This article was originally written for Talk Nerdy With Us.
Isaiah John is making a name for himself playing Leon Simmons in John Singleton’s Snowfall, which is currently airing on FX. I had the chance to talk with Isaiah about his previous job as a janitor, how he got the part in Snowfall, and his recent diet change. Read what he had to say about those topics and more below.
First off, congratulations on all of your recent success and for the show getting picked up for a second season!
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
How did you get involved in acting? Was there any specific experience you would credit as the moment when you knew acting was what you wanted to do for a profession?
Oh of course. Basically, my sister would perform every weekend for our parents. That was something we did every weekend and people would be like, “Hey, you guys should act,” but we were too shy to perform in front of anyone else. So when I was about thirteen, I asked my mom to help me start acting and [enroll me] in acting classes and things like that. She didn’t believe me and it took a whole year to convince her that I was serious about it and she finally broke. I got called to do a short film and it was my very first acting gig and it was called No Way Out and I hope you guys never see it. [Laughs] But it was a great experience. That really sparked the acting bug for me. It was an amazing short film and I was the lead in it. The acting was horrible but it really made me interested in acting and now I’ve fallen in love with acting and that was definitely the moment I knew I was going to do this forever.
It’s been a long journey. Now I’m 21 and I’m just now getting my big break. But it was an amazing journey and I learned a lot and made a lot of connections and it helped mold me as an actor.
When I was doing some research on you, I saw that you worked as a janitor for a while and I know you still had it even after you started booking your first roles. Why a janitor and why did you keep it for so long?
I started to work as a janitor only for the simple fact that I had had other jobs before my janitor job and for scheduling purposes, they weren’t as flexible. For my janitor job, I would wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I would be done in four or five hours. So it was just very flexible. I had the rest of my day to do whatever I had to do when it came to acting. Even after I booked the Barbershop 3 role, I was only on set for a day and the next morning, I was back to cleaning bathrooms. So the money wasn’t there [with acting]. [The janitor job] was just enough to sustain the little responsibility that I had. So that’s why I chose to stick with the janitor job and it worked out perfectly fine. They understood that I was an actor and they were really excited when I booked Snowfall. They weren’t upset.
So wait, you had that job right up until you booked Snowfall?
Yeah, so basically what had happened was I lied to them. When I auditioned for Snowfall, a week or so later they called me and asked me to do a chemistry read in California and they flew me out. But, it was in the middle of the week so I just told my job, “Yeah, something just came up and I’m going to have to miss work for a couple of days.” I never told them exactly what it was. I didn’t even tell anyone I left for California;only my immediate family knew. Everyone else didn’t know. So I told them and I went to California on a Tuesday, the callback was on a Wednesday, and I was supposed to fly back on that Thursday; I had a return flight. But, later that Wednesday, I got the call that I had booked [the part on Snowfall] and they were like, “Yeah, so if you can call your job and quit. You don’t have to be a janitor anymore.” And still to this day, Dave Andron [co-creator] still has his little joke that he thinks is hilarious. He’s like, “Yeah, you don’t sweep floors anymore and clean toilets.” But yeah, I was a janitor up until I booked Snowfall and I had to quit over the phone while I was in California.
Wow. So kind of moving on to talk about Snowfall, how you did you get involved with the project? What was the audition process like?
My manager found out about the project in 2015 when they did the first go-round of the pilot. They had a lot of big names in the cast and FX wanted new faces. So they re-cast it for 2016 and she, the whole time, even while they were filming the first pilot, would research and see what was happening with Snowfall. So when she found out that they were re-casting, she reached out the casting director immediately. [The casting director] gave me a look and said that I would be perfect for the role of Leon but she wasn’t casting that role right now so she told my manager to reach back out in a couple of weeks. So she did and I was asked to audition. So I did and they loved it.
But my actual chemistry read with Damson Idris, who plays Franklin Saint, it was great. I get there and it’s about three or four other guys who kind of looked different. Basically, what I noticed, was that when I got there, all the other guys that were auditioning for the same role, they had the chance to actually sit there and talk to Damson before they were in the room for their chemistry read. For me, they just told me to go straight into the room and perform with him. I didn’t have time to actually talk with him. So right when I walked in, he asked me what my name was and I said “Isaiah” and he said, “Oh cool. That’s my nephew’s name.” So that’s how connected at that moment. And ever since then, when we perform its very authentic and very real to the point where that the scene in the pilot, the bus scene where I go off the whole time, that was actually not even in the original pilot. What they did was they gave us that scenario and that was our chemistry read test. So all of that that went down to that scene was what me and Damson created in the moment of our chemistry reading and that was really cool.
How would you describe it to people who haven’t seen it or don’t know anything about it?
I would say it is one of the most real shows to get to television. It’s a real story, it’s very authentic. It’s gritty, it’s raw. I feel like you have to be open to receiving certain information and certain visuals. There’s so many different components that make the show great. So I would definitely would describe it as an all around amazing show, honestly. It has a lot of truth to it. It’s educational but it’s also entertaining.
Talk a little bit about your character, Leon. What is he like? How does it fit in to the story?
