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Interviews

Interview: Filipe Valle Costa Talks “Snowfall”, Almonds, and the American Dream

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Filipe Valle Costa

After a successful first season, Snowfall has once again returned to the FX Network for a second season of nail-biting twists. Set in 1983, the ten-episode series dives deeper into the flashy but not-quite-flattering tale of the cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles, California. Complete with government tampering, electric rivalries, and of course, a plethora of cocaine “snow” in circulation, viewers can’t help but find themselves drawn back into the riveting world of John Singleton’s drug-ridden city.

However, as fans of the show are aware, there is much more to Snowfall than a cocaine-centered action-drama. And from nowhere is this point clearer than the perspective of one Portuguese rising-star.

Meet Filipe Valle Costa, a talented budding actor whose inspiring back-story and breakthrough work on the FX hit series, has proved, there’s always more than what meets the eye.

Playing the role of Pedro Nava, the son of an infamous Mexican drug lord, Costa joins the Snowfall cast in bringing the cocaine epidemic to life on-screen, except this time, from a refreshingly new perspective. As Nava, Costa illustrates the reality of children who, born into a less-than-desirable world, struggle to find their place in a society that refuses to offer any sympathy for their unfortunate disposition. A lost child is indeed a far cry, as image goes, from the heartless drug dealer that is often associated with this type of role. Family dynamics become a much more significant storyline as Snowfall progresses and it’s the humanity of the situation that is truly intriguing.

Similar to his character, Filipe is no stranger to the “boxes” society assigns individuals and the constant challenge of maintaining one’s identity in a world that is quick to judge and not necessarily eager to listen or question.

With a second season of Snowfall underway, we had the pleasure of speaking with Filipe not only about his character on the show, but his journey as an actor and beyond.

Congratulations on Season 2 of Snowfall! I just finished watching last night’s episode and I love how everything’s progressing so far!

Thank you so much! Yesterday was quite a reveal for everyone!

Now that viewers are four episodes into the Season 2, do you ever find yourself going back and re-watching episodes on TV?

Sometimes! It depends on how my week is going and how busy I am. But, once I watch it the first time, I like to never watch it again, because then I start to dissect things in a way that’s quite scientific. I don’t think it helps the work to be watching it over and over again. I start paying attention to the silly things, you know? (jokes) What are my lips doing? What are my eyes doing? Why does my hair look weird?! (laughs) All those silly things that no one else is thinking about. So, I try to watch it the first time, appreciate it for what it is, be thankful for it, and then sort of move on.

Well, you do have the new beard on this season! 

Yeah! Which I’m really proud of! (laughs) I really like it!

(jokes) Is that something you’ll be bringing back in Season Three?

(laughs) I don’t know! We’ll see!

In Snowfall, you get to play the character Pedro Nava. How did you originally come across this role?

I got an appointment from my manager saying that I had a self-tape. I was actually living in New York at the time. Originally, my first self-tape was not for the role of Pedro, but for the role of Alejandro. I taped for Alejandro and it well enough for them to ask me to tape for Pedro. There was something about that Alejandro tape that I think they liked. I taped for Pedro, and then a little after that, I got the part from New York! My wife and I moved to LA right away for the show! (laughs)

Wow! So, having lived in both New York and Los Angeles, what do you like most about each coast?

I really love New York! I was there for about five years. I really love the energy. I love the fact thatyou have access to any sort of cultural experience you might want on any given day. That’s what makes that city so beautiful. It’s charged with this beautiful artistic and creative energy that I really responded to.

But, at the same time, the lifestyle was something quite different than what I was used to as a Portuguese person. I come from a country where we’re right by the ocean and we enjoy having a glass of wine by the sea. Not always living to work, but sometimes giving yourself a break. Work to live so that you can enjoy life.

I think life in LA lends itself a little more toward that. I catch myself going to the beach or going on a hike. Those moments really help me in my career as an actor, to be able to sometimes take a step back and just breathe. Enjoy life a little bit more.

I heard you enjoy playing tennis as well!

Yes!

As a tennis player myself, I picture things like commitment and having a positive outlook when I think about the sport. Do you find any parallels between tennis and acting that have helped you in your career?

