Ato Essandoh stars in BBC America’s Copper (10 p.m. Sundays), the network’s highest-rated original drama. The series follows Detective Kevin Corcoran, an Irish “copper” living in 1865 New York City, trying to keep the slums of Five Points safe. At the center of the story is Dr. Matthew Freeman (Essandoh), an escaped slave who served in the Civil War with Corcoran. Now a physician, Freeman helps “Corky” with his detective work — a dangerous task for an African-American, even in the North.
Fresh off of wrapping Copper in Toronto, Essandoh recently chatted with CityBeat about playing his groundbreaking character on the show, his brush with an Internet death rumor and some of his own television obsessions.
CityBeat: I want to start by talking about Copper — it’s BBC America’s highest rated drama, one of the network’s biggest hits ever. What’s it like being part of such a major show?
Ato Essandoh: It’s pretty amazing. It’s my first series regular after working for so long in acting. The chances of being on a hit show, and it’s your first show out — it’s pretty amazing. So I’m still sort of basking in the glory of it.
CB: Tell me a bit about your character Dr. Freeman and how you prepared for the role.
AE: Unfortunately, the history of our country made it sort of hard to believe that there was an African American doctor that could possibly function back in the Civil War days so I looked it up, as I’ve said before, and I found the first African American doctor was this guy named Dr. James McCune Smith and he was actually born to freed slaves in New York and he was an excellent student. However, when it came time for him to go to medical school and so forth, racism wouldn’t allow him to go to school in America so he was found by a benefactor who took him to Scotland and he got his MD out there and came back to practice in New York. When I found that that was a possibility it really sort of grounded me in what I thought the reality of the character was. So I really based a lot my research on his character and his story.
CB: Freeman’s experienced a lot of change since season one. He’s taken over Dr. Hagel’s practice, so he doesn’t have to be as secretive about his work and he can now take credit for being a doctor. But obviously there are still risks being a black doctor in 1865 — what’s his mindset at this point?
AE: I think his mindset is always trying to be an example, which I think is fraught with a lot of difficulty for anybody to try to hold up to be the avatar of his race. I think what you’re going to see a lot with Dr. Freeman is that struggle – to be the upstanding, proud, shining example of the possibilities for African Americans in the future, and also his own ego and his own fears and his own shortcomings as a human being. He’s always going to be battling against both of them. There’s a great storyline that’s coming up in the next few episodes that I can’t wait to hear and see what you guys think. It was really exciting when the writers started to talk about what the possibilities for Freeman were and what was his internal struggle — that’s what I’m most interested in. Because it’s stuff that I have, on a lighter scale, as a person who’s gone to an Ivy League School and so forth, have sort of experienced in my life. To see it writ large in a much more difficult situation is interesting for me as an actor
CB: There was a really emotional scene [in a recent] episode — your character and Sara are back in Five Points where Sara’s brothers were hanged and Sara runs out and starts chopping down the lamppost where they were killed. Instead of trying to stop her, your character helps, and then others join too. Is this the symbol of a fresh start for the Freemans?
AE: I think so, especially for Sara. Tessa Thompson was amazing in that scene. So perfect. Kevin Deiboldt was the one who wrote that scene. It’s definitely a fresh start and from Freeman’s perspective, he’s a doctor so he thinks he can fix people and I think this is the first time he sees his wife do something that he has no control over. So that’s going to be an interesting thing to see him deal with as his wife sort of emerges and finds her voice. But that scene, I remember when I first read it in the script I just kind of cried because I was like, ‘That is just great work right there.’
CB: I understand we’re going to meet Sara’s mother soon. What was it like working with Alfre Woodard?
AE: Before I even knew I was an actor, she was one of my favorite actresses to watch. So meeting her was like meeting royalty. I don’t think it’s a hyperbole to say that. She is absolutely everything you would want her to be. She is just down to earth and a pro. Just somebody who has a bunch of stories and a whole bunch of generosity to give to you on set and off set. She was an absolute treat.
I was nervous, but I went into the makeup trailer and introduced myself to her because I was such a fan and from that day forth, I knew we were going to be OK for the next five episodes or however many she stays. She was absolutely incredible.
CB: What else can viewers expect this season?
AE: What’s great about this season — and I think you guys are starting to see this as you watch the first few episodes — is they’ve really started to branch out into all the other characters’ stories. So it’s going to be much more character-driven rather than procedurally driven which I think is always more interesting to watch something that moves by the choices that the character make rather than always the circumstances they’re in. That’s going to be great. And I think between Sara, Matthew and Alfre Woodard’s character, you’re going to see what I think is sort of subtly exciting, three African American characters who have different opinions and choices that they make, given the same circumstances. And I say that because I think we’re breaking away from the monolithic view of race where all black people think the same way about something or all white people think the same way about something —this is great because we have three characters with three different experiences and three differing opinions on things. You’ll see that pop up here and there, which also adds to tension and conflict, which is what we want to see on TV. That’s what’s exciting
CB: Do you think you approach the role differently after portraying a slave who met a completely different fate in Django Unchained?
It sort of informed me of where Freeman came from in a much more visceral way than reading about it in the historical books and so forth. I actually did the stunts with the dogs, so I felt it. And working with Leonardo DiCaprio, he brought so much of that antebellum South racism to it, that it was the first time that I experienced it through an acting job, I’ll say. It was the first time I got close to what it must have been like to feel like you are worthless and you are property and to being completely helpless. Because Freeman is an escaped slave, it gave me a lot of insight into what he must have come from and what he must have overcome to become what he is.
