Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Ato Essandoh’s parents were born in Accra, Ghana. On a visit to my family’s home I was introduced to him. He participated in a reading for my theatrical play Cushion Pill where he read for the part of a former inmate. At the Actor’s Studio Ato performed Fredrick Douglass’ slave narrative. It was an overwhelming example in courage, strength and talent. This was soon followed by a foray into theater and small parts in Hollywood films. As a writer his play Black Thang was included in Plays and Playwrights 2003. He started a writing group The Defiant Ones. Currently he is among the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The list of Hollywood elite actors he has worked with include Will Smith and a second film with Leonardo di Caprio. Ato has made a living guest starring in numerous television shows, Law and Order and recently Elementary. But his most lucrative role is the character Matthew Freeman on BBC America’s Copper, where he plays a freed slave with a medical practice. Ato is en route to Toronto for the shooting of the second season.
KOFI FORSON: Congratulations on the Best Picture Oscar Nomination for Django Unchained.
ATO ESSANDOH: Yea. Yea. Thanks.
FORSON: I’m just imagining Quentin Tarantino flipping out.
FORSON: I don’t think most people realize how brilliant an artist he is I mean all politics aside.
ESSANDOH: Yea. Of course!
FORSON: You look at Reservoir Dogs okay sure we’ve seen gangster types before in film history. But look at the film. It’s effortless. And what gets me with Quentin each and every time is the writing. It’s damn good.
Were you at the Centerfold Theater for the premiere of my play 5th of Floyd?
ESSANDOH: Not sure.
FORSON: I remember seeing you there that night. Well anyway I wrote that play after I saw Pulp Fiction.
ESSANDOH: Funny you should say that. I got into acting because of Pulp Fiction. I was majoring in Engineering at Cornell University. I saw the film and I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
FORSON: Interesting. I had that feeling when I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. You know what I mean…
FORSON: Like Blue Velvet was the film that defined my generation. David Lynch was to us what Tarantino has become to this generation.
ESSANDOH: Well Pulp Fiction totally blew me away. And Samuel L. Jackson’s character was something special. Quentin hit the ball out of the park with that character. Hard enough for working black actors to get parts in Hollywood films. But for Quentin Tarantino to put all that meat on the bone for Sam Jackson to work with was quite amazing.
FORSON: I remember when you invited me to the Actors Studio to see you perform.
ESSANDOH: Haha… That was so long ago.
FORSON: Damn you were good. I was like there’s so much energy so much talent coming out of this guy.
ESSANDOH: Haha… Stop man you embarrassing me.
FORSON: So then I remember you did Rodger Dodger with Campbell Scott, George C. Scott’s son. That’s when I started to take notice.
ESSANDOH: That was all part of the growing process.
FORSON: Then I would hear about your bit parts on television. I remember when you got on that Law and Order episode. That was legend in a way.
ESSANDOH: Haha you crazy.
FORSON: No really. That character and your performance got such good feedback.
ESSANDOH: Thank you.
FORSON: Funny story I was at my parent’s apartment watching television I think it was a show called Commander in Chief.
Remember that one?
FORSON: That is the one where Gena Davis plays the President of the United States.
ESSANDOH: Of course.
FORSON: Well I believe she was conducting a press conference or something. Then it cuts away from that scene. Out of nowhere your face appears…
FORSON: I’m like Mama… Ato’s on television. Of course by the time she came over from the kitchen to look the scene had ended.
ESSANDOH: Well that’s the luck of the draw with acting. The whole point is to treat it as if it were a job. You have to live. You have to eat. You have to pay rent. So you go on these auditions and get as many parts as possible.
FORSON: How did Tarantino find you?
ESSANDOH: Usually my agent sets me up with different auditions. This was different though. I was put on tape which was sent to Tarantino. I met with him three months later and went over the scene.
FORSON: What was the first meeting like with Tarantino?
ESSANDOH: The first and only meeting was the call back. I showed up in L.A. at an office with a bunch of actors who looked like me.
FORSON: Sounds like a science fiction film.
FORSON: Django Unchained as a science fiction film. Talk about controversy.
