Glass interviews British actor Paapa Essiedu

A hard act to follow Glass  talks to British actor Paapa Essiedu about how he almost became a doctor, accessibility in the acting industry and the challenges he has met along the way

AS Paapa Essiedu appears on screen via our Zoom call, he smiles enthusiastically – a good start to the warm and open conversation we are about to have. After watching videos, listening to podcasts and reading pieces on past interviews with Essiedu, his friendly, down-to-earth manner is clear. Raised in Walthamstow, the north-east London district I also grew up in, we instantly connect over our surprise at the recent gentrification of streets once infamous for their postcode wars.

Pappa Essiedu by Nick ThompsonPaapa Essiedu. Photograph: Nick Thompson

Essiedu reflects, “There is gentrification and then there’s like …  did I die and then come back 1,000 years later?” He adds, “We all love a well-made flat-white in the morning, but you still want there to be a certain kind of character, right?”

Although the place may have changed from the days of our childhood, so too has Essiedu, in ways even he could not have predicted. Once known for roles in high school drama productions and his skills in the 1st XI football team, Essiedu is now better associated with the Bafta Breakthrough Brits 2018 award, Sky’s Gangs of London and a performance that is all anyone can talk about in the BBC’s I May Destroy You, with rumours of nominations in the pipeline.

Pappa Essiedu by Nick ThompsonPaapa Essiedu. Photograph: Nick Thompson

Born in 1990 to Ghanaian parents, Essiedu’s father returned to Ghana when he was a baby and he was brought up by his mother, a fashion and design teacher. At the age of 11, he won a scholarship to attend Forest School in Walthamstow. It was here that Essiedu became passionate about pursuing a medical degree and also developed an interest in the school’s theatrical productions. “I was excited about studying medicine because you get to be a doctor who saves lives, it’s cool … but I think there was something renegade about acting that felt like it was a choice that I was making, as opposed to a choice that was being made for me.”

On paper, these careers have little in common but, as Essiedu argues, they both demand confident social skills. “Fifty per cent of [a doctor’s] job is being able to talk to people and make them feel at ease. Similarly, with acting it is about a love for people, for the people that we work with and for the characters that we play. We must observe and empathise with people, and not judge them. There is a huge crossover and that’s why it appeals to me.”

A last-minute detour from a medical degree at University College London led Essiedu to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he honed his craft and met aspiring poet Michaela Coel, who was already following a unique trajectory that would make her one of the most notable figures in the acting industry. “I remember we were in our first or second year and she told me ‘I’m doing a gig on the weekend’ and I said, ‘Oh sick! Where is it?’ and she replied, ‘Wembley Arena’.”

Pappa Essiedu by Nick ThompsonPaapa Essiedu. Photograph: Nick Thompson

For Essiedu and Coel, their university experience prepared them for the profession they were joining but “not in the way that we expected it to”. There were only three non-white students in their cohort and this highlighted cultural inequalities within the industry. “But that’s also the reality of the world that we live in,” Essiedu tell me. “I think it’s quite important that the quicker you know that, the quicker you are able to protect yourself against those challenges.”

In spite of his gratitude for the “amazing teachers and great experiences” he follows with, “When you look back on it, you think, ‘I can’t believe that happened and that’ … there was some dark stuff.”

In his third year, Essiedu was signed by leading talent agency Curtis Brown and shortly after made headlines when he stepped in mid-performance as Sam Troughton’s understudy for the role of Edmund in Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear at the National Theatre.

In 2016, Essiedu became the first black actor to play Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I remember when my agent rang to tell me, for like 10 or 20 seconds I was ecstatic. I had huge euphoria; it was a dream come true. But then the absolute fear sets in of actually having to do it and it’s like a bucket of cold water over your head.”

Pappa Essiedu by Nick ThompsonPaapa Essiedu. Photograph: Nick Thompson

Despite his fears, the compelling dynamism of his rendition of Hamlet won him the best performance accolade at the UK Theatre Awards and the 2016 Ian Charleson Award. When we speak, however, Essiedu shares the anguish that actors experience when inner doubts reinforce barriers built by inequality and privilege within the profession.

He also acknowledges the merits of pushing through when challenges occur. “It’s good for your mentality to be able to put yourself outside of what appears to be a comfort zone because eventually it teaches you that you can do it,” he says, adding, “This conversation is always going to be about opportunities. We need to give more people more opportunities for them to prove, both to their audience but also to themselves, that they can usurp these challenges.”

I May Destroy You, the raw, unflinching drama exploring the grey areas of consent, sexual assault and victimhood, is a perfect embodiment of what the future of these kinds of opportunities could look like. The programme follows Arabella, played by Michaela Coel, who also wrote and directed the series, as she unpicks hazy memories of a night out in which she is spiked and raped. The storyline is unique in its exploration of the experiences of not only Arabella but also her best friends, Terry and Kwame.

