Ato Essandoh of BBC America’s Copper Takes Pride in Role of Real Life African American Civil War Doctor
By Rich Monetti
Ato Essandoh is (or was?) one of these actors who’s face you definitely know but appears before on screen with no name recognition. Movie roles in blockbuster films like Blood Diamond and Hitch have been frequently woven around TV appearances in shows such as Damages, The Good Wife and Law and Order. Most recently, the
actor has emerged into a reoccurring role on Elementary with Lucy Lui. But now
also playing Dr. Matthew Freeman on Copper has finally given him a permanent place to
hang his shingle every week. Set in Civil War New York City, he couldn’t help
but continue in that vein in accepting a small part in Django Unchained – even
if it meant playing “the method” to a bloody conclusion. Actually mauled to
death by a vicious dog as an oft escaped slave, Essandoh gladly met his untimely end in
exchange for the chance to work with Quentin Tarantino. At least that’s what the internet
Ato Essandoh(AE): Yes, I’m calling from Heaven. Actually, I’m calling from Hell.
TS: Small gruesome role but I guess you really wanted to work with Tarantino.
AE: Hell yeah. There was no way I was turning that down.
TS: I get it. So you studied Chemical Engineering?
TS: Did you act before then?
AE: I didn’t. My girlfriend at the time dared me to do a play. I was on my way to a PhD at some point to become a professor or researcher, but that brought the acting bug out of me.
TS: What did your parents think?
AE: My parents went crazy but now they see me on TV, and they’re ok with it.
TS: I would think so, but when actors complain about the difficulty of their job, do you tell them to go try learning physics?
AE: All the time – especially when somebody is trying to memorize lines. I’m like dude, I did organic chemistry. You have no idea.
TS: I studied Computer Science so I have a pretty good idea. Tell me about Copper’s Civil War setting.
AE: Outside of Gangs of New York, you have never really seen this side of the city. It was grimy and gritty – just a cesspool of disease and awful people in the Five Points section.
TS: Is it Copper as in Cop?
AE: Yeah from the copper badges, but the origin is still up in the air.
TS: I heard it stands for Constable on Parole. I mean patrol
AE: Parole, yeah that was how bad it was. The cops were like a gang too.
TS: So when you get this role of a black doctor, do you go look it up?
AE: Oh absolutely. I thought it wasn’t possible but there were actually six practicing African American doctors during the Civil War. Educated in
, Freeman was the first with
a degree, had a practice and wrote many papers excoriating a lot of the eugenics
ideas that were being pushed by people like Thomas
TS: What’s it mean to you to play this part?
AE: It means a lot, and there’s a notion that it’s hard to be cast in meaty three dimensional roles as a minority actor. But here I am, offered this incredible role that’s not just a token character that appears once in a while to give some token advice or something. He actually has a life and struggles of his own to deal with. That then carries a responsibility to portray this as realistically as possible, and it’s hard not to feel pride that I get to represent this part of African American History on TV.
TS: How have you used personal experiences with racism to play Dr. Freeman?
AE: What I realize is that because I live in these times I haven’t experienced racism anything like then. So my character can’t pop off like if somebody used the N-word now. There’s a fine line you have to walk because you’d get lynched doing that.
TS: Do you have to remind yourself after a scene that it’s Bob the Irish actor who just spewed that horrible dialogue and not a real racist?
AE: What is funny, and kind of pisses me off, is I get people who apologize to me before doing a scene. I’ll be like Dude, you’re ruining it – I know it’s fake. Like there was this one actor approaching me, and you could see he was about to apologize. I cut him off – do not apologize. This is the only chance you’re going to get to call me that word and live to tell about it. So have at it.
TS: How do you feel about not having much name recognition?
AE: I love the anonymity because nobody knows who you are so you can get away with a lot more. Not to pick on Paris Hilton but imagine if she was an incredible actress, but because we know her so well, it would be hard for her to pull off playing - let’s say, Mother Theresa. It also helps in keeping me from becoming typecast, and resulted in all these amazing characters I’ve played.
TS: You’ve played the bad guy and the good. What do you like more?
AE: I’m a nice guy so to get away with playing a bad guy you have to find what makes you bad, which is way more interesting.
TS: Seems like Dr. Freeman is a nice guy.
AE: I get a lot of leeway – especially in the second season. He’ll be less perfect, more warts on display, which will make him even more compelling to play and watch.
TS: You ever get confused going from Elementary to Copper?
AE: I do. Sometimes I’ll be shooting in
Toronto til late, and then I’m jumping right on a plane to
Freeman stands and talks completely different from the thuggy character on
Elementary. You’re all jet lagged, and you essentially have to get into another
body and mind. Then before you know, there’s a cell phone in your hand, and
you’ve got to figure out who you are. New York
TS: When is the season premiere of Copper?
AE: June 23rd
TS: I’m not just saying this, but how do I get BBC America?
AE: Call you’re cable company.
TS: Thanks, really nice talking to you.
AE: Nice talking to you too.