Over the past few years, FX has shed light on some of the most mysterious moments in modern American history with a spectacular string of dramas examining things like the trial of O.J. Simpson, Russian spies living as Americans during the 1980s, the infamous Hollywood feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and now, with Snowfall, the beginning of the crack cocaine epidemic. With brightly-colored Los Angeles as the backdrop and a cast of characters from different walks of life headed for convergence, the show seeks to humanize the phenomenon that was crack cocaine.
In researching his role as the son of a Mexican crime boss, actor Filipe Valle Costa says he approached things from two angles. “Number one is to research the accuracy of the world and the story,” he tells me. “You’d be surprised at how much of a resource YouTube has become these days. You literally type ‘Los Angeles, the 80s’ and you have 10,000 videos of what the city felt like during those days. [If you type in] anything like ‘the crack cocaine epidemic,’ you go into this really dark hole of videos of the government being involved and the Mexican and black communities suffering.” In episode one of Snowfall, we meet a CIA agent faced with a pool full of cocaine, and it’s clear that the show’s writers have launched an exploration into this much-discussed and documented theory.
In the same hour of television, we meet a clever, well-meaning young high school graduate who sees selling drugs in a future where he can’t see college. This is where the show zeroes in on the human lives affected by crack, the second component of Valle Costa’s research. “I had to come to a barber and I found one that, as it turns out, is Mexican and grew up in east L.A. in the 80s,” he says. “So I kept going back to him, and actually got probably too many haircuts, because I just wanted to sit down and hear from him. I was surprised by how many people still talk about it. I found a lot of people that belong to the Mexican community and grew up in east Los Angeles and could tell me exactly how this drug and that time period affected them and still lingers in them.”
Valle Costa brings a unique perspective to the “Just Say No”-era drama. Despite spending the past five years in New York City, he hails from Portugal, a country which has made headlines for decriminalizing drugs. “I have a lot of friends who bring that up to me,” he says. “I think because of [decriminalization], in my country, less people end up being attracted to [drugs]. Portugal is also a very tiny country: it’s a different culture, it’s a different way of thinking, it’s a different racial conversation.”
Like The People vs. O.J. Simpson or The Americans, Snowfall is very much a uniquely American story: it’s glamorous on the surface, and quite dark underneath. “When you first get this opportunity to be on Snowfall,” Valle Costa says, “It’s about drugs and it’s cool and hip—those are the things being thrown at you. What surprised me was that realization of, ‘wait a second, there’s really a personal story being told here. People were actually very deeply affected and their lives were turned upside down.’”