Ato Essandoh, who recently portrayed a supporting character in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and currently stars as Doctor Matthew Freeman on the show “Copper,” is a multi-talented and somewhat whimsical man. A graduate of Cornell University with a chemical engineering degree, a successful actor, playwright, and hopeful screenwriter, it seems there is very little Essandoh isn’t able to do, and even less that he isn’t willing to try.
Essandoh’s career as an actor first began while he was still enrolled in Cornell. His girlfriend at the time dared him to audition for a play, and, as he put it, “that was it.”
His forays into playwriting started in a similarly impulsive manner, and have also been relatively successful. Essandoh first tried his hand as a playwright because his friend, Joshua James, was working on a play but didn’t have a role for him. James told Ato that if he wrote his own part he could be in the play. And, so, he did. Essandoh has since published the play “Black Thang,” which was included in the 2003 edition of the anthology “Plays and Playwrights,” and has begun to experiment with screenplay writing as well.
While Essandoh appears to be constantly looking to expand his portfolio and overcome new challenges, so far most of his success and recognition has stemmed from his acting roles in movies and TV shows. Essandoh originally found television success as a recurring character on CBS’s “Elementary,” but his major role on the new show “Copper” is his first experience as a series regular.
“You’re expected just to show up and do what you’re supposed to do and go home,” he said when asked about working in a recurring role. “It’s like being invited to a family reunion, but it’s not your family. You don’t have all the relationships and so forth, but you’re still welcome. They’re still polite to you, but you never feel like you’re fully part of the story.”
Although this lack of creative input might seem frustrating, he professed to still be extremely grateful for these opportunities.
“I’ve never really had a bad time yet. It’s been nothing but fun, and I consider myself to be a lucky guy,” he asserted, but he has definitely thoroughly enjoyed being a more fundamental member of a team.
“The great thing about being a series regular is that you’re a real integral part of the process,” he said. “And a show like ‘Copper’ is one-in-a-million because everyone’s so close that I can call up Tom Fontana [the series creator] and be part of a real collaborative process,” he explained.
The perpetually positive Essandoh also had nothing but good things to say about the other actors he’s worked with. He’s had the opportunity to perform alongside Will Smith in “Hitch,” Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” and Leonardo DiCaprio in both “Blood Diamond” and “Django Unchained,” and said despite their mega-stardom, they were all “cool people who you’d actually want to hang out with.” He went on to praise DiCaprio’s humility and encouraging attitude, saying that he was “a level-headed dude” who made it really easy to admire him.
In his most recent film project and partnership with DiCaprio, “Django Unchained,” Essandoh is credited as “D’Artagnan.” And, while you may not remember that name, if you’ve seen the movie you will definitely remember his character. D’Artagnan was the slave, owned by DiCaprio’s character, who was brutally murdered by dogs while begging for his life after attempting to run away. It was one of the most gruesome scenes in the entire film, but despite the potential discomfort that could stem from an African-American playing a horribly mistreated slave, Essandoh actually seemed to have fun with the role.
“I always say if you’re gonna get killed as a slave in a movie, you wanna do it in a Tarantino movie, because it’s awesome,” he joked.
While many actors might have requested the help of a stuntman in a scene like this, in his characteristically enthusiastic and experimental attitude, Essandoh was more than happy to film the entire scene himself. Despite a brief scare when one of the dogs let go of his leg, and almost reattached on an unprotected area, Essandoh managed to stay in character throughout the take, creating one of the most memorable shots in the movie.
Essandoh also had an interesting take on the controversial racial subject matter of the movie and the raw cruelty of his own scene.
“I understood that there would be controversy coming out of this movie, especially with a white guy writing and directing,” he said. “But to me, Quentin showed what really happened during slavery, especially with punishments like the hotbox and the beatings over completely arbitrary things. You want to show that part of history and show it in a real light rather than sort of just sugar coating the whole thing and revising history. So I was really glad to be a part of that even though my role was just getting eaten by dogs.”
Having just wrapped up the second season of “Copper,” Essandoh is looking to take a short break from acting to go on a tour of Europe. Hopefully, his travels will also take him to the Hamptons, because although he went to school in New Rochelle (a mere hour and a half from Southampton), he lamented the fact that he’s never made it out, but stressed his desire to end up here sometime soon.
<>The second season of “Copper” is currently airing on BBC America on Sundays at 10 p.m., while the first season is available on Netflix and iTunes. You can follow Ato on Twitter at twitter.com.