Every great story should be told. For Portuguese actor Filipe Valle Costa, he doesn’t just star in them either, he lives one. As one of the breakouts of FX’s new crack cocaine origin story series “Snowfall,” his journey towards achieving his dream started in the most unlikely of places upon arriving in the States. Instead of cutting his teeth in Los Angeles or New York, Valle Costa ventured from Portugal to Iowa on a tennis scholarship and began to build upon his dream from there.
We recently sat down with Valle Costa to discuss his “Snowfall” character Pedro, how all of Portugal celebrated on the same day that he discovered the part was his, and why he started the Saudade Theatre Company in New York City.
TrunkSpace: Outside of physically relocating for “Snowfall” in order to shoot the series, how has it impacted your life the most?
Valle Costa: I just drove my girlfriend to work this morning. We were just driving and all of a sudden we looked to the right and there it is, this big billboard with my face on it. That was pretty bizarre. It was a very surreal feeling.
I come from Portugal. I’m from Lisbon. I grew up falling in love with movies and falling in love with the idea of Hollywood and what that meant from afar. My grandparents used to show me “The Godfather” and all of these really dark movies at a really young age and I used to daydream a lot about them. Even “Jurassic Park” and “Home Alone” and all of these movies, they’ve had such a big impact on me as a Portuguese person. Martin Scorsese as well. So for me to be here and to look to the right and be part of it, it’s really a dream and I couldn’t be happier.
Of course, all of us actors have to go through a lot of struggle and no complaints on my part, but it’s definitely a step up and it feels that way. I’m so happy. I feel like great things are going to continue to happen. That’s one of the main changes.
TrunkSpace: You booked the job about a year ago. Is it a crazy ride to have this thing exist in your life that could completely change your career, but not really be able to talk about it or see the fruits of that labor for so long?
Valle Costa: Yeah. This happened a year ago. It was all really serendipitous because I got the call that I got the part the same day that Portugal won the Euro Cup. (Laughter) I was walking around New York with my Portuguese flag, my girlfriend, and some of my best Portuguese friends and we had just gone to this Portuguese restaurant and we were celebrating. So I was already happy and then all of a sudden I get a phone call from my manager that I had gotten it. I just started running and dancing in the middle of New York with my Portuguese flag. It was very bizarre.
And then to go through all of it and have to wait a year, that was definitely a new experience for me because a lot of my experience so far has been in theater and it’s such an immediate and “in the moment” experience in terms of how the audience perceives it. To put that amount of work out there, 10 episodes, and then wait six months for them to come out… it’s definitely a new feeling that I’m learning to deal with.
TrunkSpace: What’s great about that story is that you can just tell people moving forward that all of Portugal was celebrating your success and leave out the part of the Euro Cup win.
Valle Costa: (Laughter) That was by far the happiest day of my life. I was already happy. Imagine it, we had never won the Euro Cup, so we’re all crying and singing the Portuguese anthem and then all of a sudden I get that phone call… it was too much for me to handle. It was very surreal.
TrunkSpace: It seems like with “Snowfall” that there is a lot of gray area in terms of the characters being “good” or “bad” and ultimately if their motivation is coming from a pure place. Where does your character Pedro fall into things?
Valle Costa: I never like to talk about the characters I play as good or bad. I know that’s such a cliché and all actors say it, but it’s definitely true. There’s a perception I had as Pedro when I first auditioned and the perception that I have now. To have to go through a whole season and get one episode at at time, it’s a new journey for me. I was learning about my character as I was shooting, which was really fascinating. I’d make decisions about who he was and then the next episode would come and it would completely contradict that decision that I had made. But in terms of Pedro himself, he is the cocky, showy, full of bravado guy who is the heir apparent to this really big drug lord… the head of the cartel. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that and he ends up compensating in a lot of the wrong ways, just like any privileged person on this earth would do. That for me was a lot of the journey, just assuming that person.
