Despite the pandemic, actor Paapa Essiedu has had quite a prolific year. Right off the heels of the critically acclaimed I May Destroy You, on which he played the understated yet complex Kwame, Essiedu is on our screens again, this time in a completely different role. Diving into the seedy underbelly of London, Essiedu’s newest project, Gangs of London explores the violent and rivalrous workings of the city’s most prominent gangs and organized crime organizations. Essiedu plays Alex Dumani, the son of family head Ed Dumani, who assists main character Sean Wallace in taking his father’s place as head of the most powerful criminal network in London after his untimely murder. “The most violent show on TV” captivated audiences in the UK, and now it has finally made its way to the states by way of AMC.
What was most important to Essiedu in portraying Alex Dumani was a sense of humanity. The actor was shocked to learn that the criminals he and his fellow cast mates portray are just like us; they could be at the bus stop next to you or sitting across from you at your local coffee shop. That comfort and familiarity is what allowed Essiedu to portray such an intense member of a crime family so authentically. Alex Dumani is charismatic, the face of his organization, so authenticity and charm was absolutely key.
Essiedu has proved himself an incredibly versatile performer. He started his career on the stage, and in 2016 played Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has continued to perform the bard’s work in productions like King Lear, and plans to continue to act on stage as soon as theaters begin to open up. As for his groundbreaking role in I May Destroy You, it’s easy to see the uncomfortable parallels between the experiences of the characters on HBO’s I May Destroy You and the very injustices that the Black Lives Matter movement fights against today. But to Essiedu, the timing of the show is just a product of more people finally engaging with issues the show’s creators have been passionate about for years. Essiedu wants viewers to see that this fight has been long-present before the current surge of protesting.
We sat down with Paapa Essiedu to talk about his theater background, as well as his groundbreaking roles on I May Destroy You and Gangs of London. Check out the full interview below.
You have been really making waves across the pond over here with your incredible performances in I May Destroy You and Gangs of London. Can you tell us about how your started your career as an actor?
I never grew up wanting to be an actor. I actually never really grew up knowing that being an actor was even a job. It was so divorced from my experience. I grew up in single parent, low-income family. I didn’t have any actors or really any artists in my family or my social circle. I’ve always loved television. I’ve always loved film, but I never went to the theater for the first time until I was 18. I was going to be a doctor. Because when you’re the son of a West African woman, that’s pretty much the only option that you’re given; you can be a doctor or you can be an accountant.
But I was lucky enough to join the National Youth Theater, which I think a lot of actors do in this country. I only did it because I had a free summer and a friend there who said it was a really good way to meet girls! But then there was something about being surrounded by a community of people that were fully passionate and excited about cool plays and film scripts and acting that led me to apply to drama school and let the dream of being a doctor fall by the wayside.
I spent the first five years of my career just doing plays and theater and stage work, because I felt like I needed that time to really learn what it meant to do deep work, layered work, work that develops as you go on. I felt like I needed that kind of benchmark or foundation in my craft before I started moving on to more screen-based projects.
You did the first Black Hamlet in 2016. Was that a really big deal for you to play that character, which is traditionally white? How do you feel about that performance?
Obviously when you’re asked to play Hamlet by a company like the RSC it’s always exciting, and mainly terrifying actually; you spend however long auditioning for the part and when you get it, there’s like a 10-second period where you’re ecstatic and elated. But then you feel proper fear that covers you like a bucket of ice. Suddenly all you see is all the people that went before you. You see Michael Sheen, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Kenneth Branagh, and all you see is that that’s not you.
But obviously that was a great opportunity. But it was difficult, the way it was framed. So consistently in the media, an important aspect of it was my Blackness. That was difficult for me to consistently field questions about. I didn’t feel like those questions were necessarily thought through or sophisticated. And it’s difficult when that’s your first interaction en masse with the media: that there seems to be an almost obsession with your race when all you’re trying to do is do something that’s already incredibly challenging and highly pressured regardless of that. It was an experience of great highs and a couple moments of difficulty, but a real turning point in my career.
I May Destroy You is quite a departure from your previous stage roles in Hamlet and King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Did you find translating your performance techniques from stage to TV challenging?
I wouldn’t say [it was] quite difficult per se. The fundamentals of the two mediums are actually the same: really you’re looking for something that is true. Something that is realistic. Something that resonates with the viewer or the audience. The only difference is in one medium you’re trying to say your line so that someone 40 meters away from you can still hear it. So, it was a transition, but because I felt like I had that grounding in a pursuit of truth, it kind of happened in a fairly linear way.
I understand that you went to Guildhall School of Drama with your co-star and the creator of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel. Did you have to audition for the part? It must have been a really amazing experience performing with such a close friend.
