According to Internet trolls, Ato Essandoh died four years ago at the hands of Leonardo DiCaprio while filming Django Unchained. Essandoh played a slave named D’Artagnan and someone started a rumor that he had sacrificed his life to make the scene more realistic. “My friend tweeted it at me, and I was like, ‘What is this? This is stupid.’ But then I looked at the 500 comments, ‘Leonardo DiCaprio is an awful person for killing Ato Essandoh!’ So I started tweeting from up in the afterlife,” the actor says with a laugh. “I had a lot of fun with it.”
Essandoh did not grow up with Hollywood aspirations. Rather, the New Rochelle, New York native studied biochemical engineering at Cornell. “My professors from Cornell are amazed,” he says. “My professor, who was my mentor, now it’s his big tag line when he’s introducing new students to Cornell’s curriculum. ‘Here are all the things you can do: You can go work for a biotech company, an oil company, do research, or get chewed up by dogs in Django Unchained,’ and everybody laughs.” Then, at the age of 20, Essandoh appeared in a one-night only student production. “I could feel this amazing feeling: ‘I’m making this happen, I’m telling this story,'” he recalls.
Now 43, Essandoh has acted in films like Hitch and Blood Diamond and had regular roles on series such as Copper and Elementary. This year, however, is a significant one. In HBO’s 1970s-set Vinyl, which premiered last week, Essandoh plays Lester Grimes, a former blues singer cheated out of his career by record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale). Produced by Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, and Mick Jagger, among others, and co-starring Olivia Wilde, Juno Temple, and Ray Romano, Vinyl has already been renewed for a second season. “It’s a betrayal between friends,” Essandoh says of the show. “How do you repair the trust of a friendship? Richie basically promised Lester that he was going to be Sam Cooke, so how do you deal with somebody who you feel has ruined your life, but somebody that you also respect?”
This summer, Essandoh will appear in Jason Bourne with Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, and Tommy Lee Jones, and Vincent Cassel. “My dad doesn’t care about any of this,” he says. “[When I was in Hitch,] he kept confusing Will Smith with Bruce Willis, ‘My son is in a Bruce Smith movie!’ He might not know who Mick Jagger is. You’d have to remind him and show him a picture, but he knows the Bourne movie and Bourne franchise.”
EMMA BROWN: I want to talk about how you got involved in acting. You mentioned that your college girlfriend dared you to do a play.
ATO ESSANDOH: Me and my best friend lived together. I got a call from someone who wanted my friend Marcus to act in a play because they’d seen us in a fashion show that we did for a joke. I know him like the back of my hand, and I was like, “There’s no way he’s going to do a play, but I’ll give him the message.” And she asked, “Okay. Is this Ato? Would you like to do a play?” I went silent. I couldn’t talk. I called my girlfriend at the time: “This woman called and she wants me to do a play.” My girlfriend was a chemical engineer as well, so she started laughing. I was like, “Yeah, stupid idea.” And she said, “No, no. You’re going to do that play. You want to do that play. You know it.” And she hung up laughing on me. Suddenly, I just felt calm. I called the woman back. I had rehearsals. It was one night at Cornell. I’ll never forget it; it was the best thing ever. My chemical engineering buddies showed up to make fun of me. I’d never thought about acting as a job. I was an engineer; I was in science and technology. I loved movies and television growing up, but I’d never thought about it as, “Oh, that guy Denzel Washington is employed as an actor.” Then I started thinking about it after I did this show. It was the first time I considered something that was ridiculous and wasn’t something that my family did, and wasn’t something where I felt like, “I need to do this to represent my family or represent my community.” It was something that just felt right to me.
I look at myself now and Marcus is still my best friend. He’s doing all this business stuff. We were in step for a while and then one little moment takes you off a degree, and suddenly I’m all the way over here rather than being a professor or working at some kind of biotech company. It’s so weird. Just the slightest little thing. It wasn’t like I did the play and then was like, “I’m going to be an actor.” It was like, “That was cool.” And now it’s my job.
BROWN: Was Marcus ever like, “You stole my shot!”
ESSANDOH: No, no. Marcus was like, “I would’ve never done it, but I can’t believe that’s what happened.” We just talked this morning. He’s seen me on stage and it’s something that we still can’t believe. I sent a thank you letter to my girlfriend who dared me years later, and she was like, “Oh great!” What do you do? Life is crazy?
