YRB Magazine chats with Ato Essandoh to talk about all things Copper and the competing forces in his life. We discuss Acting versus Chemical Engineering, New York versus LA , and why he loves a good John Cassavetes flick. We also discover why he is always looking at his phone?
YRB Magazine: You’re role on Copper as Matthew Freemen puts you in a very different time period than we are in currently. How does that work for you?
Ato Essandoh: Sometimes it gets so hot on set that you can’t even say your lines. So I am thankful for technology. One of the reasons I like living in the present day and not in 1865 is technology. When people ask what you like about that time I say “nothing”.Honestly, I like penicillin.
YRB: Your background isn’t in acting. You were actually in engineering.
Ato: I was a Chemical Engineering major. I was going to Cornell and I got a random call to be in a play because I had previously been in a fashion show. I was kind of like “naw, I have a bunch of work to do.” Then I called my girlfriend at the time and she started laughing and said “ you’re doing it!” So I did it. It was the most fun I had in my life. So much so that when I graduated I was going to get my PhD but I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I went of to try and find myself and got a job in Rhode Island and wrote myself a mission statement. The thing that kept pecking at me was acting. When I found myself back in New York City I started taking acting classes and that was all she wrote. My dear Ghanaian parents kind of went crazy. They were like “What are you doing? what is this acting? you’re supposed to be a doctor.” My response was “Mom, Dad just trust me on this.”
My mom recently came to the set of Copper and was wowed by what they built up in Toronto. She said “You don’t know how scared your father and I have been. But we’ve always supported you” We had a really nice moment. They believed in me so much that they supported me.
YRB: What’s the character arc of Matthew Freemen in the second season?
Ato: The writers and I have had a lot of discussion about the internal struggle of Freemen. What is amazing is being a person born in this generation and experiencing racism I know I’ve never faced racism the way they must have back then. Especially as a black doctor in 1864. I’ve always tried to present Freemen as a very fine upstanding person trying to forge an example of the future of the black race in America. He [Freemen] has to walk this thin line. He can’t get enraged and yell at people the way we can now. He could get lynched. “Eggshells” can’t begin to describe what they must have had to tip-toe around. That said, there had to an internal desire to want to be recognized. You will see that peppered through the season. We begin to deal with his ego and desire to be recognized as someone who can help in the situations that come up. What’s really nice is the arc is really well spread across the season. There is a nice “slow burn” that leads to an exciting culmination.
YRB: Matthew is really trying to assert himself as a man. We are curious how that plays itself out with the introduction of Sarah Freemen’s mother this season.
Ato: What’s really going to be interesting with Alfre Woodard coming in as Sarah’s mom is that you will be getting three perspectives on the state of the black race and racism, what we should do about it and how we should react. That’s really exciting to me because black people are represented in this monolithic way. That we all think in the same way and we all have the same opinion about whatever comes up. In the episodes coming up you get to see how each of the three characters would deal with a situation. There is also the dynamic of the Mother-in-law moving in and who wants their mother-in-law living with them?! It’s a real 3 dimensional dynamic. Alfre Woodard’s character will also be a bit of a “bee in the bonnet” to situations.
YRB: What do you feel about your success? How do you measure your success?
Ato: I see myself as quite fortunate and lucky. I remember talking to my agent years ago when they picked me up as a client. He said “this is a slow journey. It is a marathon and not a sprint.” I once thought “Ok in one year I’m going to get my Emmy, I’m going be in Spike Lee’s next movie, then I’m going to get an Academy Award.” It’s been such a great journey. Along that journey I have done such great roles and it has all been culminating to something like a” Django” and now “Copper”. It’s been about 12 years that I’ve been running around in this business. I look at every success as one more thing to enjoy. I look at a job and think this could be my last job so i’m going to enjoy it to the best of my ability. I love being able to walk on set and know everybody and know that we are telling a story. And I don’t tell this to my agent or anyone who may want to employ me again but I would do this for free. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid for this. I think. “Are You Kidding me?” I’ve been that way since I started working. Even before I started getting paid I did a lot of plays and i’ve been published before. Even on those days when i’ve had negative money in my account and I was producing theater, I was still having fun. I have been lucky enough to discover what really makes me excited about life. It’s basically storytelling. I always say “I’m gonna smoke it while I got It.”
YRB: So acting is a very strenuous activity. Do you do anything to keep yourself healthy?
Ato: I am very into yoga. I have been doing it for about 6 or 7 years. Yoga, meditation and I eat a vegan, plant based diet. All that has given me a ton of energy. I always say that the actor on set is the least hardest worker compared to the camera people and director that have to be on set all day. But you are still tired even if you have only been in one scene that day. It is very taxing on the body and the mind. I find that the better I treat myself and the better I eat and not get so drunk the night before, the better off I am. There are some days I come to the set even if you don’t have enough sleep. you lose that level of concentration that you need to be able to perform So I take that very very seriously. I know that yoga, meditation and even Capoiera is really awesome.
YRB: What do you enjoy doing when you are not acting?
Ato: I have been teaching myself how to play the guitar for the last 6-7 years. Both Acoustic and Electric. I am very into Blues music . I ‘ve always love the image of the lone blues man sitting on a stoop with a three string guitar, out of tune, tapping his foot and singing the blues. That’s what I love. Guys like “Lightning” Hopkins and Muddy Waters and so forth are the ones that really make me crazy. I bought this really awesome guitar when I was in Toronto shooting. It’s a really old 50’s guitar. It’s called a Kay Barney Kessel Guitar. I was like “Oh you can play some really dirty stuff on this!” So I haven’t been going out so much because I have been sitting with this guitar and the amp and trying to be Muddy Waters, basically. I have also been going to BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) to see the John Cassavetes retrospective.
I love movies from the 70’s, the American and the French. They were so visceral and gritty in a way that you don’t really see these days. Al Pacino, Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese are some of my favorites. I miss the kind of New York they portrayed. There was something unfetterdly dangerous about that New York in a way that is almost romantic.
YRB: Have you picked up anything to read that you would recommend?
Ato: Well, I’m a nerd so I have just re-read Douglas Adams, “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I have been going back into the Archives and re-reading things that I read before, which is always fun.
YRB: New York vs. LA? East Coast vs. West Coast?
Ato: I don’t want to relive the battles of rap and hip hop but I would definitely be on Biggie’s side of the country and not Tupac’s. As for Los Angeles, there are definite merits. When I go to LA I love it but I can not stand driving. If I never have to own a car in my life I would be so happy. New York is where I feel rooted. I have lived and currently live in Brooklyn and I love it. I love the access. Being able to jump on a train or jump in a cab and get to where I have to go. New York, even though it has been “Disneyfied’ still has it’s edge and it’s excitement.
YRB: what’s your take on Social Media?
Ato: It can be a little much but I am a freak on it. I have twitter, I’ve got Facebook, I’ve got everything. I recognize that sometimes I am staring at my cell phone too much but what I love is the access that Social Media gives you. I found a friend from years ago and tracked him down and we actually just hung out a few days ago. What I love is that social media, for better or worse, gives you the pulse of humanity. Think about the fact that over a billion people from all over the world have accounts. You can really get a slice of what is happening in the world. That is really exciting. It is also kind of fun to be jokey and snarky on there.
YRB: When would feel you have achieved success?
Ato: I think I already do. There is no “There” there. I don’t ever think that you arrive anywhere. Happiness is a practice, it is not a destination. It will never be “if I get this movie, or this money or this girlfriend, I will feel happy.” I think that thought process is always frought with danger and disappointment. Happiness is a practice. You get better as you practice and you get more of it as you practice. I am already happy so I feel that I am already successful.