Filipe Valle Costa was never afraid to dream big! Born and raised in Lisbon, Portugal, he discovering he discovered his passion for the arts at an early age. At 17 years old, he told his parents he wanted to come to the United States and further his chances of becoming an actor. They encouraged him to apply for a tennis scholarship so he could study acting with a student visa. It wasn’t long before Filipe landed a scholarship with Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in theatre. He then attended the University of Florida, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in acting. During his first year of school he applied for the Diversity Visa Lottery, which is made available to 50,000 permanent resident visas annually and aims to diversify the immigrant population in the United States. He didn’t hear back the first year, so he applied again in his second year of school and was selected. After months of working alongside an immigration attorney, he was granted a green card and moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting full time. Through it all, he remained laser-focused, continued to hone his craft and, most importantly, never lost sight of the dream we was pursuing.
In 2017, Filipe Valle Costa can be seen starring in John Singleton’s FX drama series “Snowfall.” Set to premiere in July, “Snowfall” is set against the infancy of the L.A. crack cocaine epidemic in 1983. Filipe shines as Pedro Nava, the heir apparent of one of the Mexican crime families dealing drugs in Los Angeles. Living under his father’s shadow, Pedro desperately moves through life longing for his dad’s attention and approval, and will stop at nothing to to achieve the American dream. In addition to “Snowfall” recent credits for Filipe include: “Blue Bloods,” “Gotham,” and “Unicornland.”
Some of Filipe’s most impressive work is taking place behind the camera. In 2015, he launched The Saudade Theatre, which celebrates and supports the Portuguese voice in the arts throughout NYC. The company’s mission is to develop original work grounded in the Portuguese experience, as well as translating Portuguese playwrights. When Filipe arrived in NYC he quickly became aware of the lack of information and knowledge regarding Portuguese theatre in the US, and decided to lead the charge in making a new reality for his fellow artists.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Filipe Valle Costa to discuss his inspiring journey as an actor, his highly anticipated role on FX’s ‘Snowfall,’ the formation of The Saudade Theatre in New York City, diversity in Hollywood and much more!
How did you get involved in the arts early on in life?
Oh my gosh! That is a big question! It was always there. I grew up in a village about 20 minutes away from Lisbon in Portugal. It’s not the sort of place that necessarily futures whatever impulses that are out there which could lead to you becoming an artist. It wasn’t until I was 17 years old and I got into my first year of college in Portugal when I decided to audition for a theatre group in Lisbon. I had done all of the school plays and stuff like that but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that this truly was what I needed to be doing. I told my parents and they said, “Okay! But you better go to the United States.” I used to play competitive tennis for a really long time, so I got a tennis scholarship to come to the United States and I came here to study acting!
Tell us about the people who influenced you both on camera and in real life.
For me, the biggest influence in my life, as far as the arts go, is my cousin in Portugal. He started a theatre company a little bit before 1974, when the dictatorship was over. He started a theatre company then and it has been going ever since! My dad used to take me to his plays. I would watch them but not necessarily understand them. I remember being hypnotized by whatever energy I was receiving in that moment. That was definitely my conscious trigger to it. It wasn’t until later when I started watching Hollywood movies from Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and John Singleton. I specifically remember the moment when I was staying with my grandparents and I was very young. I was maybe around 14 or 15 years old. My uncle arrived from a party and woke me up at 1 or 2 in the morning. He said, “We are going to watch this movie together.” That movie was “Boyz In The Hood.” I remember dreaming of this far away land called Hollywood where these movies were being made. From there, I became very, very interested in the work of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, as I told you. From that point, the move to America felt very serendipitous in a way!
What early roles had a big impact on you as a young actor?
I did “Romeo & Juliet” when I was in grad school. We got to take it to Greece and perform in these huge, beautiful amphitheaters on top of mountains and Greek Islands. It was such an experience to do Shakespeare in places as exquisite as these. I remember the moment when I was standing on the top of this mountain while doing “Romeo & Juliet. You look behind and see the ocean and the entire island. You can’t help but feel the presence of all the years of history of Greek theater. I remember that moment very, very vividly. It’s one of those things no one will ever be able to take away from me. That was an experience that really marked me. There are others as well. Once I arrived in New York City, I was so blessed to be part of the workshop phase of a production called “Good Grief.” It is a beautiful play about grief and I got to play one of the main characters. It was one of those experiences where the playwright wrote the character because of something that had happened with her — the loss of one of her very, very dear friends. I got to play that best friend. The responsibility and weight that comes with that can be intense and is something you take on with some sort of pride. It’s not taken in a negative way. It was a beautiful weight to take and I will take that experience with me forever. There are many others but those are just two that come to mind.
You played a variety of different characters in your career. What is your process for bringing them to life?
