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On the Go with Ato Essandoh!

Ato Essandoh talks about life, career and the good fortune of having two hit TV shows: Copper and Elementary

Kam Williams
On the Go with Ato Essandoh!

Ato Essandoh as Dr. Matthew Freeman, a former slave, in BBC America’s Cooper.

After hypnotizing audiences as D’Artagnan, the slave who was mauled to death by dogs in Django Unchained, Ato Essandoh now stars as Dr. Matthew Freeman in the second season of BBC America’s highest-rated series premiere ever, Copper.

Born in Schenectady, N.Y., on July 29, 1972, Essandoh also returns as Alfredo Llamosa, the fan-favorite former carjacker and a possible replacement for Watson (Lucy Liu) in CBS’ Elementary.

On the big screen, Essandoh 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.

Essandoh 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 and performance group “The Defiant Ones.”

Recognizing the importance of a healthy mind and body, Essatoh is an active yogi, practicing for the past eight years and even recently taking up Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art combining elements of dance and music. Additionally, he is a vegan and a strong believer in incorporating alternative and holistic medicine into one’s lifestyle.

As for hobbies, Essatoh has been known to bring his guitar to the set where he can be heard playing the blues during downtime.

You got a degree in engineering from Cornell. So how did you end up an actor?

Ha! 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.

Is it hard shooting one series in Toronto and one in New York?

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.

Being American, how did you come to land the role on Copper, a BBC production?

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.

Tell me a little about your character, Dr. Matthew Freeman.

Freeman, an ex-slave, is an African American doctor practicing in the notorious “Five 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.

On Elementary, you play a very different character, Alfredo Llamosa, a former carjacker. What’s he like?

Alfredo is cool. He’s lived the proverbial “hard knock life.” He’s turned things around following a bout of 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!

Do you ever get confused on the set about which guy you’re supposed to be playing?

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 New York City. After some coffee, then I’m like, “Oh yeah, Alfredo is the one who knows what a cell phone is.”

Which one is more like the real-life you?

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.

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?

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.

What is the key to your knack for delivering memorable performances in support roles in movies like Hitch and Blood Diamond?

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.

You are also a playwright and a stage actor. Do you prefer theater to film?

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.

Are you ever afraid?

Of course. Fear, if handled correctly, tells you where you need to go next and what you need to face.

Are you happy?

Yes quite, since I realized that happiness is not a destination, but rather a state of being. Happiness is a practice.

What was the last book you read?

I just reread Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because it makes me laugh out loud.

What excites you?

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.

Who is your favorite clothes designer?

John Varvatos.

What was your best career decision?

Taking acting classes.

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?

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 … [laughs]

If you were an animal, what animal would you be?

An otter. Best all-around animal ever. It’s like a dog and a seal. Only thing missing is wings.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

My father teaching me to tie my shoes.

Is there something that you promised to do if you became famous that you still haven’t done yet?

Throw a huge party for all my friends and family who’ve supported me. I’m talking huge party on a boat or something.

How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?

Hearts mend. That’s the good thing about them. They mend and you carry on.

What’s the difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person you pretend to be on the red carpet?

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.

What key quality do you believe all successful people share?

Belief. I never thought I couldn’t do it.

If you had to choose another profession, what would that be?

Teacher.

If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be?

Jimi Hendrix!

With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to star in?

That’s tough because the classics are so classic. That said, In the Heat of the Night.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Take classes, and write your own material.

What is your favorite charity?

Scale Africa.

How do you want to be remembered?

As a positive influence in people’s lives.