The wire

Damson Idris on Finding the Humanity of Netflix’s Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire star Damson Idris talks teaming up with Anthony Mackie for the Netflix original sci-fi movie and delivering the thrills.

As Netflix launches its ambitious strategy of debuting a new original film every week throughout 2021, one such movie leading the charge is Outside the Wire. Helmed by Mikael Håfström and starring Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris, the film follows a disgraced drone pilot named Thomas Harp who is deployed to an active war zone where he partners with an android soldier named Leo. As the duo battle across Eastern Europe in the near future, they face the realties of battle firsthand, as well as cybernetic war machines known as G.U.M.P.s, on an odyssey through humanity’s violent nature.

In an exclusive interview with CBR, Idris talks about filming the movie on-location in Hungary, developing his dynamic with Mackie and the physicality of taking his character through an unflinching theater of war.

I feel like this is a particularly intense role for you. How was it filming this movie in Budapest?

Damson Idris: It took us about nine weeks to shoot this movie, which is a lot of work. But just being in Hungary, in that environment and waking up at 6am and going to these amazing, beautifully untouched locations, it made the experience and movie real. And hopefully that shows on the screen.

Anthony Mackie is your screen partner and producer on this film. How was it developing your on-screen rapport with him?

Idris: Mackie, above all things, he’s like my big brother. He truly looks out for me and my career and he’s full of advice, full of lessons. And I believe that’s how all seasoned actors should be for us actors who are just starting out because this truly is a journey and career full of highs and lows. In regards to this film, I was a complete sponge to Anthony Mackie; we shot it in 2019 so I was still on that Avengers high and to be given the opportunity to work with Mackie was such an amazing thing.

With such a short filming window and so many action set pieces, how was it capturing that sense of urgency in your performance?

Idris: It was beautiful because Mikael is such a cinematic director and he brought his A-game in regards to how it was going to be shot. They really did know what they were going to do in regards to shots; there was no dilly-dallying. That put me and Anthony and the rest of the actors into a position to really do our A-game when it came to the performances and put it together on-screen.

I will say about that rain scene, that was horrible! [Laughs] I’m one of those weird actors that needs everything to be real. [The filmmakers were like] “Damson, do you need this wetsuit?” No, I need to feel everything, and I was soaked! But then you come across settings like that Chernobyl[-esque] buildings when we come across our first conflict zone or where the drones were or the bank sequence. We built that bank! It truly was amazing because, for me, you were there and when it comes to CGI, it was important for me to interact with those G.U.M.P.s and to make them machines that react when you walk by. Those were the interesting things for me making this movie, it wasn’t tedious and it wasn’t annoying to move from location to location. Everyday was a new experience, a new hurdle to jump over, but the payoff was so exhilarating.

Coming off doing a grounded series like Snowfall, how was it getting to work creatively in the science fiction space?

Idris: I was petrified, I was really scared, not only to be doing my first action movie, but to act when things aren’t actually there. After doing [this film], it felt like I overcame something, some challenge, and going forward, I can’t wait to do so many more. These G.U.M.P.s are honestly just a metal pole with a tennis ball and I’m polling special effects to ask how wide and tall [they are] and where the eyeline is. That is an art form in itself, and I commend so many actors on getting to do that, and I hope to join them.

Mikael Håfström was complimenting both you and Anthony on your physicality. How was it capturing that part of your performance?

Idris: It was interesting working on Outside the Wire because the way I approached Harp was to not prepare too much physically. I was just coming off Season 3 of Snowfall and that character is quite slim. And I [figured] maybe this drone pilot is also slim, maybe he isn’t this muscular figure. Maybe he isn’t the best at gun-wielding and maybe, when he runs, he gets a stitch. These are all the things that made him relatable because he sits on a chair all day, looking at locations far, far away while eating gummy bears.

So it was really beautiful to be unprepared and be in complete contrast to Anthony Mackie, who absolutely kills it as Leo, this amazing, in-shape machine. That was the beauty of being in this project.

To go more abstract, who is Harp to you and how do you see his journey across this film?

Idris: Harp to me, when we first meet him, he’s a young, hotshot drone pilot who’s a brilliant drone pilot. But through doing what he believes is right, sacrificing two soldiers, and through his disobedience instead of being court-martialed, he’s sent on the frontlines to learn from his actions. To me, I think he’s a character I think the audience is really going to relate to: The story really is told through his eyes, and his assessment of Leo’s war tactics and war in general lets us, as a viewer, really assess our relationship with the casualties of war, how frivolous we are with technology and how eager we are to push the bar forward with technology without really sitting back and thinking have we overcome the issues that we have presented; Harp is the audience.

Harp has a whole character arc were he starts more foreclosed and protected and opens up as the film progresses, inverting his dynamic with Leo. How was it developing that arc?

Idris: The whole time, Harp is having a conversation with his inner monologue and he is asking himself what you are you doing here; you’re not cut out for this, what are you gearing yourself up for. And you can tell, as an audience, he is gearing himself up to face an ongoing adversary. And I believe to make that switch, it’s interesting as an actor because the character goes on a journey. You see this arc and see him realize that while he understands what we’re doing here, everything is not as rosy as it seems, and you see that in the first drone strike in the bank. And at the end of the movie, when he says “Humans can do better” I think that speaks wonders to us in reality.

How was it filming in gorgeous Hungary?

Idris: First of all, Hungary isn’t a place, by name, that you think is sunny…it was so hot! We filmed this in the summer but, at the same time, it was just a beautiful city full of great history, great food, great alcohol. [Laughs] It really was a vibrant city, it was a city which I believed never slept and going to some of these locations, I couldn’t imagine another place to film in and it’s definitely [one] I hope to film in again.

How was it filming with Michael Kelly, especially those intense scenes where he’s getting in your face?

Idris: He’s amazing, he’s one of the most focused actors. I remember when he landed in Budapest, he told me “Hey, let’s meet in the lobby and go over the script and make it better!” [Laughs] One of my favorite scenes is between Harp, Eckhart and Miller when they confront [Harp] about what he’s been through. He’s so intense and constantly connecting with the actors that he’s playing with. I think he did a fantastic job on the movie and it’s this testament to his art.

What are you most proud of about Outside the Wire?

Idris: The thing I’m most proud of about Outside the Wire is we are seeing, not only robots, but two strong, Black leads at the forefront of a movie that’s being presented on a global scale. It constantly conflicts the stigma that Black doesn’t sell and it constantly lets me know that, going forward, the future of this industry is bright and full of diversity and full of inclusion. That’s what I’m most proud of about Outside the Wire.

From an audience standpoint, I can’t wait for them to see the fast-paced, kickass action, the humor, the thrills and, above all, I can’t wait for them to be entertained.

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