Everyone’s heard the cliché of the small-town kid with big time dreams, turning up in LA determined to become an actor. That clichéd kid might have set out for Hollywood from somewhere in the Midwest, but it’s pretty rare for a youngster to begin their journey to stardom by travelling from Lisbon to Lamoni, Iowa. There’s no question that Filipe Valle Costa has taken the long way around, dragging his dreams of being a tennis star and then an actor all the way across the Atlantic to the tiny Iowan town, then Florida, New York and now finally LA. But it’s worked. That journey has seen a homesick teenager on a tennis scholarship evolve into one of the standouts in John Singleton’s acclaimed 80s drug drama Snowfall.
Costa is the kind of pensive, thoughtful actor who is only ever going to add depth to every character he plays, and so it proves with his Snowfall character Pedro, the son of a Mexican kingpin who is struggling to find his place in a violent, unforgiving world. We caught up with Filipe on the phone as the show’s second season got underway to chat about everything from his love of sport to the vital importance of immigration in modern America.
What was it that drew you to Pedro in the first place?
That’s a big question. I’ve enough experience to know that when something like this comes your way, you don’t say no. With John Singleton (Boyz In The Hood, 2 Fast 2 Furious), Tom Schlamme (The Americans, The West Wing) and Dave Andron (Justified) on board, I knew there were going to be a lot of exciting times ahead. One of the moments that defines Pedro for me, we were shooting a tense scene and I’ve got a gun in my hand. Tom Schlamme came up to me and said, “You know what, this character is just very, very scared.” In that moment, everything clicked for me. That was when I realised that we were shooting a story that truly interested me and not just a story about the son of a kingpin. It’s a story about how this drug truly affected him and the idea that he’s just a scared kid with no other options.
A lot of characters like Pedro are generally just portrayed as scary guys. It must be a much more interesting challenge to play someone who scares everyone, but is really much more scared himself.
Yeah, exactly. I myself have played characters who are some stereotypical, violent version of what we usually see. When I read the script, I didn’t really know the scope of it all. But when that became clear, I realised I was playing a role within a role. He himself is trying to be that stereotype that he sees in movies. There’s also the pressure of trying to live up to his father’s legacy. But in reality, he’s extremely scared and operating from a place of deep insecurity, fear and shame. It’s sad when you think about it.
John Singleton is such a legend, especially after defining the 80s drug crisis in Boyz In The Hood. What was it like working with him? John’s such a gentle, warm soul. There’s an ease about him that makes it easy for you to trust him. He is so knowledgeable of the story we are telling (it is his story in so many ways, too), but at the same time he is able to maintain this childlike innocent energy. It’s remarkable to just sit back and observe him at work. Especially in the season finale, being directed by him, the excitement on his part was so palpable. Every moment meant the world to him. It became easy for me to connect and make the moment count.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned while working on Snowfall?
Because of how quickly things move and how much things may change from one moment to the next, I was constantly reminded of how important it is, especially now, to take it all slowly, be gentle with oneself and remember to continue to find the ease in the work.
You mentioned you’ve played a few stereotypical versions of this role before. As a Portuguese actor and someone who would look typically ‘Hispanic’ to a casting director, do you feel you have to fight against being typecast?
It’s an interesting journey. When you first arrive in New York, like I did 15 years ago, you are suddenly an outsider and a stranger, just because of how people perceive you. I think because of the way I look, I have been put into this box of those stories. I’m happy to go out for them but with that comes a responsibility, especially coming from Portugal and not being from any of the countries around America. When I got this part, I really wanted to make sure I did as much research as I could. I read a book called Always Running by Luis Rodriguez, which tells his experiences of Los Angeles in the 80s and what it was like to be a part of the Mexican community. I lived in New York when I booked this part and when I first landed in LA that it’s a reality that still affects people to this day. I think it’s my job as an actor to make sure that it’s a responsible story and that I bring as much veracity as I can to it.
Your co-star in this is Emily Rios who grew up in that environment in LA. Did she have much to share about the atmosphere and the mindset?
Absolutely, just being around her was a lesson in how she navigates her life and her world and what it is to be from a Mexican family in Los Angeles. That was the gift for me, to be able to become friends with her and to know her. By the end of season one, we were already a family. To have her right there in the moment with me, I had the real thing. It’s so beautiful to be able to witness that every day.
