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."
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.
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: 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.
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: 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."
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: 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.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
AE: Take classes, and write your own material.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
AE: As a positive influence in people's lives.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Ato, and best of luck with both shows.
AE: Thank you kindly, Kam.
(To see a trailer for, Copper, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pmfqi1_azY4)
(To see a trailer for, Elementary, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YvuZ4Msh50)