I think we’re always blessed if we get to work with our friends in this industry. But I definitely had to audition for it because [Michaela] wasn’t thinking of me when she wrote the character (I don’t think, anyway). Me and her would be talking about this show that she was writing, and obviously as a friend my attention was more on that, and about how she was going to navigate that writing process. I was never really thinking about: “oh, by the way, is there a part for me in it?”
It’s funny because the casting director, the wonderful Julie Harkin, went to Michaela and said, “have you thought about Paapa for this part?” And she was like “what, really? Paapa?” And she said “yeah, I think he’d be great!” So I ended up hearing about it from the casting director not Michaela. So I rang [Michaela] and was like “why have you not even told me about this thing?” And she was like “I don’t know! I never thought about you for it.” So that’s why Arabella has got my surname [Essiedu]. I don’t think she ever imagined she’d work with me on this. I don’t think being friends with Michaela necessarily means that you’re more likely to be included. If anything it’s going to be the opposite.
With regard to your role on the show, were you given a lot of creative license? Was it heavily scripted or was the performance more improvisational?
We started from the script, which Michaela spent two and a half years writing. That was definitely the jump-off point that all of us were working from. But she’s incredibly collaborative as a creative, so all of it kind of felt like it was a constant conversation between the two of us. We created something that we felt we had joint ownership of, especially with Kwame. With Kwame, there were so many different versions of him. There had to be lots of versions of him that we fought over, and then lived and died with. Then we flattened him out to the version that you see on the show. That’s full marks to Michaela for allowing me to bring what I wanted to bring to [Kwame]; to allow him to be someone that I felt had depth and dimension and flaws and complications and complexity.
Do you have any personal experiences you pulled from when playing Kwame?
It’s quite important to allow the character to exist independently of me; not for me to come with any of my own judgments or preconceptions. I wanted him to have his autonomy. So I did loads of research and I spoke to a lot of people that have had very similar experiences to him. [Kwame and I] are both Black men in Britain who come into conflict with the world that we live in. So there’s a lot of crossover in that sense, but I really didn’t want it to be me doing Kwame. I wanted Kwame to exist in his own brilliance and beauty.
The show and Kwame’s experiences with his app date shed light on male sexual assault, which is a rather taboo subject, rarely presented in TV and films – was it difficult to film such a traumatic experience? I understand you had an intimacy coach for the scene?
We did have an intimacy coordinator on set with us for the more physical scenes, and I think that just allowed us to do it properly. The last thing that you want when you’re trying to do those scenes is there to be an interruption of your own ego. No one wants to see me second-guessing what the other actor is doing, or second-guessing myself. No one wants to see my own self-consciousness or anything like that. They just want to see Kwame and what he is going through. They want to clearly see what has been happening; what is being done to him in the cleanest way possible. I think that’s the most important thing to do in order to respect the enormity of what happens. This is the experience of so many people, so I think it was really important that we accurately and fearlessly portray it. The intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, allowed us to do that because she’s amazing. She works in sex education, and what she’s brilliant at is creating an atmosphere where everybody feels safe and everybody feels alert about what’s happening. Nothing is left to chance, nothing is improvised. There’s still a freedom for that structure in which everyone knows what everyone is doing, which allows you to properly invest in the immediacy of the moment.
Its heart wrenching to see Kwame’s experience reporting his sexual assault to the police compared to Arabella’s. Kwame’s experiences in particular, shine an uncomfortable light on how queer black people are often treated differently – tell us about this scene and what it meant to you playing it? Did you learn anything new about the reporting system and its prejudices while filming? I think this scene was particularly eye opening for many viewers.
I think a really important thing to recognize is that we dealing with a Black gay man who’s coming to the police for help, and in the UK, Black men are not generally considered to be the victims when they walk into a station. They’re considered and expected to be the aggressors or the perpetrators, so that really doesn’t play into the protection of a Black queer man looking for help and protection, or to talk about what’s happened to him.
And I think that is really effectively played against Arabella’s experience. We have to remember that Kwame’s present for Arabella’s experience with the police. He sees those two women [officers] say to her “what you’ve done is right,” and “more people need to be like you,” and “if only everyone had the courage to report what happened to them, then none of these predators would get away with what they do.” Kwame sees and hears that, so he feels that maybe, “I’ve got the agency and I’ve got the worth to do the same thing.” But it very quickly becomes clear that he’s not valued in the same way. He’s not seen as being worth the same amount of care and attention because of who he is. And that’s the intersection of homophobia, of racism; of sexism; there’s a lot going on. If we can’t trust those institutions that are meant to protect us, how can we say that they’re the right people to plan the whole of those responsibilities?