This paints a wider picture of the multi-faceted nature of sexual abuse. Essiedu plays Kwame, a fitness instructor, who begins the series confident and uninhibited until a sexual encounter traps him in a shell of trauma and vulnerability. As a gay black man, Kwame enacts the complexities of London’s dating culture and the uncharted waters of sexual violence.

Pappa Essiedu by Nick ThompsonPaapa Essiedu. Photograph: Nick Thompson

“When these kinds of stories are not centred in the way that they should be – and it appears that this was a rare moment for representation of these stories – it’s important that you get it right. For many people, it’s going to be the first time they’ve even thought about [sexual violence against gay men], or the first time they even connected to that as an idea. If you belittle it or if you trivialise them, it stops viewers from being able to understand the reality for so many people.”

One scene depicts the harsh reality starkly. When Kwame reports his rape to the police and is met with an incredulous and unprofessional response from an officer, it is painful to watch.   “It’s important to remember that structures of racism or structures of homophobia are also economic,” comments Essiedu. “If we rely on black people giving their time and their energy for free to educate other people on how to be better then they’re still being failed.

“The priority should be “economic reparation and rebalancing. It’s about employing more people at higher decision-making levels. Hiring more women at that level, more black women at that level, more black people at that level, more disabled people at that level … it’s about who’s being put in positions of power to actually enact change.”

Programmes like I May Destroy You go some way to address issues that the education system struggles with, he believes. “[With sex education] there is so much ‘do NOT do it because if you even look at someone in your physics set, you’ll get PREGNANT and that’ll ruin your life and then you’ll DIE’. How can those students then be expected to suddenly have a considered and educated understanding of consent?”

Essiedu has been “bowled over” by I May Destroy You’s diverse audience who have been gripped by its themes. “I know two women, an 80-year-old and a 70-year-old, who watch it religiously and want to talk about it, dissect it and figure it out,” he tells me, smiling again.

Pappa Essiedu by Nick ThompsonPaapa Essiedu. Photograph: Nick Thompson

Together, Coel and Essiedu collaborated to develop Kwame’s character in all its complexity. “We really bounce off each other, so [although] there was a responsibility, it was really easy. I felt really held and I think she probably liked how she could trust me with it as well.”

Essiedu found working with Coel liberating because she was always there to guide. “Michaela is just an endless gift,” he declares,  adding, “I hope it [I May Destroy You] offers more opportunity for black women to helm projects on mainstream channels because they are historically the group that are most blocked from doing so. I hope it shows big networks and channels that you can make work that is brave and special and doesn’t follow traditional expectations.”

Since I May Destroy You, Essiedu has returned to the stage with the Royal Court Theatre’s My White Best Friend, recently streamed online to ticket holders across the country. “It was a huge success [because of] the number of people watching. I don’t know the exact figures but each night it was bigger than the actual capacity of The Royal Court.”

The play offers a picture of the future landscape of theatre, he says. “It gets over that hurdle of the elitism of theatre. You not only have to be able to afford to pay for the ticket, but you still have to afford to get to the place where the play is being put on. Once we start utilising the internet and exploring how it works, we can go some way to vaulting over the accessibility issue.”

Pappa Essiedu by Nick ThompsonPaapa Essiedu. Photograph: Nick Thompson

I note how our social lives have also been affected by lockdown. “I think one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had, especially in this lockdown, is maintaining community,” he says. This prompts me to ask him what the word ‘together’ – the theme of this issue – means to him. “I think it means community … I really missed my friends and my family, they are the foundation of my life. Togetherness and community are incredibly important to me.”

But isolation has brought its blessings. Essiedu reveals he began writing a film during the lockdown. “It’s nothing to write about yet,” he adds with characteristic diffidence. “The application and self-discipline required from me – and the way my brain works to write – I find it really difficult.”

He adds, “As the goalposts change, you move on in your career and the stakes become bigger … I still find it hard to sit down and say, ‘wow, that was really good’ or ‘wow, I’m really happy with that’.” Hearing him acknowledge the importance of finding “time and space in your life when you just stop and think and breathe and accept”, however, is reassuring. “[It’s] something that I know that I need to get better at,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky but who knows, maybe I’ll go back to med-school at 35 or something?”

by Lily Rimmer

Photographer NICK THOMPSON



Post production NADIA SELANDER





Leather shirt, trousers, belt TOD’S
Under shirt PAUL SMITH


All clothing DIOR


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Under shirt, trousers and belt HERMÈS


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