It is different every time. With my latest project, FX’s “Snowfall,” I have to shift in many ways because my brain has been theater trained. I kept referring to my brain as a theater brain, in its experience. I had to keep shifting and adjusting, which was a pleasure and a joy. For me, the process is always different. It all depends on the project and where inside it moves me. There are projects that are easier for you to access right away and projects that you have to do much more work and research in order to get there. Of course, I have all the techniques that I’ve had the pleasure of learning with my education — four years in undergrad, my three years at grad school in acting and other programs I took in New York City. At the end of the day, I think the beauty of what we do is that we have the ability to take each project for what it is and approach it depending on what it demands and asks of you. That is the most beautiful part of this job; it’s always new. That novelty is something you have to embrace. I love researching. Particularly with “Snowfall,” I would spend hours on YouTube watching videos of Los Angeles in the ‘80s. I would get lost in that dark hole of research. I think being surprised by the novelty of the project, responding with your instincts and bringing the best or worst parts of yourself that fit into the project is the true joy. It’s almost like a puzzle!
Speaking of FX’s “Snowfall,” tell us about the character you play and what drew you to the material.
I play Pedro Nava. He is the cocky, heir-apparent son of the head of the cartel. There is a lot that comes with that character. When I first auditioned for it, I just had my two scenes, I didn’t know much about the full episode or character. The journey for me and what was so amazing was to go audition for it with a perception on what the character may be but then embracing how it evolves through the season. Pedro, because of the fact that he grew up in this very wealthy family in Los Angeles and his father is the head of the cartel, experiences all the pressure that comes with that. He ends up compensating in all the wrong ways by trying to impress his father at any cost. That was definitely dangerous and unpredictable. Not knowing what is going to come next is thrilling! Like I told you, I have my theater brain and when you do a play, you know the beginning, middle and end. With Pedro, what was so exciting was from episode one to six, the stakes are very, very high. I was feeling the stakes were high for me as well, so I was able to be in a place of fear, which I think is exactly where Pedro is as well. I think that is the joy of television. You don’t get the episodes ahead or at least we didn’t this time around. I would be done shooting episode one and get the script for episode two. I would finish episode two and get episode three. That allowed me to be in a place of constant unpredictability and it was very, very exciting!
Were you presented with unforeseen challenges with this role?
The biggest challenge for me was not having the ability to go back the day after and do it again. As I said, in theater, if things don’t go well one day, you can go back the day after and try it again. In television and film, you do your two or three takes and the day after it’s gone and out in the universe forever for people to see it. For me, as an actor, I had to learn to embrace the immediacy of shooting an episode and letting it go right away. It’s sort of beautiful! However, you can imagine, for me as a theater artist, coming in and having the opportunity to come in every day and try to make it better but, in this circumstance, not having that was quite an adjustment. For the first four episodes, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was not going to go back and try to make it better! [laughs] That was beautiful because, as an artist, you don’t want to achieve perfection because if you achieve perfection, then you are missing out on life. Life is not perfect. I told myself, “Those things you are feeling like are not working, that is probably because the character is feeling that as well. They know what they are doing!” You have to have a lot of trust. It is impossible not to trust when everyone around you is an artist and is so involved. They really forced me to step up my own game. In that respect, it helped me to have the ability to keep moving on, keep growing and embrace the humanity that comes with making mistakes and not being perfect. For someone like me, it was a struggle at first but then it became what is at the core of the joy of doing — embracing life for all that it has to offer!
Is there a role you are eager to tackle in the near future?
That’s a great question! So many things come to mind. One of my fantasies is to be a part of some sort of project that it similar to “Game of Thrones” or “Harry Potter.” I think what attracted me to this work in the first place is the magic and fantasy. I remember growing up watching “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars.” Being in Portugal, those things seemed so far away and so magical. I feel “Snowfall” is already a step towards that. I mean, I’m holding a gun in the trailer and saying, “Where is my money” in a John Singleton project. [laughs] As far as dreams go, it doesn’t get much better than that! That silly dream does exist and it does have value in my life, especially because I had to leave my country to come do it. No one forced me to but it was a big decision to make at the age of 17. I would love to be part of a project like “Game of Thrones.” There is something so epic about kings, queens and history, so I would love to embrace a project like one of those.
You launched The Saudade Theatre in 2015. Tell us about the company and bringing it to life.
