Why Ato Essandoh Will Have a Very Long Career

He cut his teeth in NYC's downtown theater. Now he's all over your TV screen.

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Photo: Lelund Durond Thompson

Ato Essandoh is on a roll. The accomplished actor — who initially set out to be a chemical engineer — has become a familiar presence on TV and movie screens across the globe. Essandoh is that guy who’s face you know, but whose name you probably don’t. But that won’t be for much longer.

From Blue Bloods to Blood Diamond to BBC’s Copper, Essandoh’s ability to play wide-ranging, complex characters seems endless. Currently, you can see his talents on display on Netflix’s futuristic sci-fi series Altered Carbon. Essandoh plays tortured father Vernon Elliot who desperately tries to keep his daughter alive by forcing her to remain in a virtual-reality environment. At the same time, his character serves as the comedic sidekick to rogue military operative Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), as the two reluctantly team up to try and solve a murder.

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And the roles keep on coming, with Deadline most recently announcing that Essandoh has been cast as a series regular on CBS’s drama pilot The Code.

I got the chance to catch up with Essandoh, who currently calls Brooklyn home, to ask him how he got his start, his views on diversity in the entertainment industry and how he thinks Altered Carbon speaks to today’s world.

Robin Rothstein: You didn’t set out to be an actor when you went to college. How did you transition to acting?

Ato Essandoh: I was studying Chemical Engineering at Cornell. My plan was to go on to grad school and perhaps pursue a PhD. I had an inkling that I could be a research professor.

During my junior year, my girlfriend at the time dared me to do a play. I did, and that’s what planted the seed. Now, it wasn’t like I suddenly dropped everything, sold all my possessions and bought a bus ticket to LA. I graduated Cornell, and, instead of going to grad school, I got a job out in Rhode Island for a tech company. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and the job in Rhode Island paid me good money and, more importantly, granted the time to really figure out what I wanted to do.

So, I wrote a mission statement and sent it to my closest friends, using it as a motivating impetus to really figure things out. The more I explored, the more the acting bug kept nagging. Eventually, I found myself in NYC at another tech firm. My nights were free, so I signed up for classes at The Acting Studio and studied Meisner Technique under James Price.

I didn’t look back after that.

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We are in a renaissance for people of color.

RR: What was the beginning of your performance career like?

AE: I was doing a lot of downtown theater. I started at the Riant Theater doing original plays mostly written by the Riant’s artistic director, Van Dirk Fisher. It was at the Riant where I met and became friends with the playwright and screenwriter Joshua James. Josh inspired me to write my own plays and we often teamed up to write and produce play festivals at the Manhattan Theatre Source. The Theatre Source was a fantastic proving ground and that’s where I truly cut my acting teeth.

RR: How did you break in to TV?

AE: Third Watch. I played a bike messenger who got hit by a car. Most of my lines were me screaming in pain.

RR: During his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Sterling K. Brown talked about how, for most of his career until This Is Us, he benefited from colorblind casting, but that his role as Randall is different because it was specifically written for a Black man, that he is now being seen and appreciated for who he is. Do his sentiments and experiences resonate with you?

AE: I unfortunately didn’t see his speech, but I do appreciate him and the sentiment. I have been quite fortunate so far in my career. For whatever reason, I haven’t been typecast. Each role I have played, even the small ones, have been wonderfully varied and ranged. I feel like right now we are in the middle of a renaissance for people of color. Even though I feel that I have been lucky with the roles I’ve won. The roles coming down the pipe these days are even more exciting. It’s really a sea change. A substantial and paradigm-shifting sea change.

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RR: How did Altered Carbon come about and how do you feel about the character you play Vernon Elliot?

AE: Altered Carbon was just another audition. I sent in a tape and then I had a Skype meeting with Leata Kalogridis. When she outlined the arc for Vernon (and the show in general) I was sold!

Downtown theater is a proving ground; it’s where I cut my acting teeth.

RR: Altered Carbon plays on multiple levels. It’s a murder mystery, but at its core it is an examination of a violent and dystopian future. Do you see parallels between Altered Carbon and our world today?

AE: Absolutely. I think despair is the general zeitgeist nowadays. I place that squarely on the shoulders of our legislators and, in particular, on the president (who I shan’t name).

It’s funny because, clearly, the data on poverty, violence, war and suffering illustrate that humanity is experiencing an unprecedented era of relative peace and prosperity, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Why the despair? I think it’s because there still seems to be a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. And, as in Altered Carbon, the gap seems to be growing and insurmountable. There’s enough to go around and yet still people are suffering. And it doesn’t make sense. How is it possible, with our leaps in science, technology, medicine, agriculture that we are still squabbling over petty differences? We should be better than this, but we’re not. It’s so stupid and now look what we’ve put in the White House. If anybody is going to waltz us into a violent dystopian future, it’s that guy.

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RR: In episode four, Elliot says to the AI character Poe that “holidays are about families, flesh and blood, connecting — something you’ll never understand.” If this sentiment about connection is true, then what do you believe is driving humans in the show to maintain the disconnected and oppressive world they’ve created?

AE: It’s the technology. As much as I love social media and smart phones, they are killing our ability to socialize in the flesh as we’ve evolved to do. We are riding a technology that taps directly into our limbic system. It’s changing us faster than we can detect or react. It’s cutting us off from our evolved desire for true human-to-human interaction. Good news though: I think we’re waking up to it. There’s a groundswell of activism to support true human connection and a more mindful use of technology. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe.

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RR: What other sorts of roles do you look forward to playing in the future? Any acting or writing projects in the works that you’d like to plug?

AE: I’ve been lucky in what I’ve already been able to do. I want more of the same. I’ve been loving the time I’ve spent playing Doctor Latham on Chicago Med. There’s more of that on the way. I’ll also be in the next X-Men flick The Dark Phoenix. Oh, and I’m one of the voices in Marvel’s new scripted podcast “Wolverine: The Long Night” out now on Stitcher.

RR: Any advice for actors on staying the course during the ups and downs of their career? 

AE: This is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve been doing this since the late ’90s. There are absolutely no guarantees, but it takes time for things to break your way. Don’t let yourself get bitter, and if you do, get out.