Although not a household name, Ato Essandoh is one of those entertainers who seems to be able to do it all. He’s shown his undeniable charm in his small rolls in rom-coms like Hitch, his ability to hold his own alongside A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx as D’Artagnan in Django Unchained, and then immerse himself in popular television series’ Elementary and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. He’s also demonstrated strong playwright chops in his first full-length comedic play, Black Thang, about a blossoming relationship battling racial stereotypes.
These days, Ato is most often recognized in his best 1860s attire on BBC America’s Copper playing Doctor Matthew Freeman–his most challenging yet, making it even more exciting and rewarding for the rising star.
We sat down with Essandoh to talk about his struggles with 1800s dialogue and medical equipment, his new found love of playing music, what it means to “make it” in the entertainment industry, and the joys of sharing his success with a pretty girl.
FTK: You found your calling as an actor when your college girlfriend dared you to audition for the school play. Do you guys still talk?
ATO ESSANDOH: I wrote her a letter, in the form of a one-act play, thanking her. It’s amazing how one seemingly arbitrary decision can shift your entire life. I was on my way to getting a graduate degree in Chemical Engineering, now I’m dressing up in old-timey clothes, pretending to be a Civil War doctor. Bizarre.
What do you look for in role?
Something real. Something human. Humans fascinate me.
Were television and movies always your ultimate goal after Broadway?
There is no ultimate goal for me. This is all a fantastic experience. If anything, the experience is the ultimate goal since I realize that I have very little control over any outcome. So screw it, I’ll ride it while it lasts. That said, theater is king. It’s the apex of the art form. It’s visceral and immediate. TV? Film? Theater? I want to do it all for as long as I can, then figure out what’s next. Maybe teaching some day.
How was the transition from Broadway to TV and movies?
I never thought of it as a transition. I guess because it all came at the same time. One minute I’m at Yale Rep as Biff in Death of a Salesman with Charles S. Dutton, next I’m out in Mozambique doing Blood Diamond with DiCaprio. (He laughs.) Oh, wow, look at me dropping all sorts of names. Did I mention I was in a play with Meryl Streep? Okay I’ll stop. I’ve been quite lucky, and subsequently grateful.
What helps you prepare for your current role on Copper, an 1860s physician? That can’t exactly come as second nature.
I need to find the voice. I’ve found in most situations, that if the voice feels right in my mouth, the rest follows. With Freeman there was the added dimension of being a doctor. The physicality of medicine is, in itself, a challenge. How do you hold forceps? What are forceps? What’s Hydrargyri Chloridum? I found myself working quite closely with our props department who would walk me through all of it.
Is it hard sticking to dialogue appropriate for the era?
No. It actually forces you to learn the lines verbatim, which goes without saying, because there’s no wiggle-room. Improvising “Yeah, like seriously dude!” doesn’t fly in 1865.
You’ve done everything from romance, comedy, action, etc. What genre do you enjoy the most?
Comedy is hard. But I enjoy it. I like drama. Nothing like a good dramatic monologue with lots of pathos and close ups.
Tell me about the play you wrote, Black Thang.
It’s a comedy about an interracial relationship. He’s black, she’s white. Hilarity ensues. I wrote it for my production company The Defiant Ones, that I co-founded with screen writer Joshua James, and it’s loosely based on my own experiences in dating.
I must mention Carrie Keranen, a fantastic actress and the basis for Mattie, the “white chick” in the play. She was my muse. She was the voice in my head. That’s my favorite part of playwriting: Channeling the voices in my head. It’s like taking dictation in a way. Sometimes the voices get away from you and you literally can’t type fast enough to keep up.
Playwriting found me. Joshua dared me to write a play, and I did. He has been instrumental to my success. So now I can say I’m a playwright!
Out of all the roles you’ve had, which one did you want for the most?
That’s interesting. I say that because it seems that the more I “want” for a role, the less likely I am to get it. It’s not that I don’t work hard, I do, it’s just that, for me at least, I’ve found that the less I “try” and the more that I relax and trust the work, the higher my chance of winning the role. I call it “professional nonchalance.”
Any desire to go back to Broadway?
What was the most challenging role you’ve had?
Dr. Freeman on Copper. I’m building a character over multiple TV episodes. This is a new challenge that I haven’t faced.
What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t acting or writing plays?
Playing guitar. I’ve been teaching myself for the last several years. I love the blues. I love Jimi Hendrix and Lightning Hopkins and Son House and Muddy— I could go on. Nothing like plucking a guitar and tapping your foot wailing about some chick who did you wrong.
When did you consider yourself as having “made it” in this business? Or do you?
To most of the public, “making it” in this business means being a household name and taking 20 million dollar paydays and the odd sex tape scandal, none of which I have achieved. That said, there are countless actors, the vast majority, who have never seen the business end of a TV camera, much less been a series regular on a TV show, so to them I’ve made it. So I guess it depends on who you ask. For me, it’s nice to be able to pay my rent and take a pretty girl out every now and then.
What do you think are the most important attributes for being successful in this business?
Craft, collaboration, creating your own work, and belief.