Oh my God yes! (laughs) Absolutely! I’m just now sitting in front of my bookshelf, and there’s a book called The Inner Game of Tennis. So much of it talks about tennis being the sport of life. And, what I mean by that, is there’s so much about the life of a tennis player that resembles life as an actor. Sort of the solitude that exists in both careers: [as an actor] when you’re out auditioning for all these parts, and [as a tennis player] when you’re out on your own playing all these tournaments.

There’s definitely qualities about these careers that feel the same, but, there’s so much you know? So much about quieting yourself, and letting go of judgement, and living in the moment. Not living in the future or the past, just staying very present. That is sort of the role of the actor as well. There has been so much that I’ve been able to transfer from my career as a tennis player to my career as an actor, and I can’t be more thankful for what the sport has given me. As far as persistence, as far as focus, so many things are alike!

Filipe Valle Costa

Tennis is also what helped you come to the U.S. via scholarship correct?

Correct yes! I was about seventeen years old and I told my parents that I wanted to become an actor. They didn’t get scared, but they did say, “I think that you should take advantage of the fact that you are a tennis player and you can get a tennis scholarship in the United States. Go pursue your dream!”

So, at the time, we decided to feed that opportunity and I got a tennis scholarship to Iowa, in the middle of nowhere! (laughs) This little village called Lamoni, Iowa was quite the cultural shock, but it was such a beautiful experience. I was grateful to act at the same time in the theatre department and get my degree in theatre, both acting and directing. So, it couldn’t have gone better!

As someone who has a background in theatre, do you think performing on stage has helped your acting on tv?

Absolutely! That’s been the foundation of all of it, for me. I still go back to the theatre and I now started a theatre company! So, I’m still very much connected to that world. For me, [the stage] it’s always been home. There’s a lot about the work that isn’t the same, but the foundation of it is the same and I always go back to my teachings and the lessons that I’ve learned on the stage. All the time!

Is that the Saudade Theatre in New York?

Yes, the Saudade Theatre. But we’ve just transferred to Los Angles!

How Exciting!

Yeah! We just decided to bring the company out here [Los Angeles] and we’re very excited about that.

So, bringing us back to Pedro, your character on Snowfall, how do you think he’s grown from Season One to Season Two?

There’s been four months between Season One and Two, and I think a lot of Season Two, as far as Pedro goes, and at least from the audience’s perspective, is the ride of how much is still the old Pedro and how much is this new man who everyone’s talking about.

That was definitely a really, really, fun journey to go on as an actor. I think, of course, he’s a man grieving. His father just died and there’s a lot that comes with that because his father was his rock and such a strong figure in his life. And beyond that, Pedro lived to impress him. To be there for him. To one day learn to be like him. So, when that father figure’s gone, what remains of this new man? This is, I think, what’s so exciting about Season Two and what’s going to end up happening for the rest of the season.

I noticed you mentioned family. One thing that I personally really liked when watching Snowfall, was that viewers get a different side of the crack epidemic. They get a more family dynamic view, especially with your character in particular. Is this something that drew you to the role?

I didn’t know the role was going to go in that direction. But every time it kept going in that way, I was a happier and happier actor! I think what makes the show beautiful is not the fact that it’s about the crack epidemic. It’s a show about how that drug affected families in a really personal way. Those are the stories that I’m interested in. So, it starts to feel more grounded.

Sometimes, that’s something I think us, as storytellers, tend to slide by. That question, wait a minute, what is happening within this family? What was happening behind the scenes? And with Pedro specifically, you get to see that. You get to see the dynamics between him and his cousin, him and his father, and how this drug has affected them…those relationships and how they deteriorate along their journey to success, power, and all of those things.

I specifically remember this moment in Season One, Episode Two. I had to do a scene filled with bravado and point a gun at Gustavo [Actor-Sergio Peris-Mencheta]. I was playing it with a lot of bravado and Thomas Schlamme [Executive Producer] came up and told me, “you know what, he’s actually just a kid who’s really, really, scared.” That was eye-opening for me because, all of sudden, it became a story not just about power and seeking that power, but mostly about kids who got themselves into a situation that they can’t control. They are completely unaware of the consequences of their actions, their presence, this new drug in their city, and what kind of pain and suffering it’s going to bring to people. I think that’s the tragedy of the story. And the fact that you get to see it through that role, I’m really happy that was the angle that we took.

The depth of the characters and the writing in the show is very special! How is it for you to be working with John Singleton, someone who’s work inspired you as a kid?