BROWN: What was the play? Did you get good feedback?
ESSANDOH: The Chinese Student Association at Cornell put together their own play. It was all Asian people in the cast except for me, because they wanted to do a couple of scenes about an interracial relationship. I was the only non-Asian person on stage; the entire audience was Asian apart from my 10 friends that showed up. How they introduced my character was they had [a girl] say on the phone, “I’m going on a blind date. The guy’s name is Harrison. He plays soccer.” You’re not expecting a 6’4″, dark black guy to come on stage. You hear a knock on the door, “Oh, this is him. I’ll let you know how the date goes.” I walk in and the whole audience gasps. From that moment on, it was like electricity. It wasn’t bad; it was more that they just didn’t see it coming. We had such a good scene and everybody was laughing. I could feel this amazing feeling: “I’m making this happen, I’m telling this story.”
BROWN: Is your family quite academic?
ESSANDOH: Yeah, there are doctors, lawyers, business people. They’re much more pragmatic. My dad, when he was young, did Shakespeare in school and my mom was a little bit of an artist, but everybody was pragmatic. Every culture feels like their parents are the most stringent as far as, “We came to this country to work hard, we want you to be a doctor or a lawyer.” My parents were never like that, but there’s still sort of that first-world guilt, where your like, “Wow, my parents grew up with no running water and now I want to be an actor? No.” But they’ve been fantastically supportive.
BROWN: What was your first paid, professional gig?
ESSANDOH: I think it was this show called Third Watch. It was the first time I was on TV. I played a bike messenger who got hit by a car and Bobby Cannavale was a series regular. He played an EMS worker who helped me. Now, flash-forward all those years and I’m in a show with Bobby Cannavale. I reminded him and he was like, “What are you talking about?” “Dude, you saved my life. I got hit on my bike and you gave me the right drugs and you fixed my leg.” It’s just a nice 360.
BROWN: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in Vinyl.
ESSANDOH: Ellen Lewis is Scorsese’s casting director and she was casting the pilot. I’ve known her for years and she brought me in on a bunch of stuff. It was just another audition, and an audition where I was like, “There’s no way I’m getting this part. They need a blues singer kind of guy, and yeah, I play a little guitar, but I’m not Gary Clark Jr.” But I went in anyway because it’s Martin Scorsese, it’s Mick Jagger, it’s Terence Winter. Next thing I knew they brought me in again and again. Then I happened to run into Ellen and she was like, “Marty’s looking at the tapes.” I got the news that I was in the show and I could not believe it.
BROWN: How much did they tell you about Lester when you were auditioning? Were they quite secretive?
ESSANDOH: I don’t think they had everything settled down about who he was, because in the different auditions, he was doing different things. There was one point where he was more of a limo driver, and then that changed by, I think, my second callback. Nobody knew that I could play the guitar. When I got the role, I kept reminding people. It was decided that Lester would just sing in the scene where Bobby Cannavale’s character meets him, and so I put myself on tape playing the music. Finally people were like, “Oh, you can play the guitar? Try it!” Everything has to go through Marty. It was very nerve wracking. When Goodfellas is on TNT and they’ve taken out all the curse words and put Tide commercials in the middle of it, I’ll still watch Goodfellas because it’s that great of a movie. The guy who created Goodfellas was standing in front of me, looked at me, and was like, “So, I hear you’re going to play the guitar now? Okay” and turned around and walked away. My heart was just beating. But it went well. I played in front of him and they kept shooting, so I did a good job.
BROWN: What kind of notes does he give on set? Is he a pretty vocal director?
ESSANDOH: He’s very supportive. You know when you’re doing well. Maybe the fifth or sixth day, we were shooting a scene where Bobby’s character and I are sitting at a table just shooting the shit and having a conversation, and Marty goes, “I just want to watch it over here instead of at the monitor.” So Martin Scorsese is sitting at the next table and I can see him out of the corner of my eye. When the scene is going well, you can see him laughing. He’s just loving it. When the scene is not going well, he’ll go [shrugs] “Eh.” He let’s you know when things are going well and when things have to be done again and it’s never mean-spirited. I think he really likes working with actors. That was the energy that I got from him.
