EXCLUSIVE: Isaiah John Talks ‘Snowfall,’ Discovering LA In the ’80s & Working With John Singleton
In 1983, crack cocaine came to South Central Los Angeles and then spread across the country. Legendary filmmaker John Singleton’s latest project, Snowfall, follows the crack-cocaine epidemic and how it impacted not only the city but the Black community and the world.
At the center of the series is 19-year-old drug dealer Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) and his best friend, Leon Simmons, who serves as his right hand as the young entrepreneur searches for power and finds it in the crack-cocaine business. Newcomer Isaiah John stars as Simmons, the hot-tempered young man who helps his best friend build an empire.
John, an Atlanta native and whose most recent role was in Barbershop: The Next Cut, sat down to speak with JET ahead of Snowfall‘s premiere. We discussed how he snagged the life-changing role, learning about the ’80s and why it’s been such a privilege to work with Singleton.
JET: Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Isaiah John: Thank you.
JET: So the first thing I wanted to ask you about Snowfall is how you got involved with the project. Was it something you auditioned for? Was it something you heard about, and what intrigued you about the series?
IJ: I learned about the project from my manager back in 2015.
JET: Oh, wow.
IJ: She told me the character was outfitted for me. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that much of a leeway on it, [because] the entire project was already cast, and then eight months later, she told me they were recasting the project, and she was going to try to get me an audition. To be honest, I didn’t think anything of it. I don’t really get excited about projects, when [I] learn about them, so I just kind of let it brush over my head. So, during the time that she told me that I had an audition, I already had a whole bunch of auditions that year, and it was coming close to booking but not booking.
JET: Got it.
IJ: Yeah, just trying to stay positive and things like that. So basically I did the audition. To be honest, I didn’t even want to audition because I am mixed. I would audition for a lot of African-American roles. I hear that I don’t look urban enough for a lot of roles. So, that was really discouraging. So, when she told me about it I was like, “Eh, I don’t know if I want to audition because I don’t know if they would even like me.” But my manager is really headstrong. So she forced me to audition.
JET: I’m glad she did.
IJ: Yeah, So she forced me to audition and literally, I would say at the most a week or so later, they called and offered to fly me out to California for a chemistry read callback. So that in itself blew my mind. And I was like, “Whoa, what?” But even with that, that was also a process in itself because at the time I was the janitor, I was a janitor for almost two years at the time.
JET: Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.
IJ: Yes, I had to make the decision to take this chance and go out to LA.
JET: And leave your job.
IJ: Yeah, I had responsibilities financially so that if I leave for a couple of days and don’t work, then I miss out on money. So, it’s just like a whole faith test in itself. So, I go out there, and I walk in a room, and it’s like a lot of people in the audition room. I was like, “What is going on?” So, it was just, at that moment, I was just like in a … I have to put myself in a certain mindset to where it’s like, “You know what, I literally have nothing to lose at this point.” So, I went in there, and I just did what I was supposed to do as an actor. Fortunately, they asked me to improv in the callback. So, that was amazing. It was an amazing experience. So later that day, I got the call that I booked, and that moment, coming where I came from in Atlanta, that moment in itself was just like, I can’t even describe it in words, how I felt at that moment. It was just amazing. They were just like well you are going to have to call your job and let them know you are not coming back to Atlanta.
JET: Oh, so you guys started working on the project immediately after you were booked?
IJ: Immediately, immediately. So it was, yeah, it was a crazy, crazy, crazy situation, and I was fortunate enough to bring my mom with me. So, we both packed, at the most, for three to four days. So, we had to live off of that for a whole month filming.
JET: So talk to me a little bit more about your character Leon. I know that Snowfall is set in the ’80s. I’m not even sure if you were alive in the ’80s.
IJ: Leon Simmons, he [is] lifelong friends with Franklin Saint, who was played by Damson Idris, and at the beginning of the story line, Leon was currently serving time in juvenile hall for assault. He is a very hot-tempered person, he demands respect from everyone. And I would say, you know, Leon [is] hungry to be at the top of the world, and would do anything necessary to get there, you know? So it’s just like, even things that would potentially cost him his freedom, you know, so he’s definitely someone who is a product of the environment.