It’s just one of those dreams, there’s no way around it! People ask me a lot. It’s hard not to sound like a cliché, but it really is a dream, you know? And the fact that we’re telling this story, with someone who’s so knowledgeable of this world, brings me great, great, hope. Also, to be able to see how warm and kind and playful he [Singleton] still is, the amount of positive energy that he brings to this project, and the fact that he’s always aware we’re telling a story that comes from the people who went through these situations.

He always reminds everyone this isn’t a story that you can get from books, or television shows, or movies. This is something that I’ve seen happen in front of my eyes.

So, to have someone who has that amount of knowledge, and on top of that, that amount of joy, it’s a dream. I grew up watching “Boyz n the Hood” [a John Singleton production], and to be here now, it’s just surreal. Absolutely!

Besides John, is there anyone else in particular that inspired you as an actor?

Yes! My wife, my parents, my brother, my sister… (jokes) my dog! Life! (laughs) Everyone inspires me in some way! Of course, I could give you names of celebrities or actors who inspired me in the past. There’s some that come to mind. But, I think at the end of the day, the people that truly inspire me to keep going are the people who I get to see, that I get to be with, and that I get to share my life with. I see them overcoming challenges and being human beings.

Watching the people who I love the most go about their life in a brave and courageous way, that’s what inspires me to continue to tell stories that are grounded in real experiences! And like you said, like Snowfall’s grounded on family. I don’t think I’d be able to tell it [the story of Pedro] had I not been inspired by my family my whole life. The older I get, the more inspired I am by the people who I love most. Or at least I become more aware of that inspiration. That’s it. That’s my answer! (laughs)

You mentioned a little bit about your experiences impacting your career path. Given the political climate right now and how the country has changed over the years since you first arrived, what advice would you give to people who are just now coming to America, following in your footsteps so to speak?

Ooooh! (laughs) That’s a loaded question! I’ve been in the United States for fifteen years now, and I feel, for the first time, a little sense of, “oh my God! I don’t know if this is the place that I thought it was.” That’s a really sad realization to have. But, at the same time, I think if I could give anyone who just entered the United States a piece of advice, it would be to not be afraid to express themselves fully and to bring everything that they have into this culture and into this society, because what makes this society and this culture so beautiful is exactly the fact that it is… a fruit salad! (laughs) A mixture of views and beliefs.

I still find very it beautiful. The idea of America is something that I’m still really attached to because had it not been for that idea, I don’t think I’d be here talking to you today. I don’t think I’d be doing this show. It is a show that continues to allow people to dream.

So, I would say if you are coming to this country today, continue to dare to dream without fear of offending anyone, or without fear of being an outsider because, truly, what makes this county special is the fact that you are coming in. It is the fact that it has been an open door for so many people in the past. I think that’s exactly what’s so beautiful about this country.

Filipe Valle Costa

Yes! I certainly agree. I think it’s also really interesting, yourself being Portuguese, that you get to embody different roles like Pedro in Snowfall. You get to play an overall diverse mix of characters, but, on the other hand, you also want to stay true to yourself as well.

Yeah! That’s definitely been a big part of my journey. I landed in America and I’m a Portuguese person, but it as soon as you enter this industry, it starts building a box for you. The box that I’ve been put into, because of the way I look, mostly, is the box of a Latino. This is, in and of itself, a strange journey to go on. Also, at the same time, I am very happy that I have been able to explore characters such as Pedro because I can generally say that I fell in love with the Mexican culture and the Mexican way of living through playing this role. And that’s, I think, what’s so beautiful about my job.

At the same time, there is that part of myself that is ultimately Portuguese. I will always be Portuguese. That is a part of my identity and I don’t want to ever let go. So, that’s why I started my theatre company. There really aren’t as many opportunities for Portuguese actors to be playing Portuguese roles in America because there are very little or no stories being told about Portuguese people in America. And, that’s ok. I understand. Our country doesn’t have a big impact on American culture as it is. We don’t have a direct impact. But, I started my theatre company so I could start telling those Portuguese stories. I can start exploring that and also get a part of my identity through translating Portuguese playwrights and writers that have never been brought to the United States. You find a balance.

I’m still very happy to be a voice of “otherness”. And a voice that shows “otherness”, is not“otherness”. What we perceive as “otherness” is sort of an allusion. We are all human. We are much more alike than we are different and if I can continue to tell stories which perpetuate that and show everyone that really, we are all much more alike than we are different, then I’m one hundred percent on board. It’s a strange feeling, but at the same time, it’s quite an amazing journey to go on!

