Hypnotizing audiences as D’Artagnan, the slave who was mauled to death by dogs in Django Unchained, Ato Essandoh stars as Dr. Matthew Freeman in the 2nd season of BBC America’s highest-rated series premiere ever, “Copper.” Born in Schenectady, New York on July 29, 1972, Ato also returns as the fan-favorite former carjacker and Watson’s (Lucy Liu) possible replacement, Alfredo Llamosa, in CBS’ “Elementary.”
On the big screen, Ato is widely recognized for his memorable performances in Garden State, Blood Diamond and Hitch, and for equally-stellar work on such TV shows as “Blue Bloods,” “Damages,” “The Good Wife” and “Law & Order,” to name a few. Prior to acting, he studied chemical engineering at Cornell University, where he took a dare to appear in a stage production of “Paper Moon.”
Ato immediately fell in love with the stage and with acting, and moved to New York City to study under the tutelage of James Price. He went on to do many Off-Broadway shows, even penning his own play and co-founding the writing/performance group “The Defiant Ones.”
Recognizing the importance of a healthy mind and body, Ato is an active yogi, practicing for the past 8 years and even recently joining a Capoeira group, the Brazilian martial art combining elements of dance and music. Additionally, he is a vegan and a strong believer in incorporating alternative/holistic medicine into one’s lifestyle.
As for hobbies, Ato as been known to bring his guitar to the set where he can be heard playing the blues during downtime. Here, he talks about life, career and the good fortune of currently having two hit TV shows.
Kam Williams: Hi Ato, thanks for the interview.
Ato Essandoh: My pleasure, Kam.
LAS: You got a degree in engineering from Cornell, my alma mater. So, how did you end up an actor?
AE: Hah! I was randomly offered a part in a play while at school. I was going to turn it down, but my girlfriend at the time insisted that I do it. It was a singularly thrilling experience. It just stuck with me. I found myself back in New York City a few years after graduation and decided to take some acting classes at night after my consulting job. That was it. I just couldn’t shake it.
LAS: Congratulations on having two hit TV shows at the same time!
LAS: Is it hard shooting one series in Toronto and one in New York?
AE: That would certainly be a “First World Problem,” if it were. So I’m going to say no. I love working! I’ll take all I can get.
LAS: Being American, how did you come to land the role on Copper, a BBC production?
AE: I auditioned. Twice. The second time was in front of Tom Fontana, the show’s creator. I didn’t think I was going to get it. Months later, on Christmas Eve no less, I got the good news.
LAS: Tell me a little about your character, Dr. Matthew Freeman.
AE: Freeman, an ex-slave, is an African-American doctor practicing in the notorious “5 Points” New York City neighborhood. He is brilliant, driven and has a keen desire to help others and leave the world in a better place than he found it. That is his solemn duty. Despite the overwhelming bigotry of the times, Freeman strives to remain an example of African-American achievement.
LAS: On Elementary, you play a very different character, Alfredo Llamosa, a former carjacker. What’s he like?
AE: Alfredo is cool. He’s lived the proverbial “Hard Knock Life.” He’s turned things around following a bout with drug addiction and now wants to help others, particularly Sherlock. Like Freeman, Alfredo has the same sense of duty about improving the lives of others. Oh, and he rocks fresh gear!
LAS: Do you ever get confused on the set about which guy you’re supposed to be playing?
AE: You’d be surprised. Sometimes I get the voices confused. Especially after having just flown in, first thing in the morning from Toronto to shoot Elementary in NYC. After some coffee, then I’m like, “Oh yeah, Alfredo is the one who knows what a cell phone is.”
LAS: Which one is more like the real-life you?
AE: It’s close, but I think I lean towards Freeman. But not by much. Yeah, if Freeman and Alfredo had a kid, it would be me.
LAS: You were mauled to death in Django Unchained. What was it like being directed by Quentin Tarantino and working opposite Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz?
AE: If you’re planning on getting mauled by dogs, this is the most fun you’ll ever have. Quentin was absolutely a dream to work for. He’s savant level brilliant and savagely funny. Jamie and Christoph were charming and generous. Leo, who I’ve worked with before on Blood Diamond, is a consummate pro. I repeat: If you are going to get mauled by dogs, this is the most fun you’ll ever have.
