Thursday, September 19, 2013

At Which Point Chauncey DeVega Interviews Ato Essandoh from the BBC TV Series "Copper"

I am a huge fan of the BBC series Copper. Ato Essandoh is an accomplished and gifted actor who has appeared in movies such as Django Unchained.

Fate aligns when we have the opportunity to talk to individuals on the TV shows and movies that we watch and enjoy.

Ato Essandoh is cool people.

Part of the fun of We Are Respectable Negroes is discovering the wide range of folks who like, support, read, and are fans of the site. 

Just like in our podcast series, I do not ask strictly conventional questions in the following interview: I am curious about process, random matters, and trying to get a sense of who the "real" person is that we/us see creative outcome. 

I do hope you enjoy Ato's taking the time to share his insights about acting and creative work with WARN.

The interview follows.
Chauncey DeVega: I have been a fan of your work for some time. I always wonder about that moment of transition, when an actor or actress realizes that they can earn a living, and if lucky, live comfortably, from their craft. What was that moment like for you?

Ato Essandoh: Thank you so much. In college I was studying to be a Chemical Engineer. I took out some loans to do this. A couple years ago, I paid off the last of them with money I made as an actor. Let me repeat: I paid off my chemical engineering degree with money I made from acting. So yeah, so far so good.

Chauncey DeVega: Your parents are from Africa. In my various careers, one of my jobs was working with first generation and immigrant college students. Their parents were consistent: you go to college to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or scientist. How did you folks respond when you got your degree in Chemical Engineering-not too shabby by the way and quite lucrative-and  then became an actor?

Ato Essandoh: Yeah their heads exploded for a second mostly, I think because it came out of nowhere for them. But when they saw my resolve, they backed down. But my parents are pretty atypical as far stereotypical African parents go. They've backed me all the way without a hint of negativity. My mom came to the Copper set last season. I showed her around and she loved it. She took me aside in a quiet moment and told me how scared she and my pop had been over the years, and yet how proud they were that I took such a chance. It was so great to hear. Yeah, my parents rock.

Chauncey DeVega: I have to ask. Ghana is one of the countries that black Americans often choose as their "African home"-this was really common during the 1960s and 1970s. If I was from Ghana or my people were, I don't know how I would respond to such a flattening of culture and history. Have you heard in stories from folks back in "the motherland" about black Americans "coming home" and what transpired?

Ato Essandoh: There is a sense of pride among most Ghanaians, I think, concerning this. Ghanaians, in general, are quite hospitable, so they welcome it. Nina Simone retired in Accra for example. Yet they, and I'm sure most Africans, bristle at the generalization of African culture. Lot's of foreigners still think of Africa as a country as opposed to a vast continent consisting of diverse, ever-evolving cultures.

Chauncey DeVega: Looking at your body of work, I keep thinking about how black folks are part of a global Diaspora. Your parents are from Ghana, you grew up in the U.S., have been in shows in the U.K., and portrayed character(s) from Africa. Do viewers see you as the embodiment of some type of black cosmopolitanism, a worldly voice, as "all of us?" And do fans mistake your origins and assume you are from one country or locale when you are actually from another?

Ato Essandoh:  I've haven't encountered people saying that of me. No. But all my life, people have tried to place me. It depends on who's doing the placing, but I've been placed everywhere from Senegal to the American south, to Brazil. Everywhere except upstate New York. It's probably good for my career now
that I think about it. I could be from anywhere. Except maybe Sweden. Haha!

Chauncey DeVega:  I didn't realize you were in Django: Unchained until a second viewing.You have been asked this before I am sure, but I am legitimately curious. What is it like to meet Tarantino or any other director who is so well-known" Have you finally come to accept that you too are a "famous" actor and are all in the same club more or less? How do those relationships work in Hollywood in terms of figuring out the lay of the land and where a given actor fits in the puzzle?

Ato Essandoh: Quentin is one of my all time favorites. So meeting him was a thrill. I don't think my own level of fame (there's not much of it) is a factor. If it's someone I've admired, I still get a little goofy. I try to keep it cool, but I still get goofy. I usually save the goofiness until the shoot is over. I don't know if there's a Hollywood code. If there is, no one's hipped me to it. Don't get me wrong, I don't freak out necessarily, let's
call it effusive enthusiasm. I'll always be a fan.

Chauncey DeVega:  Does the sense of surprise and wonder ever go away from knowing and meeting other celebrities or seeing yourself on screen? Do you sneak into your own movies for the thrill of it? Or is it all now very mundane?

