Pest, the two different sides of the bridge — we stayed inside the Four Seasons. And there was this amazing little bar downstairs called The BOB. And honestly they probably wanted to build a statue of Anthony Mackie when we were leaving, because we were there so much. [Laughs] But it's just a fantastic city to work in because from a crew standpoint, they're truly all thankful for larger industries to be coming to their places and making movies and providing work. And that's evident through the amount of hard work they put into every job they do, whether it's an assistant to a grip, to a camera operator, to anything, to make up, to hair, to costume.

They're all completely involved and completely focused. And it just creates a whole full wholesome environment on set, which I've seen be destroyed or taken for granted in some of the larger industries that we have. So I think it's definitely a growing industry, it's definitely a ground location. And it's going to be somewhere that many movies operate in, in the future.

Black Mirror, sci-fi, and accents

This isn't your first production with Netflix, given that you also worked with Black Mirror. Can you draw a line between how you got Black Mirror and this?

Well, Black Mirror was interesting because every episode is a different act. So I knew eventually one day I'd be given the opportunity to be in Black Mirror if I just worked hard enough. It's funny, I remember the first time I auditioned for Black Mirror was years ago and it was for "Man on Fire," I think it's what the episode's called, where it was played by my good friend, Malachi Kirby, where all the soldiers had been convinced that the people in the community are actually almost like zombies, a Wrong Turn kind of [situation]. And then later on when they called me to be in it alongside Andrew Scott, it was a fantastic opportunity to show a today present sense of Black Mirror. We're often in the future, but this one was about an Uber driver in relationships with social media, it could happen today. So that's where I caught the bug for sci-fi and why I was so excited to be involved with Outside the Wire. I'm so excited to do more sci-fi in the future.

You touched on this a little bit earlier, but a lot of what you've done outside of this tends to be smaller dramas, more intimate works. Do you see a future in bigger sci-fi, bigger action, anything like this for you?

A hundred percent. I'm waiting for someone to come calling, and the dumbbells are ready. As an actor, I like to let the universe bring the roles to me. So whatever speaks to me is who I'm going to give my heart and soul to. So we'll see what happens in between and off this pandemic that we're in.

Your American accent has gotten a lot of work over the past few years. Are we going to be hearing you in your natural accent or can we expect to hear more American work from you?

I think there's going to be various different characters that will play on my career, God willing. From Americans to Europeans, to South Americans, to Africans, I'm excited to go all over the globe. Film is global. Experience, love, peace is global. And that's what I hope to portray in the movies and the characters I play in the future.

Seeing the finished product and takeaways

What was it like seeing all the special effects and the robotics and everything that you weren't able to see on set?

It is the greatest thing to see the CGI and robotics in the finished product. Because one thing I realized was missing with the character and in the script was there wasn't a lot of interaction with the Gumps unless they were shooting or being shot at or being blown up. So I wanted human interaction. I wanted to bump into the camp Gumps and apologize. I wanted to say hello or good evening. I wanted to be in awe of them because the audiences, the CGI and effects in this film, it's truly something that I think people are going to marvel at. It rivals movies I love such as Ex Machina and things in that nature. So just to see Mackie on a day with dots over his body, but then to see what that finished aftermath is, I think is beautiful and I think is something that speaks hugely to film and the abilities of special effects in that department.

So what do you want people to take away from Outside the Wire

Above all things I want people to understand, this is a fun, action-packed movie. And although it has something to say — a couple things — I want the audience to be entertained. When you switch on Netflix on Friday, I want you to have your popcorn ready, I want you to have your family around you. And I want you to be ready to be thrilled and entertained. And that's my biggest thing and takeaway, I hope people take from Outside the Wire.

Outside the Wire is streaming on Netflix.