FX’s ‘Snowfall’ Star Angela Lewis Talks Peeling Back Aunt Louie’s Layers

SNOWFALL -- Pictured: Angela Lewis as Aunt Louie. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX
Matthias Clamer/FX

Some family businesses are mechanic shops, restaurants or car dealerships. Others — namely, several members of the Saint family on FX’s Snowfall — make and deal crack cocaine.

Set against the neon colors of 1983 and infused with 19-year-old Franklin Saint’s (Damson Idris) succeed-at-any-cost ambition to make it in the drug trade, FX’s drama focuses on the origins of the crack epidemic and those responsible for it. Franklin’s aunt, Louie (Angela Lewis), becomes a vocal supporter of her nephew’s less-than-legal venture, and her connections to Los Angeles’ party scene and underground come in handy in helping him achieve his dreams.

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We talked with actress Angela Lewis about what motivates Aunt Louie, how her former party girl character is trying to find her way out of a “dream-deferred space” in the show’s sophomore season, and the parallels between playing Louie and zip-lining upside down.

Louie knows a thing or two about ambition, but for her it didn’t quite pan out. Does she see Franklin as a kind of second chance to have what she wanted?

Angela Lewis: Absolutely. Louie sees opportunity every time it appears, and she’s always kind of jumping towards that or looking for that moment to act on whatever she can find. And I think she is the way she is because often those doors get slammed in her face, or it doesn’t pan out, or people take advantage of her, so she creates this hard shell for herself in order to protect herself. And in Franklin she sees someone who she loves very much and who she feels is for ‘Team Louie,’ and who is also smart, and special and has an innate knowing. And she absolutely wants to jump on that wagon.

In the past, you had said Louie was living in a ‘dream-deferred space.’ At the beginning of Season 2, has she found her way out of that space through Franklin?

I think she’s still finding her way out of that space. At the end of Season 1 she makes some power moves, and in Season 2 we kind of see that backfire, those big moves backfire. So she’s trying to find her way through that. The door, the opportunity is still open, and she’s just trying to find her way through. Without giving too much away…

Right, right, we can’t get into too many spoilers! Also in the first season, there was a really interesting conversation between her and Franklin where he asked if she wanted money, and she said she wanted the club and (revenge on) Claudia. How is that going to play out in the second season?

Oooh, I can’t tell you that! But it is definitely a plot point.

The Saint family business proves profitable – but at what cost? (Ray Mickshaw/FX)

Many outlets have praised the agency of Snowfall’s female characters – how they take charge, how dynamic they are – what do you enjoy most about playing Louie?

Louie has so many layers and colors, and that’s what I enjoy the most. I enjoy being able to flow back and forth between this hard person who — literally — fights her way out of situations, to her being happy to be with her family. And in Season 2, we get more into her softer parts where she’s really tender, and we get to see her have some heartbreak and see how she moves in that space. So she’s got so many layers, and I think that’s what I love most about her.

A lot of the characters on Snowfall can be hard to like at times. Do you think Louie has any redeeming qualities?

Absolutely! If Louie is for you she’s for you, and she’s going to fight for you. And there are so many people in the world who are flaky, and who say they have your back and they don’t. Louie rides for you. If she’s with you, she’s with you. All the way.

And I have to say that, you know, her redeeming quality is that she is human. So for all of her anger, and for whatever parts are scary, if you just look past that layer — and this is what I try to bring to her — is that she’s got there for a reason, she’s not there for no reason. So, why? What happened to her that causes her to walk through life in a way that is defensive, or leading from a place that is defensive? And so for me, that’s what’s redeeming about her. Understanding how she got there.

What can you say about her relationship with Franklin this season? I know she was helping him at the end of last season, and as you’ve said, they’re close.

There’s a very strong familial bond. I think she is his aunt, but thinks of him more as — not quite a son, maybe aunt and nephew is the best. Cissy [Franklin’s mom] is such a strong mother that Aunt Louie is like Franklin’s mother away from his mother, but is also the one who sees his ambition and she is going to nurture that in her own way. It might be not the best or most healthy way, but she certainly is going to nurture his ambition.

And then she also sees that he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do regardless, so she wants to guide him into doing things that are more smart, especially more street smart in ways that Franklin has lacked and is learning. She wants to help do that in a way where he won’t get hurt, or get hurt less. So definitely a more maternal relationship.