Yes! Looking back at your career so far, you’ve played a lot of very neat roles in a diverse group of shows. You’ve acted as cops in Gotham and Bluebloods, but, with Snowfall, you get to play someone on the opposite side of the law. Now that you’ve done these kinds of roles, which do you think is more fun or more challenging as an actor?

Oh wow! (laughs). More challenging…I don’t know! I don’t really think about it in those terms. I think what’s important is that whoever you are playing, you’d better bring something unique to that person, because it doesn’t matter what character you’re playing, they have a point of view and they have a reason why they’re fighting through the world the way that they are. And being on both sides of the law, as an actor, I can see both sides of the story. I can see why someone like Pedro would get stuck in a situation like this. He was born in to this world. Because of that, he has a hard time seeing outside of it. Just like all of us are.

When we are brought in to the world in such a specific way, we have a hard time getting out. Society sometimes does not help you. It tells you to stay in that world. It tells you that this isn’t your place. You go back to where you come from. Being on both sides of the law, I think it’s always important to bring dignity to both parts. At this moment in time in our country, it’s important to tell stories that actually show what those two [groups of people] go through. It’s not just “A to Z”, and “oh well, we’re already on Z now”. But, we need to tell exactly how we get from “A to B to C to D”.

Going though the entire alphabet of human emotion and the human way of living is important so that people can see the full picture, why we’ve gotten in trouble in the past, and how we can improve in the future as human beings.

With this in mind, what is your process for connecting with these characters that may not necessarily match your background?

That’s a great question! My process is to first try to find in what ways I’m alike [to the character] and in what ways our lives are alike. What are the parts of the story that are the same that I can draw from? What are the parts of the story that I know for a fact I can bring an extra color to it because of what my life has been like?

And the second part of is to honor the world of the story. And that is something that I don’t take lightly. It’s a voice of responsibility. I have a responsibility to be telling this story truthfully. So, that’s when the research and dialogue with these communities comes in. When you get a story as specific and as important as this one [Snowfall] in your hands, you run to that research. You run to those people who can tell you exactly what it was like. So, that’s what I did!

I’ve heard that YouTube was a particular source of inspiration for your research for this role!

Yes! (laughs) I feel silly saying that but you’d be surprised with the amount of resources that YouTube has these days! I can get lost just watching videos of cars driving through LA in the 80’s. I can just search “1983 Los Angeles”, and there’s an hour-long video of a car driving through LA in ’83. It sounds silly, but when you think about it, it’s such a luxury that we have as actors now. It’s sort of an un-ending source of research and information. You can find information on literally anything. So sometimes I would get lost on YouTube. Doing my research for Snowfall, I was so surprised on how much information was there for me to glean for the show.

(jokes) Well, one of the places my research took me was learning that almond powder was used to mimic cocaine on the show!

Oh my god! (laughs). Everyone brings this up! I was surprised myself! I didn’t know what I was going to be snorting on that episode and it turns out to be almond powder! After a while you start to feel like you just drank almond milk. It’s very, very, strange but it’s ok! (laughs) It’s what they give you, so it’s what you do.

(laughs) So, by the time you wrap up filming are you totally sick of almonds or is almond milk or almond butter something that may still make it into your shopping cart?

Oh, I love almond butter! (jokes) So, I’d be ok with snorting almond butter! That would be weird! (laughs) No, I only actually got to do that one episode. It was really funny actually, because on Episode Three, Emily [Emily Rios acting as Lucia Villanueva], and I were deciding that Pedro and Lucia were not going to get into the drugs themselves. They were not going to be doing cocaine. And the script for Episode Four comes in, and sure thing! The first thing that you read about Pedro, is that he’s snorting five lines of cocaine! And, I was like, well, there goes that choice! (laughs) It ends up being almond powder and you just snort almond powder for a whole afternoon. Which is hard to do absorb, but you do it!

(laughs) Sounds like an interesting afternoon you got there!

(laughs) Yeah!

I usually wrap up with a couple of fill in the blank sentences. Do you want to give it a go?

Ok, let’s do it!

My favorite tennis player, male and female are…

Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams

My go to snack is…

Taro chips! They’re really good!

If I could act alongside anyone, it would be…

Mark Rylance.

One song on my summer play list is…

Phoenix, Lisztomania!

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