Leon is Franklin Saint’s best friend. They grew up together in South Central L.A. My character is a hot-tempered kid from South Central [L.A.]. He was in and out of juvie for assault. He’s really hungry to reach the top with Franklin, whatever the top maybe. He’s very eager to see what that brings him and his friends. He just wants to better his situation. All he knows is the hood that he is from and his encounters with the police and the justice system so he wants different. But he also doesn’t really care about any circumstances so he’s willing to do whatever dirty work needs to be done to get where he feels he needs to be. I’m really curious to see where they take his life story when it comes to season two and seasons to come.
Going off of that, you described him as hot-tempered and someone who is hungry to get to the top; are those characteristics that you see in yourself, or do you find that Leon is a very different person than Isaiah is?
I would say I’m totally different from Leon, but if you asked my immediate family they would tell you otherwise.
Yeah. I feel like I’m a really nonchalant, chill person, and that is not Leon. He really gets offended very easily and I don’t. I would say I’m different from Leon when it comes to that perspective.
Earlier you were talking about the authentic vibes and that is something, every time I watch Snowfall, you get that very authentic vibe and it seems to be pretty accurate in regards to the time period that the story takes place in. I’m curious, as an actor, how much research did you do about the 1980s to figure out how your character would’ve lived and maneuvered in that decade?
I was luckily obviously able to ask my mom stories about that time and era. We had John Singleton, of course, on set every day and we had also had WC (pronounced DubC) on set every day with us as well. And you know WC, he’s a legend, he’s a west coast legend. He was a huge help in molding my character. He really made sure I had the dialect, the stance, the lingo, all of that. He really put me up on game when it came to how things were in the ’80s in South Central L.A. So it was just asking a lot of questions and observing the neighborhood, because the neighborhoods changed a lot but the culture is still there. So just observing the people who grew up there and being able to ask John and Dub questions really helped me as an actor put me in that mindset and time era. Having them there was a huge, huge part of my development of Leon.
Going off of that, what was it like working with John [Singleton], because he’s such a legendary director?
Oh man, John is amazing. He’s a genius. I feel like Snowfall is definitely an important piece that’s out and I feel like he’s just brilliant. His ideas are insane. We’ll be on set and he’s like, “Try this,” and it comes out to be amazing. So just having him there and having his input there was a blessing in itself, being able to work with him because I grew up watching his movies. So being able to call him a friend is very huge to me, especially from where I come from in this industry. I didn’t have much help in the beginning. So to come from that to now being able to call John when I need to, that’s an amazing feeling as an actor to have a legend in your corner who wants to see you succeed in the industry. I would definitely say he’s a friend of mine now.
What’s your favorite film of his?
Ugh, there’s so many. Of course Boyz N The Hood, I’ve watched that like a 100,000 times. Poetic Justice is another great one. Every movie he puts out I feel like is a classic. I really can’t choose one, but I can just choose the ones that I’ve watched the most. So I would say Boyz N The Hood for sure.
What can you tease about what’s coming up in the last few episodes of season one?
Oooh. There’s a lot of great things that are going to happen, well not great, but a lot of surprises are going to happen, so I don’t really think I can say anything. I don’t think I can say anything without spoiling because your brain is going to start thinking and I don’t want you to be thinking. I want you to be surprised in the moment when you watch the show.
So just gotta keep watching, huh?
Yeah, you just gotta keep watching. A lot of great scenes are about to happen. Just be prepared, man. A lot of things are about to get really real.
I have just a few quick, more “fun” questions left. I know you probably don’t have a lot of free time but what shows are you watching? Whats on your DVR?
Of course I watched Dear White People, that’s amazing TV. Queen Sugar is also another one. There’s a lot of great shows out, honestly. Of course Game of Thrones; I feel like everyone is addicted to that show. Oh and Blackish, Blackish is another great one for sure. Those are my top picks right now.
Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us and we love talking about what makes us excited and passionate. What do you nerd out over?
Wow. What do I nerd out over? [Pauses] I guess there is a lot of things I nerd out over honestly. I’m a very adventurous person, so sightseeing and exploring new places I nerd out over that. Definitely music. I love finding new artists, different artists, so I nerd out over things like that. Working out. I am a fanatic when it comes to being in the gym so finding new workouts, I would definitely nerd out about that. I’m a newfound vegan, so I’m nerding out over all the new food I’m trying because there are a lot of new vegetables that I’ve never heard of before, a lot of different combinations of food. And it’s kind of hard. I love chicken but I am doing great so far.
What made you, if you don’t mind me asking, turn to being a vegan?
Well, I watched What the Health on Netflix and it changed my life. Like the facts that are behind the foods that we eat on a daily basis is insane. I suggest people watch the documentary and make that decision on their own. Some people may watch and still not want to change, which is fine. For me, I feel like it was the best decision to make and I’ve been a vegan for about over two weeks now and I feel great.
Yeah. I’ve heard a little bit about this documentary but I feel like now people are starting to talk about it more and more so I feel like I have to put it on my list to go watch.
Oh yeah. But before you do it, I say if you like steak, go enjoy a steak. If you like chicken, eat all the chicken you can because after you watch it, you’re not going to want to eat it. So enjoy your last meal and then go watch it.
Lastly, what does the rest of 2017 hold for you?
I have a movie [coming out]. It’s funny because I have a sister, Racquel John, she’s also an actress. We’re four years apart but we had the chance to play twins in an upcoming movie coming out in September called Downsized and it’s going to be on TV One. It was a very fun project to film. It was the first time my sister and I worked together so it’s going to be cool on screen. I have some other things that are in the works right now so you guys will definitely be seeing what is coming up next soon.