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I’m curious — Louie and Jerome (Amin Joseph), in the beginning of the season, were at odds in their opinion of how to proceed with Franklin’s business. Are they a united front going into Season 2?

I think Louie and Jerome see things from different lenses, and I think partially their dynamic is that they disagree. [Laughs] So they are a united front in that they are going to help and support Franklin, and that they have agreed to start this business or be in this business together, but there’s certainly moments where they disagree. And we’ll see that a lot, in Season 2.

One of the interesting things, I thought, about Franklin is that he has his ‘rules.’ He won’t try any of his own stuff, he stops neighbor kids from stealing… does Louie have any lines that she won’t cross?

I think Louie is very daring, and bold, and so some of those lines… some of those more traditional lines might get crossed, but I think she definitely has a sense of what’s dangerous. And then there’s what’s dangerous, and there’s what’s dangerous to one’s own personal life or self-sufficiency. And so she certainly has a sense of that, and she doesn’t cross that.

And I think she has lines in terms of loyalty, that they may be unconventional, but they’re strict.

So she does have some lines she will not go past?

Absolutely. Or if you try to cross those lines, it won’t be good for you.

Aunt Louie and Franklin learn how to make crack. (Ray Mickshaw/FX)

Louie’s aware of the dangers of the business, so what’s keeping her in it?

Because what else does she have? Because when all the doors are closed, and everyone thinks that you’re worth nothing, then what do you have? So if this is her only opportunity for a way out, Louie wants nothing more than for the world to open up to her. For her to be able to live a life she has always dreamt of living. And that is about more than just money.

That is about being able to be free, that’s about being able to have experiences, being able to travel, being able to be the person — you see someone on TV doing these things, and they look beautiful and amazing and exciting. And [Louie thinks], ‘Why can’t I have that?’ And so when you have one opportunity, don’t you do everything to use that one opportunity to have the life that you want? So even if it’s dangerous, she’s all for it. Because without that, she has nothing.

How did you find the inspiration for Louie’s character? She is so strong and so powerful. How did you get into that headspace, and what did you use to inspire her?

Well, she’s written strong. She’s written fearless. She’s written dangerous. And so what I have to do is just release any inhibition, in order to do that. That’s the easy part. So recently I went zip-lining, and on one of the lines, we went upside down. And so it’s like, once you just let go of the fear of ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting ready to do this upside-down,’ and you just do it, that part is done. They let you go, and you just zip-line across the rainforest. And [Louie’s character is] written that way.

The hard part is Louie’s softer moments, or rather, is understanding who she is as a human being that has made her this way. Because otherwise, she becomes a stereotype. Anybody can play a drug addict who fights, and it’s just that. Then she becomes somebody we see on the streets and we turn our heads in disgust and keep walking, and judge her and label her as that thing. But it’s my job to make her into a human being so that no matter what’s happening we’re still rooting for her because we still love her, because we understand that she is heartbroken and she’s backed into a corner and has been in a corner her entire life.

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My last question is about the cultural relevance of the show. It’s not set in present day, but it features many topics that are still present, like the drug crisis. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s sad because it’s been what, 30 years, and things are still the same. There’s some movement, but not nearly enough. When people can’t recognize the similarity between the crack epidemic and the opioid crisis that’s happening now, it makes absolutely no sense to me: the unawareness of the collective consciousness. So I really do feel like it’s our job, my job, to bring awareness to that. It is the same thing. It might be a different socioeconomic class of people that are experiencing the crisis, so then how do we react? How do we help, or not help? With the crack epidemic it was, ‘Oh, they’re criminals, lock them up. Law and order,’ and now with the opioid crisis it’s a health issue. But it’s both.

Addiction is addiction, and addiction has been around since the beginning of time. So we need to do more to help and nurture those who need that help, no matter how rich or poor they are. The communities we focus on in Snowfall still exist, and the devastation that led them to the crack epidemic — that allowed for so many people to indulge and then get caught up in it — the essence of that desperation still exists today. How is anything gonna change if we’re not addressing the sickness, as opposed to locking people up to try to remedy the symptom? What is the sickness, and how do we heal that instead of trying to cut it out? Because the sickness isn’t just in the people themselves, but it’s in the system, and how the system tries to limit people.

Snowfall, Season 2 Premiere, Thursday, July 19, 10/9c, FX