As far as the timing of the show, it was incredible with regards to what’s happened with the Black Lives Matter movement. This show brought some very raw truth to that conversation, it’s almost like fate. How did you feel about that?
I think it’s an interesting question, because we made this show a year ago. Who ever knows about the backdrop around which your show is being released into? The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t a new movement to any of the Black creatives that were working on this show. It’s been in our minds since we were born, because we’re racialized immediately.
The fact that there are more eyes on it now, more engagement with that movement is definitely brilliant for us in making [the show] and making the provocations and challenges, and asking the questions that we do. That’s already there for us and always has been. It is today and will definitely be tomorrow and for the days afterwards. So we’re consistent in what our beliefs are, what our politics are. And at a time like now, obviously it’s even more important that other people also engage with this. So for me, there’s no change.
A show like I May Destroy You really brings to the forefront a more intimate point of view on many of these subjects.
A lot of the focus has been on George Floyd, but also there’s been a huge focus on Breonna Taylor and her murder at the hands of the police as a queer Black trans woman. So the pathway of what happens to Kwame and how he’s treated, or ostracized and pushed aside by the police, versus what happens to Breonna Taylor and the fact that her murderers have still not been arrested and charged by the police; there’s not that much of a chasm between those two events. They definitely do speak to each other.
Tell us about Gangs of London, airing now in the US. What is your role in the show, and what can we look forward to from the series?
Gangs of London couldn’t be more different to I May Destroy You. It’s a much more epic, operatic, hyper, violent piece. It’s directed by Gareth Evans, who’s famous for cult films, like The Raid and The Raid 2. The show looks at this underworld of London where crime and violence turbo charge all the money that passes through the city and pays for huge skyscrapers to be built and big businesses to flourish. It looks at the intersection between the criminal underworld and the more palatable aesthetic of these businesses.
I play a guy called Alex Dumani, who is the face of this organization. He’s the guy who can make the money work and do all the business meetings and can give speeches in front of shareholders. He’s the charisma that covers up the seedy, violent, nasty underworld, which goes hand in hand with this story.
What sort of research did you do to get into character? It’s such a different role from what you have played previously.
Again, I think a consistent thing for me is that I don’t want [the character] to be me. It’s not about me. So a lot of my research looked at how in London, businesses often have these shell companies attached to them, which have got slightly more shady operations. So I read a lot and watch a hell of a lot of YouTube videos about those kinds of people.
I think you’d be surprised by how close in proximity we are to these kinds of men and women. It’s not necessarily people that are all the way over there; they’re probably sat next to you in your coffee shop or in your cinema or restaurant. They’re normal people. I applied my research to make [Alex] something that wasn’t so alien to the normal person’s expectation.
Are you working on anything at the moment? Are there any other productions we can look forward to?
There’s a couple of films that I’m working on, but obviously it’s a really difficult time right now for this industry, because we’re trying to think about how we can work in a safe way and in a way that kind of allows the quality of the work we do to remain as high as it is. There’s a couple of film projects that I’m attached to that we’re thinking about how we can work on without compromising the ambition or the size of it. So we haven’t got started yet. In the UK we’re just starting to get properly started with these productions again, and we’re learning a lot as we go about how/what the best way to act safely is.
But I’m really excited for the next 6 to 12 months, and have been having lots of amazing conversations with people. Hopefully something as exciting as I May Destroy You and Gangs of London will come up next.
Do you see yourself going back to the stage? Or are you going to pursue more films and TV?
I’ve been really lucky to be given opportunities in both mediums, and I would love to continue doing stage work because theater is my first love. There is still no substitution for doing a play in front of an audience and having them experience a story with you in the same room. It’s kind of like the blood, sweat and tears is both of yours. There’s something so visceral about that experience. So I definitely would love to continue doing a play a year or every 18 months or so. We have to support our theaters to make sure that there are theaters to come back to after this pandemic. Because at the moment our theaters are in real danger.
Are there any words of wisdom that you live by?
I used to do quite a lot of sports; athletics and football. And my mom always said, “you run fastest at the end of the race, not at the beginning.” Even though it doesn’t appear to be a particularly sophisticated quote, I think there’s something really profound about it that can be applied to so many aspects of our lives. We’ve all got such a desire to have it all the first day, and we want it all now. I feel like if we’re lucky enough one day to have perspective over our lives, we actually want to build momentum and be working at a greater rate as we go along, as opposed to getting it all now and then running out of steam, or doing it all now and having everyone forget about you.
It’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself to have everything right now, it’s good to be able to make sure that you are just ready for opportunities when they come, and opportunities will continue coming. Just make sure you’re ready to run fastest at the end of your race.