Essandoh jumps into a superhero, in June, in X-Men feature film “Dark Phoenix”.
Ato Essandoh (Ah-toe Ess-ahn-dough) is the type of actor that excites writers, producers, directors and studio executives. Despite his distinctive looks, impressive height and his superlative command of language, you can stand back and marvel at his chameleon-like ability. He blends into characters so seamlessly that you don’t know (at first) that you are watching Ato Essandoh.
Now, I bet, you’re scratching your head while you are examining his photographic image. Perhaps his strong features trigger your
foggy memory and you connect it to your binge-watching Netflix where he appears in the sci-fi series “Altered Carbon,” a popular choice which was conceived, written and executive produced by Laeta Kalogridis. In this well-watched series, Essandoh plays Vernon Elliot, an ex-soldier whose wife was imprisoned and whose daughter was killed. Or perhaps you are a “Chicago Med” fan and know him as the African-American Jewish doctor Dr. Isidore Latham.
Now perhaps your memory is clearing up and you recall his work in the
1970s drama “Vinyl,” produced by Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, and Mick Jagger; and in BBC America’s “Copper.” His additional television credits include “Elementary,” “Person of Interest,” “The Good Wife,” and “Blue Bloods” to name a few. His film credits include “Jason Bourne,” “Django Unchained” and “Blood Diamond.”
If you’ve not seen any of the aforementioned film and television shows, soon you won’t be able to miss him because Essandoh will appear in the X-Men feature film “Dark Phoenix,” slated for release in June 2019.
But right now Essandoh is one of the stars of CBS’s new series “The Code” playing Major Trey Ferry in the drama about the military’s brightest minds, who tackle the toughest legal challenges facing the U.S. Marine Corps.
As prosecutors, defense lawyers, and investigators, these Marines work together to serve their country with integrity while often putting aside their personal ideals for the sake of justice.
Operating out of Judge Advocate General Headquarters in Quantico, Captain John “Abe” Abraham is a driven prosecutor for whom becoming a Marine is a longstanding family tradition and a responsibility he treats with devotion and passion. His colleague and friend, Captain Maya Dobbins, is the fearless lead defense attorney who is never hesitant to go up against one of her own but is also a team player if it means finding the truth. Major Trey Ferry (Ato Essandoh ) is Abe’s eloquent and wise superior officer working for the prosecution who pursues suspects with ferocity.
Commanding officer Colonel Glenn Turnbull, one of the highest-ranking female officers in the Judge Advocate Corps, demands excellence of herself and her staff while inspiring intense loyalty. Assisting the team is Lt. Harper Li, a highly capable lawyer who is eager to take on bigger cases, and tech-savvy, efficient Warrant Officer Rami Ahmadi, the Marine equivalent of a paralegal. These active duty Marines are attorneys who have chosen to serve their country in pursuit of military justice at home and abroad.
The Los Angeles Sentinel caught up with Ato Essandoh between his very busy schedule to discuss his role in “The Code” and how he got started, 25 years ago, in the entertainment industry.
This is an edited phone conversation with actor Ato Essandoh.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: Ato Essandoh how do I pronounce your first and last name?
ATO ESSANDOH: Ah-toe Ess-ahn-dough.
LAS: Tell me about your role in “The Code.” You play Major Trey Ferry and you’re back on CBS, congratulations!
AE: (laughing) Thank you. Yes, I am back on CBS, it’s a good place to be.
LAS: I’ve watched a few episodes of “The Code” and I think it might have a long shelf life much like “Law and Order.” What did you think when you read the pilot for the show?
AE: I thought the same thing. What I loved about the character [Major Trey Ferry] is that he’s a “by-the-book” Marine and he’s also a lifer. He loves being in the Marines … but he also realizes, based on his experience being a Marine and practicing law, that to achieve full justice is an ideal but one that we are always trying to achieve. Sometimes the outcome is not satisfying but we’re looking for the best outcome possible. That’s a more nuanced way of looking at things rather than a black and white way.
In reading the pilot and talking with the showrunner Craig Sweeny I realized that it wasn’t just a typical case of the week kind of thing.
LAS: Wait but each episode is a new case, correct?
AE: Yes, it is a new case each week but there is a lot of drama. These characters travel to far-flung places in this world. We have an episode that happens in Afghanistan and all over the country. We also get to go home with the characters and see what the life of a Marine is outside of being a “Marine” which is lovely and to your point, why people will want to watch because it’s not exactly the same thing every week.
LAS: Do you personally have any connection with the U.S.military?
AE: No not in my family but I do have friends in the Navy, and I have a couple of Navy Seal friends. I’ve done something called “theater of war” which is an outreach program where actors perform Greek tragedies with people who have actually been in the field [of war] and Guantanamo Bay [detention camp]. I’ve also talked to a lot of the armed forces people all over the world so while I do not have anyone in my family I do have some experience talking with actual veterans and active duty people.
LAS: What advice would you give to young actors? You were studying at Cornell University, chemical engineering, is that correct? That’s not the most natural path to a career in film and television.
