Exclusive interview with Ato Essandoh of Copper

June 28, 2013

Ato Essandoh plays Dr. Michael Freeman on the hit BBC show Copper. He spoke with DIRECTV about Season 2 of the acclaimed series, what viewers can expect from his character, and opened up about his personal passions and hobbies.

RD : What drew you to the character Matthew Freeman?

AE : It’s an amazing character—a black doctor in 1864 in New York City. And it’s not a token role where you just come in a say a few lines. The guy has a wife, his own life, and his own world. That is rare for a black person at the time when you could get lynched at the drop of a hat. Imagine what it was like back then when people just threw the “N” word around and you couldn’t defend yourself. It’s a really beautiful and exciting character. For a black actor this role is kind of a scary responsibility.

RD : What makes this character  relatable to your audience?

AE : The struggle. He is always up against [something or someone], always having to prove himself. Minorities and women can relate to having to walk into a room and list all their credentials just to get someone to listen to them.  That’s what Matthew Freeman has to go through all the time. On the show, people can’t believe that there’s a black doctor. It’s easy to sort of pass him over or  look at him as a joke.  I graduated with a chemical engineering degree from an Ivy League school. I’ve met people who didn’t believe that was possible until I said that I went to Cornell. This was due to the color of my skin.

RD : How has Matthew evolved from Season 1 to Season 2?

AE : In Season 1, Freeman came off as such a superman, almost unattainably  perfect. I always pushed for making him a little more human. He has his own ego and warts, if you will, which, I think, help create a three-dimensional character. Sometimes Caucasian writers are afraid to show any warts with Black characters because they don’t want to appear racist. It’s not about making us look negative, but about making us fully human. What you’ll see in Freeman are the internal struggles that he is experiencing while trying to keep up this persona he’s created. He will be challenged in ways you didn’t see in Season 1.

RD : How does your director and fellow castmates help you bring out the best performance you can while on set?

AE : They’re just brilliant. I have to point out that a lot of my scenes are with my on-screen wife, Tessa Thompson.  She’s just an incredible and very creative actress. Sarah and Matthew are a real family. Tessa and I have the same idea about what a real relationship and marriage should be like and we portray that on screen. One of my favorite film scenes from the movie X is when Betty Shabazz comes in and tells Malcolm about the Nation of Islam. He doesn’t believe her and all of a sudden you’re looking at this loving couple and they’re fighting! I feel that Tessa and I are always looking for that chemistry. Everyone in the cast is amazing. It’s not every day you have an entire cast where everybody are friends. We hang out and help each other with lines. We really like and trust each other. We go out of our way to make the best show possible. I can call up the writers and they return my call.

RD : Are there any similarities between you and Freeman?

AE : I feel like my life has been similar to Freeman‘s. Even though I’ve never faced racism like he did, I do have the notion that I represent my race. How I comport myself sets an example for the wayward youth who didn’t have the family or the upbringing I had. Last season, Freeman said, “I want to be an example…a future of the Black race.” I feel the same way.

RD : Do you prefer being on a small screen, big screen, or theater stage?

AE : I prefer the theater because there is a live audience, and you get to rehearse. That, to me, is the highest art form for an actor. Before anyone comes into the theater you have rehearsed for one or two months, so the audience gets to see the optimal level of creativity. With network TV, the viewers have to watch a couple of episodes or seasons until they really get what the character is about. I wish you could get more rehearsal time as a TV or film actor.

RD : For someone who has never watched Copper, tell me why they should start now with Season 2.

AE : I think because it’s a time in New York that we are not familiar with. We saw a glimpse of it in Gangs of New York, but now you really get to see it. There is also a lot of sex  [laughs].  And who doesn’t like sex?

RD : What is your favorite color?

AE : Red.

RD : What’s your favorite pastime?

AE : Playing the guitar.  I’ve been playing for 6 years now.

RD : What is your favorite TV show?

AE : Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

RD : What’s your favorite kind of music or musician?

AE : Prince

RD : What’s your favorite getaway?

AE : Ghana, where my parents are from, and Brazil.

RD : Favorite life motto?

AE : I learned from my father to never make excuses for myself.  Don’t talk about what you are going to do, just do it. “Get on your bike and just go.”

You can catch Essandoh as Dr. Freeman every Sunday on BBC America (Channel 264) at 10pm ET/PT.