BROWN: Did Mick Jagger ever come to set?
ESSANDOH: Yeah, he came to set. I grew up listening to blues and rock ‘n’ roll and other music, but, legitimately, the Stones is one of my favorite bands in the world. Maybe two years ago, I saw them in Toronto and I’ve seen them over the years, so never would I have thought that I would meet Mick Jagger, much less be working on the same project. There were a couple of times during the pilot when I heard he was on set, but I wasn’t on set so I was mad. Then, there was one day where he was coming to visit, and I remember seeing his nametag. He finally walked in—we were doing a table read. I was 10 feet away from him and like, “That’s Mick fucking Jagger!” He came up afterwards and you play it cool, “Thanks for your support, man. You’re in a band, right? Rolling Stones?”
BROWN: I was watching the show and trying to imagine how much the music must cost.
ESSANDOH: I can’t even imagine how much was spent. It’s the other character of the show, the music. And people appear [as famous musicians]—Bo Diddley appears, Janis Joplin appears, Alice Cooper.
BROWN: The guy who plays Alice Cooper is great.
ESSANDOH: When he came in for the reading—just imagine this put-together dude—I was like, “This is the guy they got for Alice Cooper? Come on!” Then we started the reading and you heard his voice and it was uncanny. He’s amazing. It’s creepy. He sounds just like him. Then, of course, they give him the makeup and give him the hair. The guy they got to play Robert Plant was fantastic too just because of his Robert Plant mannerisms.
BROWN: You don’t actually sing on the show, right?
ESSANDOH: I don’t actually sing. The person who’s my voice is Ty Taylor from Vintage Trouble. He also consulted me on how to sing. He let me in the booth as they were recording. He’s a fantastic singer. If James Brown and Sam Cooke had a baby, it would be this guy Ty Taylor. If you hear him sing or watch him perform, it’s a religious experience.
BROWN: I wanted to talk about your character’s relationship with Bobby Cannavale’s. Do you feel like Richie was ever sincerely Lester’s friend? It seems like he was always exploiting him.
ESSANDOH: Absolutely, which harkens back to the time of blues musicians and R&B musicians—black, African-American people—who were also exploited by that business. But I think there was a genuine bond that was created. I don’t think that in the beginning, Richie was looking to exploit him in the way that it happened. He thought about himself more than anyone else, which is basically what Richie does the whole time.
BROWN: I saw you in the Super Bowl commercial for Jason Bourne.
ESSANDOH: When I tell my friends, “I’m in the Bourne movie.” They’re like, “Congratulations! Wait…is Matt Damon coming back?” I go, “Yeah.” And they’re like, “Yo! Matt Damon! Matty D!” Everyone pretends they know Matt Damon. It’s exciting. Being in the Super Bowl commercial is pretty exciting, too. When we were shooting months ago in London, we did that line from the commercial—”Oh my god, that’s Jason Bourne”—and Paul Greengrass was joking, “It’s going to be in the Super Bowl ad. It’s a perfect Super Bowl ad line.” That’s exactly what he did.
BROWN: Did you get a million text messages?
ESSANDOH: I got a million text messages, most of which were, “Yo! You’re in the Bourne movie! This is going to be bananas!” A lot of exclamation points.
BROWN: Jamie Foxx has this story about working on Collateral with Tom Cruise. Apparently he actually crashed the car he was driving once, and Tom Cruise was in the back, so everyone was like, “Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Are you okay Mr. Cruise?” Is that what working with Matt Damon is like?
ESSANDOH: [laughs] Totally, because he’s the franchise. If something happens to me, it’s going to be okay, if something happens to Jason Bourne, the whole movie is done, so I get it. I know I’m supposed to say this, but I really genuinely think Matt Damon is a great dude. Matt Damon’s on our side.
Alicia Vikander is in the movie as well, and we have this scene where we’re walking together and Jason Bourne appears. Where we were, we couldn’t lock down the space, so they posted those signs, “We’re shooting a movie here and by being in this area, you consent to being filmed.” Jason Bourne is supposed to be really sneaky and spry, but as soon as he walks by, everybody pulls out their cell phones and starts recording. That level of fame is wild to see.
VINYL AIRS SUNDAY NIGHTS ON HBO. JASON BOURNE WILL COME OUT JULY 29.