AE: It’s crazy how it’s happened. When I look at the span of my career which is about 25 years now I’ve not been pigeonholed, I’ve not been typecast at all. I’ve played everything from an African rebel to a lawyer like I’m doing now [CBS’s “The Code’] to an ex-blues singer, I did “Vinyl” for a season. I’ve had a very varied career I really can’t complain about anything especially since I came from an [chemical ] engineering background. You can imagine my parent’s response. I went to Cornell University and I graduated. Then I decided that I wanted to act. That’s a, what would you call it, a 180, a weird pirouette into the acting world. Luckily it’s been a success.
LAS: Your parents must have been shocked. I mean you need brains to get into Cornell University and then graduate. I tip my hat to you, sir.
AE: (laughing) Thank you. I remember talking with my dad years ago when I had paid off my Cornell [University] loans, it’s an expensive school. And my dad goes ‘hey, congratulations’ and then I say ‘Pop, I don’t think you heard what I said, I paid off my school loans with the money that I earned from ACTING. Then he sat me down and we had a nice drink and he said ‘hey son, that’s pretty cool.’ That was a wonderful moment.
LAS: Your parents are from Ghana, correct?
AE: Yes. Both of my parents were born and raised in Ghana but I was not. I was raised in Schenectady, N.Y. It’s a long story about how two Ghanaian immigrants from West Africa get all the way to Upstate New York. And my mom still smarts because it’s so cold in Upstate New York. That woman can not deal with the cold. Luckily they moved back to Ghana and they have a pool and they are happy there.
LAS: How often do you go to Ghana, to visit?
AE: I try to go there once a year. My mom and dad are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year. So I have to figure out a way to go this year.
LAS: That’s amazing, God bless them both.
AE: Thank you. I’m amazed that you can last 50 years with anybody.
LAS: Amen to that. I read that you’ve written several plays, are you writing now?
AE: No, not now. I’ve been so busy. Back then when I was writing and producing my own plays my theory was if no one is going to cast me, then I will write something and cast myself in. That was really the impetus of all the writing.
LAS: And now…?
AE: And now I have a different point of view. I get to see every aspect of the craft of making a movie or a television show. Example, if I have an issue with a line, I will always go on my knees to the writer because I know what it’s like to write every single word on the page … I have a lot of respect for writers.
LAS: The dialogue in “The Code” reminded me of good theater meaning, the language was so thick. What’s your take on the writing?
AE: I agree. It’s a challenge because not only is it dense dialogue it’s really a mix of the Marine [languge] and the legalese. Marines and lawyers do not speak standard English. For me, it’s like a new language. I engaged a speech coach to help me get all that military, Marine click down.
LAS: What can you tell me about your role in the new X-Men feature film “Dark Phoenix,” which is slated for release in June 2019?
AE: (laughing) Not much.
LAS: What? Come on, do you have any special powers?
AE: (laughing) Well, gosh, you know how the Marvel people are about sharing anything.
LAS: I do. I do but whom will I tell? Wink .. wink … wink. Are you allowed to even say the word — Marvel?
AE: (laughing) I don’t know. I feel like some black car will appear and burly men will pull me in the back and drive me away and then show me my signed NDA.
LAS: It’s the Marvel universe, so that doesn’t sound too far-fetched to me. Come on, share a little … I will protect ya.
AE: Gulp. I can say that it’s exciting and that I’ve not seen the entire film only bits and pieces. But it’s a Marvel movie meaning it’s BIG and it has a lot of action, drama and a lot of superhero stuff.
LAS: Congratulations, you’ve told me nothing about the X-Men feature film “Dark Phoenix.” Tell me this then, were you a Marvel fan as a kid?
AE: (laughing) Yes, yes I was. I grow up reading the X-Men series. I read the Dark Phoenix when I was a kid back in ’85 or ’86. The opportunity to be in the live-action version [of Dark Phoenix] is like WOW, I can’t believe it.
LAS: Ok, Ato Essandoh when it’s time to talk about this new Marvel film, will you make sure that I’m on the press list?
AE: Yes. No doubt. We will do it!
LAS: Where do you call home these days?
AE: New York, Brooklyn.
LAS: What’s your favorite place to get a meal in Brooklyn?
AE: I live in Clinton Hills, there is an entire strip on Myrtle Avenue that I love. Bar Bolinas is a good one. My favorite coffee shop is Peck’s they have the dopest coffee and the pastries, oh my goodness, the pastries are off the chain. There is a new place that just opened it’s called Myrtle and Company. When you go there for brunch they have a steak-and-eggs that’s so good and get the Buckwheat pancakes, so good. My favorite Italian restaurant is Graziella’s … and I can go on and on.
LAS: Ato Essandoh you are a foodie!
AE: Don’t let me hear that you came to Clinton Hill [Brooklyn] and didn’t call me up because I will take you out!
LAS: Done, done, and done! “The Code” on CBS airs on Mondays beginning April 15th. https://www.cbs.com/shows/the-code/
Follow Ato Essandoh on Twitter and Instagram @AtoEssandoh