From Portugal to New York must have been a big enough jump for you. Was it an even bigger jump from New York to LA?
There were some bigger jumps before that. I went straight from Lisbon to Iowa. That was the biggest shock, going from Lisbon to this small village in the middle of Iowa called Lamoni. It was a very small town. From there, I went to Florida for three years – that was a bit of a shock as well – and then to New York and now LA. I feel like, by now, I’ve lived in so many different places that it’s been a real journey. The diversity of this country is its real beauty.
How did you feel when you first landed in Iowa?
At first, very lost. It was an enormous cultural shock. I remember calling my parents almost every week in the middle of the night begging them to bring me back to Portugal. They would hear me out, but always stressed the power of persistence. They wanted me to give it a real shot. Now, I could not be more thankful for that. Of the many lessons my parents have taught me, persistence has definitely been number one. With time, I began acting in the theatre department and making friends, some of which have become some of the best friends in my life. Both really helped. It’s been hard to look back ever since.
I read that you first came over on a tennis scholarship. Was tennis ever a career option for you or was it just a way to open up more opportunities?
Tennis was my life. My brother and sister also play, so our lives were sort of dictated by the sport growing up. We played tournaments nearly every weekend. But eventually, the level of hard work and dedication that tennis calls for forces you to ask: “Am I in love with this sport? And am I good enough?” And the answer was quite simply no. I love tennis, it has taught me so much, but I wasn’t in love with it. I have had to ask myself the exact same question during my acting career and the answer has always been yes. I am also very thankful for tennis because it allowed me to move to the United States and pursue what very quickly became my dream. I owe a lot to this beautiful sport.
As a Portuguese immigrant, does America feel like a different country now than when you arrived?
Yes. I think for the first time in my life in this country, no matter how happy I may feel professionally or personally, no matter how much I may love living in a city like Los Angeles, I can’t help but ask myself if America really is the “place to be” right now. So much of what has been happening has led me to believe that it isn’t. And that is a sad realization to have after fifteen years living in the country that for so long represented the land of dreams for me. At the same time, I think this is exactly why it is so important for me and many others who have come here to fight for their dreams to stay here and continue to be the reminder that this nation has always been a nation of immigrants. And that is exactly what makes it unique and worth fighting for.
The cast of Snowfall is its own nation of immigrants. You’re Portuguese, Damson Idris is from London, Sergio Mencheta is Spanish, Alon Aboutboul is Israeli – with all the negative talk about immigration at the moment, is it exciting to be a part of something so multicultural?
It is. The more I navigate this industry the more I find it absolutely essential to be involved in projects that present us with the “rainbow” that we are. That’s the world I live in and that’s the world I see. There is so much dividing us. Stories that force us to explore what happens when we have to coexist and work our differences out are the ones I want to be a part of. Understanding that we are much more alike than the eye catches makes it possible for us to openly and fearlessly celebrate our differences.
Do you still find it hard being away from Portugal?
The older I get, the harder it gets to be so far. I miss my family, my friends, speaking my language, connecting with my roots. I often imagine what my life would look like had I not left. This is the price you pay when you leave home, even more so when you choose to live in a different country. I am lucky to have an incredible support system that keeps me grounded and fighting for what I came here to fight for in the first place. I never take that for granted. The Portuguese part of my identity still lives very strongly in me. You just have to work a little harder to reconnect and remember where you came from in the first place.
Have you found much of a Portuguese community in the US?
It was tough to find a Portuguese community in Iowa and Florida. On the other hand, New York City and Los Angeles have both been great.
You founded a Portuguese theatre company back in New York. It must be exciting to be in a position to give a platform to Portuguese talent.
Yes! Four years ago, I founded Saudade Theatre in New York City. Our mission is to celebrate the Portuguese voice and experience in the US. We are the first Portuguese Theatre Company in the US and we have our first production in Los Angeles this year. It goes up from October 26 – November 11 at MiModa Studio. The play is called The Constitution by Mickaël de Oliveira, and it is the story of four actors who are called to write a new constitution during troublesome political times. The actors are locked away by the government and are given six days to finish it. I will be producing alongside my wife and executive director, Vanessa Varela, as well as directing it.
Finally – and sorry, I have to ask this – were you disappointed with Portugal’s World Cup? [Laughs] No! I was actually very proud and inspired by our players. We went down but we didn’t go down without a fight and that’s all that really matters.