It’s full speed ahead for Ato Essandoh who stars in HBO’s Vinyl and in this summer’s blockbuster film, Jason Bourne, alongside Matt Damon. The actor talks to us about the action-packed role, working with Hollywood legends and why fame is no big deal.
Ato Essandoh first discovered that acting might be his calling in college at Cornell University—by literally getting a phone call. A student association was putting on a play and the director asked if he would be interested in being in it. On a whim, Essandoh said yes. “Then I did it, and it was the best experience I ever had,” he says. Still, he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering—following in the footsteps of his father, who is an electrical engineer and worked at General Electric. Only later did Essandoh pursue acting full-time, eventually landing a breakout role on the BBC America’s Copper, where he played a Civil War doctor. Next came reoccurring television stints (Elementary, Girls) and memorable parts in critically-praised films (Blood Diamond, Django Unchained).
The Schenectady-born actor, whose parents are from Ghana, currently stars as a blues singer in HBO’s Vinyl, and this summer, he’ll tackle the role of a CIA operative in Jason Bourne. While his career is going full throttle, Essandoh remains totally grounded. “I don’t feel like I’ve arrived, but there’s nothing else I can do now,” he jokes. “I don’t think I have any other discernable skills!” Here, Essandoh gives us a glimpse into his life, on screen and off.
You’ve worked with some of Hollywood’s best directors, including Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained. What is he like?
Quentin is fantastic. He’s like, ‘If I cast you, you know what you’re doing, so I’m not worried.’ He plays music on set, everybody sorta bounces around. My part is pretty intense and awful and I just remember sitting in the tree where he was shooting and before action, he’s making a joke. I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m trying to get into [character]…’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, oh yeah, sorry!’ But he’s like, ‘I trust you, and I need you to loosen up a little bit.’ One of his great skills, besides writing, is that he casts perfectly.
You’re also cast very well as the blues singer Lester Grimes in Vinyl, directed by Martin Scorsese. How did you prep for the role?
I’ve been playing the guitar for a while as a hobby, and I can hold a tune. I went through a couple of callbacks. I was like, ‘They keep calling me back, this is weird. They haven’t asked me if I play the guitar.’ So I taped myself playing and singing and I sent it to [the music supervisors] and I’m like, ‘Just please watch this.’ Then they’re like, ‘Oh you play the guitar?’ Finally, they’re like ‘Alright, Marty says it’s alright for you to play the guitar. But they are looking at me, like ‘Dude. Do not screw this up.’ So every day I’m practicing, I learn every note, every single guitar riff note for note, by ear, no lessons. So Martin Scorsese, the legend, comes to the set. He looks at me, standing in front of all the musicians with my guitar, the whole crowd. He says, ‘Ok, go ahead, let’s see what you got.’ The music starts playing over the click track. And boom, I start playing and I crush it, crussssh it. Marty comes out and he’s like ‘Ok, that was terrific.’
Was he intense as a director?
I think he loves actors. I remember we were shooting a scene and he comes up to me and he says, ‘I’m just trying to figure out if I should do this or this…’ I’m like, ‘Marty, I don’t know what you should do. You’re Martin Scorsese!’ Then he starts talking about his methodology and he’s working out how he’s going to shoot the scene. He’s just talking aloud and not in a pretentious way. I realized I got a graduate level dissertation in directing right there for five minutes.
Speaking of career highlights, tell us about the new Jason Bourne movie.
It’s one of those movies that’s top secret. [My agent and manager] were like, ‘You should go in for this new Bourne movie but we don’t know what the character will be.’ I love the Bourne movies but if I’m going in to do a line for the pizza delivery guy…then I don’t think it’s worth it. They’re like, ‘It’s the Bourne movie, just go in and we’ll figure it out.’ So I do the audition. Three or four months later, I get the part and learn that I’m one of the CIA operatives trying to look for Jason Bourne, and I’m like, “Oh, okay now!’ Next thing I know I’m on a plane to England to meet [director] Paul Greengrass and start shooting.
Was Matt Damon as nice in real life as he seems in interviews?
Damon is awesome; he’s a good dude. He is just a great guy—and ridiculously famous. For one scene, Damon comes out and explains to the extras how the blanks in the gun work. To demonstrate, he puts the gun together like click, click, boom, because he’s Jason Bourne. He’s done this. So then there’s this scene where I have a gun. And you know [lowers voice], I’m a guy and I’m like ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ Matt Damon is standing over there, and they put this gun in my hand and I just want to shoot off a couple [blanks] to make sure I know what I’m doing. The gunsmith is like, ‘Uhh, ok it’s a pretty hard trigger.’ But I’m like, ‘I got it.’ So I put the gun to the side and I start trying to pull it. I’m like, ‘Um, I can’t pull it. It’s so hard!’ I see Damon shake his head and sigh. My stock went down a little. I’m not that dangerous. Those are the things that crack me up!
Is it a sentimental moment when you finish a film and say goodbye to the crew?
A lot of times it’s a haze of alcohol. As long as you leave the wrap party alive that’s good. You know, conscious is good!
What’s next for you? Do you have a dream role you’d love to do at some point?
Man, I used to think that way but honestly, whatever is going to come next, will come next. A Marvel movie would be great. But I never thought I’d be doing Vinyl; I never thought I’d be doing a Bourne movie. So I just [tell myself], ‘Relax, this is a great life.’ I love what I’m doing.
Photograph by Michael Williams