Ato Essandoh: It's even more intense because now I have access to them. Alfre Woodard came to work with us on Copper. I introduced myself to her as if she was visiting royalty (she kind of is). It's a thrill. I get to act with Alfre Woodard! Seeing my name in the opening credits of Django Unchained? A Quentin Tarantino movie!?! Yeah, that'll never get old.

Chauncey DeVega:  I am really curious about how creative folks go about their process. How do you get ready for a role? How much homework do you do? And given that you have done a number of "historical" roles-Copper and Django-among them, how do you go about putting yourself in the mental mind state necessary to channel, as you so compelling do, a person from the past?

Ato Essandoh: It really depends on the role. Some require more work and prep then others. Sometime I read something, and it already "feels right in my mouth" so I know I just have to get into costume and I'm ready to rock. Copper and Django were similar in that I had imagine what it was like to not be able stand up for myself the way I would in this day and age. It really depends.

Chauncey DeVega:  Given the dynamics of the business that is Hollywood film, and where black men and other people of color are very limited and typecast, how have you been able to maintain the dignity and respect and range that your roles channel?

Ato Essandoh: I honestly don't know. I've been lucky. That's all I can say.

Chauncey DeVega: I am thinking specifically of Copper. With a weaker script and less smart show, you could have been at best a 1 or at best 2 dimensional character. Instead, Dr. Freeman is a real person. How did this come about? Was it the script and directing, or your presence in combination with what the show
allowed you to do?

Ato Essandoh: This is all Tom Fontana and Will Rokos and the rest of the writing team. Again, I'm quite lucky in this regard. And quite honored that they trust me with their words.

Chauncey DeVega:  Random question: I have been to Cornell and the Finger Lakes area on several occasions. How did you stay sane and right of mind up there?

Ato Essandoh: Hahahah! It's quite beautiful up there although it is a bit boondock-y. I was born in upstate New York so I guess I'm used to it!

Chauncey DeVega: Second random question. You are a student of capoeira and live healthy and eat right. I studied under one of the few if only African-American masters to have studied "Kung-fu" in China for several years. I did not do very well given how lazy and not serious I was. Plus I didn't fully grasp the opportunity I had at the time...but I digress. How has capoeira helped your mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health? Would you suggest that that other folks learn it?

Ato Essandoh: To me the mind, body and spirit are one thing. Or I should say, that I don't see them as separate. Physical activity is mental activity as well as emotional or spiritual activity. Capoeira or Kung Fu, or yoga or learning the guitar or what have you will alway enhance you. Yes! Take a Capoeira class! It's like dancing Kung Fu! To music! Might I suggest Omulu Capoeira in Brooklyn?

Chauncey DeVega: You eat right, but you have to love a good fried pork chop. Am I wrong? Do you hate on the swine? If so, what is your guilty pleasure then?

Ato Essandoh: I was never a pork chop guy. Hahah. I did like bacon back in the days I ate meat. And pork ribs were good. So no, I don't hate on the swine. Haha. We actually have a few pigs on the Copper set. They're funny as hell! Kinda like dogs except not. I would say whiskey is my guilty pleasure, but there's
no shame in whiskey.

Chauncey DeVega: As a closing question, if you had to give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Ato Essandoh:  Dude. Don't worry about it. You'll be fine.


Deb_C said...

Great interview, CD! Not a Django fan, but I have watched "Copper" and do love Dr. Freeman's character!

chauncey devega said...

Copper is great. Ato was very kind to agree to chat. I have a few other interviews lined up--fingers crossed. And I am really trying to ask questions that go beyond the typical. Do share w. other fans.


rikyrah said...

I tried Copper. I really wanted to like it, but just didn't overall. I did love this man's character, and am glad to see that folks remember Black folks did live back then.

rikyrah said...

this is a random ot, but did you watch Sleepy Hollow, and if you did, did you like it?

chauncey devega said...

Haven't yet. Worth watching?

chauncey devega said...

We were not all slaves. Sad how many people think so.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Netflix was promoting Copper so I decided to watch it. I was hooked once I saw a black character with dignity and professional skills. It would seem that his role is that of Watson to the main character role of Sherlock. But, his expertise would also lend his character's role of being Sherlock at times. Interesting exchange of roles.
The drama surrounding the Dr's family life and attempts to guide another black character down the right path was also noteworthy. The Dr's character is clearly not subordinate to the main character despite the racial tension of the era.

rikyrah said...

I was iffy about it, but it grabbed me from the beginning.

It has American History, Religious Conspiracy, Supernatural elements, a hottie as Ichabod Crane, and a Black woman as the female lead of the show.

I've found a new show!