ESSANDOH: Actually I didn’t expect it to be a cattle call. So I was sitting there with the script looked up and it was Quentin. He was like “Hey man, how you doing”. I said “Hey, Mr. Tarantino”. He says, “I gotta go to the bathroom. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
And I’m thinking… Yeah. Yeah. But where is everybody else.
FORSON: Oh shit. Wait a minute. This could have turned into the scene in Reservoir Dogs where Mr. Blonde cuts off the ear.
Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel kicks in. Tarantino walks out. I can just imagine you shitting your pants.
ESSANDOH: We talked about the character and the movie. He expected me to channel that strong emotion in the character. So we went over the scene a couple of times. He said when you come down… That particular scene was shot in New Orleans. When you come down I want you to really bring it. And I’m like what do you mean when I come down to New Orleans. I’ve been through many rejections so I didn’t want to play it like I got the part.
FORSON: I remember directing my first Showcase I had to tell one of the actors he didn’t fit the part. I didn’t know how to go about it. Some actors can’t take rejection really well. I’m not sure most people can.
ESSANDOH: That’s the whole point. I said to him Mr. Tarantino I’ll bring it like I brought it for you. And he responds “You gonna be prepared when you come down”.
At this time I’m sorta confused. I still didn’t wanna play like I got the part. So then he’s like “See you in New Orleans”.
I was like okay. He was like okay. I shook his hand. I was kinda dumbfounded and I walked out. My casting director walked out with me. I asked her “Did I get the part”? And she said “You idiot. Of course you got the part. I was like “Oh my God”.
FORSON: I remember when I ran into Patti Smith crossing the street. She stopped and had a chat with me. But before she walked away she hugged and kissed me on the cheek. I ran away like a little boy. I swear almost everybody I saw that day I told them Patti Smith kissed me.
ESSANDOH: I got into my car and drove. My heart was beating so loud I had to pull over and calm down, call everybody and share the news.
It was quite a humbling experience.
FORSON: You’ve made your living in guest appearances on television dramas. You’ve now landed a lead role in Copper on BBC America.
How was the transition from bit parts to a lead role?
ESSANDOH: To be a guest star on a TV show is like being invited to someone else’s family reunion. You are welcomed but you don’t belong.
Honestly it’s the hardest job amongst actors on the set having to adapt and execute. Not only that, they have to wait for hours before shooting. That’s because the main actors and hence the storyline need to be worked on first.
It really is a great experience. To perform at a moment’s notice requires so much skill like you won’t believe.
The transition from guest star to series regular is similar to a Triple A baseball player getting a call to play in the Major Leagues.
FORSON: You play a doctor on Copper, a freed slave. How much research went into this?
ESSANDOH: I researched black doctors in the Civil War Era in New York City. My main inspiration was Doctor James McCune Smith, the first African American doctor in the United States.
FORSON: What more can you tell me about him? Who was he? How did he manage a professional career growing up at this time?
ESSANDOH: He was a gifted student but was denied acceptance into the major American Universities. A benefactor helped him get to the University of Glasgow Scotland where he earned his M.D.
FORSON: On Copper you treat patients. I would imagine you took from Doctor McCune Smith’s practice as well.
ESSANDOH: When he returned to New York he opened a medical practice. He treated both black and white patients.
This was a great source of focus for me.
FORSON: Was he a political figure? In what way did he affect the causes of black people at this time?
ESSANDOH: He was active in the Abolitionist movement and wrote papers against racism. He authored the introduction of Fredrick Douglas’ 2nd autobiography.
He truly served as the basis for my character.
FORSON: You’ve done two films with Leonardo di Caprio, Blood Diamond now Django Unchained.
What is your impression of Leo the person?
ESSANDOH: He’s a great guy, down to earth, humble and extremely committed to the work. He was a pleasure to work with.
FORSON: Are the Hollywood openings as fun as we see them on television?
ESSANDOH: For the most part… When the press is gone and the flashbulbs stop flashing, it’s usually a big reunion. Time to catch up with every one, drink a little booze and goof off!
FORSON: What plans do you have for the near future?
ESSANDOH: I’m headed to Toronto to shoot season 2 of Copper on BBC America. I’ve read the first two episodes. I can’t tell you how excited I am.
It’s going to be fantastic.