Because of the way I look, I have to audition for a lot of characters that at first seem to be Mexican Drug Lord #1 or Colombian Gangster #3, and then you get a part like this. In the first episode you get the impression that this guy is just cocky and full of himself and that there’s no redeeming qualities to him, but as the story progresses, there is a lot that is revealed in terms of what has happened with their family and you sort of start to understand where Pedro is coming from. All of this bravado is coming from a place of mostly insecurity and seeking love in all of the wrong places and trying to impress his dad at any cost. Of course, you end up compensating in all of the wrong ways. For me, he’s not good or bad. He is who he is and the circumstances in which he grew up in, which I think is a very Los Angeles story, have forced him to be the way that he is when he is in a public setting.
I think what the show does so well is, and it’s sort of like “The Godfather,” where you get to see these intimate, beautiful family moments and you understand where they’re coming from and you understand their perspective. And I think that’s a privilege as far as Latino characters go. Very rarely do you get to see the perspective of that person. It’s such an honor to to be able to have those back and forth scenes between me and my dad and me and my cousin. It shows what is really underneath the character.
TrunkSpace: And you touched on it, but that aspect must have been really interesting for you because you were still learning about those sides of him while going through the process of being him.
Valle Costa: Yeah. If you really embrace that sort of energy, it’s a really beautiful energy to embrace. Pedro doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, so it’s kind of nice that I don’t know what’s happening next and it puts me in a place of surprise constantly. And just like how in life we make decisions about who we are and then the next day comes and something happens to you and you have to shift and evolve and learn, that was the journey for me shooting this series.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned being a fan of American cinema. What was it like being directed by John Singleton?
Valle Costa: I had to work really hard to come down to earth. (Laughter) He puts out such a positive, loving aura about himself. I remember my uncle… I was sleeping in my grandparents house and he got home at 1 AM after going out to a club and he was like, “We’re going to watch this movie together.” That movie was “Boyz n the Hood.” So then to be in the same room with John and be directed by him, it’s sort of very easy because you grew up watching a movie that shaped you. It became very easy for me to just be open to whatever he needed to get out of a certain scene. I knew that I was there to learn. And at the end of the day, it could be John Singleton or any other director, that’s what you want. And with a guy like John, you know you have a lot to learn, so if you come at it from a place of openness, John is going to give it to you.
TrunkSpace: A lot of young people from around the world dream of becoming an actor. Most of them will move to Los Angeles or New York to pursue their dreams, but what is so interesting about your journey is that when you moved from Portugal, you actually started out in Iowa?
Valle Costa: (Laughter) Yeah. I don’t know why! (Laughter) I played tennis my whole life and when I decided to be an actor, my parents suggested that I try out for a tennis scholarship in the United States. So then I sent my tape out to various schools in the United States and there was a small school in Iowa that gave me a full ride. I was 17 and at the time my brain didn’t understand that LA or New York was any different than Iowa. I wasn’t thinking that way. It was like, “Well, I’m going to go to the United States and fight for my dream.” And of all the moments in my life, I feel like that is the one that has shaped me the most. Being 17 and having to say goodbye to your parents, your family, your friends, your country… everything you have ever known… and say that you’re going to fight for your dream, it’s sort of silly when you think of it, but I had no fear in me.
TrunkSpace: Something about you we found to be really cool is that you started a theater company in New York for other people from Portugal who come to the States to pursue acting. Can you tell us about that?
Valle Costa: That’s right. I started a Portuguese theater company in New York City called Saudade Theatre and the “Snowfall” experience has allowed me to put a lot of my positive energy into it. I started it in New York when I struggling and I was looking for a job and auditioning every week. When I arrived in New York I realized that for a Portuguese actor, it was very tough to find a home. More often than not we fall into this place of ambiguity. And for me, I look Latino, so I get to audition a lot for Latino roles and I include myself in the Latino community, but I want a Portuguese actor who arrives in New York City in 10 years or 20 years from now to be able to have a home right away and to not have any questions in his or her mind in terms of, “Well, there’s this Portuguese theater company and I just arrived in New York City. I can start there.” That’s where I’m throwing a lot of my positive energy into these days and it’s a great privilege that “Snowfall” has granted me with, which is time, because time is money and money is time.
“Snowfall” premieres July 5 on FX.
For more information about the Saudade Theatre, visit www.saudadetheatre.org.