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 second 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.”
Kam Williams: Hi Ato, thanks for the interview.
Ato Essandoh: My pleasure, Kam.
KW: 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.
KW: Congratulations on having two hit TV shows at the same time!
KW: 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.
KW: 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.
KW: 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!
KW: 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.
KW: 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.
KW: 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.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Ato, and best of luck with both shows.
AE: Thank you kindly, Kam.