Thank you for asking! When I arrived in New York City after grad school, I very soon realized that there was no Portuguese representation. I started to think, “In 10 years, when another Portuguese actor arrives here at the age of 18 and they want to find a home right away in New York City, they should have a Portuguese theater company to go to!” That was one of the first things that seemed so simple to me. I thought, “Why don’t I start it? I could do that!” Of course, all of the other things had to happen! There was a lot of work to be done. At first, starting a theater company seems easy but you soon realize there is a lot of work to be done. Basically, the work we are trying to do is trying to put Portuguese writers on the map. We are fully aware that there is a lot of work being done in Portugal and it is very good but does not get translated. It is high quality work but it’s not reaching the rest of the world because there is no work being done on the translation. I wanted to do that. I wanted to start translating plays, bringing them to New York and American theater to make it part of this conversation. I think we are in a time where people do a lot of talking about building walls. I see my theater company as an opportunity to build a bridge for people. Ever since I arrived here, people have asked me, “Where is Portugal? What is that?” I don’t want to call it ignorance but we are a very small country and there is a lack of knowledge as to the Portuguese consciousness and Portuguese way of living, which is very beautiful and I miss it very much. I started this theatre company to honor that and have other Portuguese artists arriving in New York City and America to have a home and the ability to tell their own stories. I wanted to make a bridge in that way, so that in the future more people will know more about Portugal and what it’s all about. I remember my first year in America, people would ask me if we had cars in Portugal. I was like, “What do you mean? Of course we have cars!” [laughs] “Where do you think we are? We’re on the corner of Europe and are a European country!” We talk a lot about France, Spain, England and Italy and Portugal sort of gets lost. I noticed that as well in my history classes, where all of a sudden, we wouldn’t be discussing what was happening in Portugal. This theatre company has been a part of my journey as a Portuguese immigrant in this country. Because of the way I look, I have played a lot of Latino characters, which I love doing, but I also want to have the ability to tell my own stories with my own perspective and offer up my own way of seeing the world. I hope to bring other Portuguese artists, as well as artists from other places in the world, who want to celebrate and learn more about that!
What do you have in store for us with The Saudade Theatre this year?
We are doing our first full production this year and we are now fundraising. We’re fundraising for our show coming up in August. It’s a really important play and as soon as we read it, we knew we had to do it. It’s a play called “The Constitution.” It is set during very troubled political times in Portugal. Four actors are invited by the government to write a new constitution. They are put in the gym for six days to write the constitution. You can imagine what happens from there! [laughs] There is so much universality in the themes in the play and so much that mirrors the Portuguese experience to what is happening right now with the current political situation here in America. As soon as we read it, we knew we had to do it because it has such a positive message. It doesn’t have an answer to what is happening right now but at least it gives you some hope and some reason to believe that there is a way we can all work together and not be divided. I think that is the number one thing right now in this country, so I am very excited to put this play on. To learn more, you can visit www.saudadetheatre.org. All the information will be there!
We are constantly hearing about the push for diversity in Hollywood. You are on the front lines. Do you see real change within the industry?
I am. I am seeing a difference and I am seeing a shift happening. I want it to go further. I think the conversation about diversity is very much a mirror to what is happening politically and socially right now. I love the word diversity, however, I love the word inclusion even more. Diversity for diversity’s sake can engage another sort of division. For me, being Portuguese, has been an experience of ambiguities and I struggle with the fact that I am Portuguese but I’m perceived as Latino in this country. For us, as Portuguese people, we consider ourselves Latin, so it’s a strange place to be. As I told you, that is why I started my theatre company because I felt like that conversation was happening and I wanted to contribute to it in the only way that I could. I understood it but I didn’t hear anyone talking about, “What about Portuguese people?” Rightfully so because the Portuguese consciousness is not in any a part of the American narrative at this point. However, there are a lot of stories that need to be told and included what will honor the American consciousness. The thing that I always say is, “It starts with us.” I see it but I also want to contribute to it, so I don’t want to keep observing it, point fingers or say, “Well, this is not being done … ,” because even if it isn’t, it should be up to me to get it going!
We can take a lot away from your story. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
It’s such a cliché but it’s important to never give up. I think my parents instilled that in me. No matter how dark things get, you can’t give up because you never know when that moment may be there. I certainly did not know that “Snowfall” was going to be the project to take me a step further in this life. Had I given up the day before, I wouldn’t have achieved it. In today’s world, the amount of information being thrown at us can make us feel so overwhelmed and it can be very easy just to turn off, give up and stop yourself on the tracks. You just have to keep moving and move through those dark times because they are just as important as the good times and will contribute just as much, if not more, to what you ultimately want to achieve in life. I think that has been instilled in me from the very moment I decided to leave my country. From that very moment, I knew I couldn’t give up because it was too much to leave my country, my people and everything I had ever know from my friends to my culture, to go get this. I told myself, “There is no other way!” That is what I would tell everyone and what I take from it. I hope that others can see that in my journey and have it inspire them to keep moving!
I can’t thank you enough for your time today, Filipe! I wish you continued success and thank you very much for all the hard work you are putting in!
Thanks so much, Jason! I really appreciate your time!
Catch Felipe Valle Costa in FX’s ‘Snowfall’ when it premieres on July 5th, 2017. Follow Felipe’s continuing adventures via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Visit his official website at www.filipevallecosta.com.