CB: What do you enjoy about playing a regular role on television as opposed to something in film or on stage?
AE: It’s great because what I’ve said to my agents and managers, I’m part of it. When you’re a guest star on a movie or a TV show, I always say it’s like being invited to a family reunion, but it’s not your family. So you don’t belong — they’re being nice to you, but you don’t fit in completely, you don’t know everybody’s story. You don’t have a history. But here in Copper, now that we’re in Season Two, I walk on set and everybody knows my name, I know everybody’s name, we have history, we’ve gone out, we’re all friends — the cast. It’s something that I feel it’s always what I want to be a part of — a collaboration. I can call up Tom Montana or Tom Kelly, the new showrunner on the show, and we can have a conversation about character and about where we want to go. That’s such a gift to have as an actor. Then you feel like you’re really part of something rather than just a cog in the machine. That’s, for me personally, what’s most exciting. Then, to try to develop a character over 10 episodes in the first season and then 13 episodes in the subsequent season is just so exciting.
CB: Outside television you’ve also had really memorable roles in film — obviously in Django, in Garden State or even your smaller roles like Get Him to the Greek. When you’re out and people stop you, what do you get recognized for the most?
AE: It’s really a mix. I hadn’t seen Get Him to the Greek until a little later, so people would come up to me and do the “African Child” thing. And I’m like ‘What are you talking about?’ [Later, I thought] 'Oh my god, you saw that movie and it’s like two seconds and that’s the part they remembered?' I’ve had people pull out their cell phones and go, ‘Do it, do it, do it. Do the whole thing.’ I’m like 'Oh, God,' right? But Garden State, I get the whole Titembay thing. It’s funny because as much as I’ve done Dr. Freeman, I guess because I shave right afterwards, people don’t recognize me necessarily as Dr. Freeman, whereas a small role like Garden State or Get Him to the Greek, which is the funniest one to me, they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re that dude!’ and you’re like, ‘Oh my God!’ Which is awesome. (Laughs) Then there was the death rumor. Did you hear about that death rumor?
CB: That actually was what I was just about to ask you!
CB: Yeah! They say you haven’t made it until you’ve had a death hoax rumor and you were a really good sport about that. [Someone started an Internet rumor after the release of Django Unchained that Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio insisted that Essandoh's scene be authentic and that he actually died being ripped apart by dogs.]
AE: It was fun because I was just on Twitter and somebody tweeted me that and I just about to dismiss it — I was like oh, that’s so stupid — and then I saw that there were like 500 comments, people who were like, ‘Is this true? Did Leonardo DiCaprio kill this poor boy? Did he sacrifice himself?’ Are you kidding me? So I just started tweeting. Once you get my snark going, I’ll just start snarking it up all over Twitter. So that was one of the best things that’s happened in my career, I guess — people thinking I’m dead!
CB: What projects are you working on now?
AE: We just wrapped Copper and it was hard to pick up stuff because I was doing a lot of Copper. And I did a bunch of Elementary episodes, which was great. Right now, I want to take a break. I’m probably going to Scandinavia with a friend, hop around Norway and then come back and see what I can pick up. Hopefully. I’m guessing that that’s going to be a third season of Copper — I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If that happens, I just want to travel and do some theater. That’s what I would love to do. I have a theater company that I’m a part of, Colt Coeur, and they do some really rad projects. So I’m hoping to get in one of those and go back to doing Copper in Toronto.
CB: What are some of your favorite TV shows — either what’s on right now or just all-time favorites?
AE: OK, when you say all-time favorites, I gotta go with The Cosby Show. That’s the best show ever. But currently, I can’t get enough of Game of Thrones, I can’t wait ‘til Breaking Bad comes back on, ‘cause that’s like one of the all-time best shows ever. And have you watched Orphan Black?
CB: No, but I’ve been wanting to get into that. I heard it’s really good.
AE: Dude. Orphan Black. Awesome show. (Laughs) But those are my favorites, and Battlestar Galactica, when that was on I used to love that show.
CB: If you could land a guest role on any current TV show, regardless of your work schedule or anything, what would it be?
AE: Orphan Black. (Laughs) Without a doubt, I’d love to be on that show.
THURSDAY JULY 18
Project Runway (Season Premiere, 9 p.m., Lifetime) – Praise the PR gods, Tim Gunn is joining the judges panel for Season 12! In the premiere, the designers meet on a different kind of runway — at an airport — and must create outfits from parachute materials. Tune in at 8 p.m. to see the selection of the final designers, including a fan-voted past contestant who will get a second chance at the competition: Ra’mon-Lawrence (Season Six), Valerie (Season Eight) or Kate (Season 11).
FRIDAY JULY 19
Comedy Bang! Bang! (Season Premiere, 10 p.m., IFC) – When Scott gets sick, a team of experts (including the fire of my loins, Christopher Meloni) steps in to take over his body so he can interview Aziz Ansari and craft service coordinator Fabrice Fabrice (Nick Kroll).
SUNDAY JULY 21
True Blood (9 p.m., HBO) – Eric, Pam, Jessica, Jason and Nora discover the torture inside Vamp Camp; the truth comes out about TruBlood’s supposed reproduction; Bill turns to Lilith to try to end the war between vampires and humans.
The Newsroom (10 p.m., HBO) – Neal gets arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest; Maggie nabs a dream story assignment; Mag and Sloan urge Will to cover drone strikes.
TUESDAY JULY 23
Drunk History (10 p.m., Comedy Central) – We travel to Atlanta to learn about the invention of Coca-Cola; how the FBI investigated Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Stetson Kennedy’s infiltration of the KKK.