JET: What can you tell me about him, and sort of what it was like to go back to this past-time?
IJ: Basically, at first I was watching YouTube videos and just studyin because my character is someone from the streets, just studying their posture, you know their stance, and so when I got to set, I was fortunate enough to work with Dub C, who was like a legend in California. He helped me really establish the body language, the dialect and the attitude to bring to make me more authentic. So he was telling me how I’m a fast learner. To me, I just really appreciated him because he was a great help in bringing this character to life for me. I feel like there is a lot of people with family members who dealt with crack cocaine in some form or fashion. So, you know, just asking people who grew up in that time era. You know, asking them how they felt and what they went through. All of that definitely helped me get into the mindset of Leon Simmons.
JET: I know that John Singleton had to be a huge asset because he literally watched this happen in South Central. So, what was it like working with him?
IJ: I have a story when it comes to John. I would say a couple of years ago, probably like five years ago, there was this thing here in Atlanta called The Monologue Slam, and they allow all actors in Atlanta to audition to potentially be able to perform the monologue in front of John Singleton.
IJ: Fortunately, I was one of the top five. The only downfall was things didn’t really follow through, so we never got to that point to where we were able to perform in front of him. But they did a video take of the monologue. I forgot about that and let that be the past, and when I actually saw John at the first table read he walks up to me and addresses me by my first name. And he’s like, “Aww, this is great.” That was crazy, that in itself was crazy. But John was really hands-on with filming the whole series. He was very present on set, and he was very present with his ideas that he wanted us to bring to life. Just working with him in itself was a blessing. He’s a great inspiration of mine, and I love all of his work. It’s just a really amazing moment to now be able to call him a friend. He was really perfect when it comes to Snowfall, so even though he didn’t direct every single episode, he was there every single episode. There to bring his genius to set.
JET: Did this series change your perspective at all about the crack-cocaine epidemic or the war on drugs? Did it really open your eyes to things you didn’t know or do you feel like, “Hey, I really understood what was happening here.”
IJ: I learned a lot filming it. One thing that I don’t feel like the younger generation and my generation realize the impact that [crack] had on families and communities. People are still affected by this even now. It affects generation after generation. That’s another reason why this story is very important for people to pay attention to because it happened but people don’t really understand how it happened.
JET: So what is your dream role? What do you want to do from here? I know Snowfall hasn’t even come out yet, but after it does what’s next for you? Are you even thinking that far ahead yet?
IJ: When it comes to my dream role, I feel like that in itself will change as I grow older as a person and as I grow as an actor. But at the moment, I would say that my dream role would definitely be because I would say that I’m like a gym junkie, I love working out, and I love physical activity. I would say acting and being a part of a franchise would definitely be the ideal way for me to go down right now.
JET: What have you been watching lately, and what are some of your favorite things to watch?
IJ: When it comes to TV television, of course, I watch Empire. I’m a real movie buff; my family, we grew up all going to the movies. Like, five times a week, literally. So we’re always watching movies, and there are a lot of actors that I look up to. There’s a lot of older films I love watching just to learn, so right now, of course, it’s all Wonder Woman, that was a great movie.
JET: Yeah, I loved Wonder Woman.
IJ: They really did their thing on that one. I’m like an older movie kind of person; I love rewatching movies to go back and study them. Even when I watch newer films I’m looking at it from a perspective as, what is the actor doing in that moment, how are they portraying that emotion, things like that, and how subtle they are being in that moment, I love watching Training Day. That was so genius; I love watching things like that, that just sparks that acting bug in you, even more, I want to be that great.
JET: It’s the brilliance. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, and I’m really so excited to see Snowfall. Congratulations, I know this was an amazing opportunity, and I only hope to see you soar from here.
IJ: Thank you so much, I appreciate that.
Snowfall will premiere on FX Wednesday, July 5th.
Photo Credit: DeWayne Rogers