LAS: What is the key to your knack for delivering memorable performances in support roles in movies like Hitch and Blood Diamond?
AE: I just try to help tell the story as best as possible. It helps when you’re working for fantastic directors like Andy Tennant and Ed Zwick. I pretty much just do whatever they tell me.
LAS: You are also a playwright and a stage actor. Do you prefer theater to film?
AE: Theater! You get to rehearse and explore the story for some months before the crowd sees it. Then there is the crowd itself. Nothing beats performing live. The five minutes before the stage manager calls “Places!” is thrilling, feeling the audience listening, and breathing and responding. Nothing beats it.
LAS: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
AE: No. But there are questions that people never ask me and I’m glad they don’t.
LAS: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
AE: Of course. Fear, if handled correctly, tells you where you need to go next and what you need to face.
LAS: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
AE: Yes, quite, since I realized that happiness is not a destination, but rather a state of being. Happiness is a practice.
LAS: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
AE: Just yesterday. The kind of laugh where your mouth just falls open and you cackle as tears fall. Yeah, that was a good one.
LAS: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
AE: I’d say whiskey, but there’s no shame in whiskey. As long as it’s good whiskey. So, I’ll go with cookies. And video games.
LAS: The booLASorm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
AE: I just reread Douglas Adams’ “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” because it makes me laugh out loud.
LAS: The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?
AE: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk. Can’t get that song out of my head.
LAS: What is your favorite dish to cook?
AE: Jellof rice. It’s a Ghanaian dish. My favorite of all time! Too bad I still can’t make it as good as my mom does.
LAS: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
AE: Virtuosity! Watching someone transcend their art, like a great athlete does in sports. Or like Prince has done in music. Prince has made a career of transcendence.
LAS: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
AE: John Varvatos.
LAS: The Mike Pittman question: What was your best career decision?
AE: Taking acting classes.
LAS: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
AE: Myself, I hope, or this has all been a big mistake.
LAS: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
AE: Peace. I know it’s corny, but seriously, peace.
LAS: The Jamie Foxx question: If you only had 24 hours to live, what would you do? Would you do the bad stuff, you never got a chance to do, or would you do good stuff to make sure you make it into heaven?
AE: I’m not really worried about heaven or hell so, yeah, the bad stuff. As long as nobody got hurt. So, not too bad. And I guess 24 hours is not long enough to start a harem, so… [LOL]
LAS: The Kerry Washington question: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
AE: An otter. Best all around animal ever. It’s like a dog and a seal. Only thing missing is wings. Ask Kerry if my otter can have wings. That would be rad.
LAS: I’m sure she’d say yes. The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
AE: My father teaching me to tie my shoes.
LAS: That’s my earliest memory, too, but it was my mom who taught me. The Anthony Mackie question: Is there something that you promised to do if you became famous, that you still haven’t done yet?
AE: Throw a huge party for all my friends and family who’ve supported me. I’m talking huge party on a boat or something.
LAS: The Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
AE: Hearts mend. That’s the good thing about them. They mend and you carry on.
LAS: The Viola Davis question: What’s the difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person you pretend to be on the red carpet?
AE: I don’t think there’s much of a difference. I’m usually having so much fun that it’s hard to be cool. So I come off as dorky, which is pretty much what I am.
LAS: The Anthony Anderson question: If you could have a superpower, which one would you choose?
AE: The power over matter. Like Dr. Manhattan from the Watchmen. I’d do things like go to Mars and visit the Crab Nebula. Dorky right? Told ya! [LOL]
LAS: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
AE: Belief. I never thought I couldn’t do it.
LAS: The Gabby Douglas question: If you had to choose another profession, what would that be?
LAS: The Michael Ealy question: If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be?
AE: Jimi Hendrix!
LAS: The Harriet Pakula-Teweles question: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to star in?
AE: That’s tough, because the classics are so classic. That said, In the Heat of the Night.
LAS: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
AE: Take classes, and write your own material.
LAS: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: What is your favorite charity?
AE: Scale Africa.
LAS: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
AE: As a positive influence in people’s lives.
LAS: Thanks again for the time, Ato, and best of luck with both shows.
AE: Thank you kindly.