Since receiving acclaim for playing Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Paapa Essiedu has appeared in the West End and on TV. Now starring in Pass Over at London’s Kiln Theatre, he tells Sam Marlowe about coping with media stereotyping, why self-care is important and worrying about choosing acting over a medical career
Paapa Essiedu is working so hard that he has forgotten what day it is. Literally. “It’s Monday, right?” he says. It’s Friday. “Argh, yeah. This play’s so intense.”
The play in question is US writer Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, a crystalline, poetic drama about race in the US. In terms of its structure, stark theatricality and humane profundity, it draws on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s also partly inspired by the Exodus, and by the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.
It is indeed intense, and so, too, is Essiedu, an actor of blazing talent whose intelligence and charisma are every bit as striking in person as they are on stage or screen. He is also warm and drily funny, speaking with an unforced, articulate passion and a frankness that feels a million miles from the carefully rehearsed, polished pronouncements of many seasoned industry pros.
‘Every single line in Pass Over is like a molecule, packed with energy and information, about character, relationships or the environment’
Indhu Rubasingham is directing Pass Over at the Kiln Theatre in London, where she has been artistic director since 2012, and, Essiedu says, she’s working towards something special. “It feels like it’s starting to heat up. Indhu’s doing a really good job of slow-cooking it. She’s taking her time to add all the flavours in and get it to the temperature it needs to be to work. It’s a very well-structured and deliberately wrought play, so there’s a lot of different layers and mechanical pieces that need to function in tandem. It’s so finely written.”
Much of Essiedu’s work has been in large companies, and often in Shakespeare (“I love Shakespeare. I mean, he’s a famous guy for a reason, right?”). He understudied Sam Troughton as Edmund in Sam Mendes’ King Lear in 2014, and attracted considerable attention and admiration by stepping into the role mid-performance, when Troughton’s voice failed him. And in 2016 he was a multi-award-winning Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Pass Over – which has a cast of just three – feels like quite a shift. He admits he’s always been slightly nervous of making such intimate theatre – “what happens if you just don’t get on with someone?” Luckily, though, Gershwyn Eustache Jr and Alexander Eliot, his co-stars, are both “brave souls and really up for it – I feel very lucky”.
Nwandu, who was involved in early rehearsals at the Kiln, cites Pinter and Churchill as influences, as well as Beckett; Essiedu was among the cast of Jamie Lloyd’s epic West End theatre event Pinter at the Pinter and can see the parallels in how “clinical they are with their writing, how intentional”. He adds: “Every single line – even a one-word line – is like a molecule, packed with energy and information, about character, about relationships, about the environment. Antoinette’s super-smart. The play has a limitless subterranean world to be mined, and that’s very similar to those three playwrights.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Shop assistant in a Co-Op pharmacy.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Dutchman at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Learn your lines well enough to look like you’re making them up.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t get into costume until the last moment.
Essiedu summarises Nwandu’s drama – in which two African-American men, Moses and Kitch, linger on an urban corner under a streetlight, like Vladimir and Estragon beneath their blasted tree – as exploring what it is to be “young, black, and male in America”. It has a shattering power, and is also full of vitality and humour. “You only need to turn on the news to see endless examples of obstacles that young black American men are put up against,” says Essiedu. “But the reality is that nobody ever plays the misery of their lives, nobody ever sits in how shit it is. In this play you’re looking at two guys who are occupying that space between boyhood and manhood – before you lose that childish wonder, and humour, and optimism, but you’re kind of like too big for your body. So hope still exists, and fight still exists, even in the face of really overt racism – which enshrouds your entire life – you believe that you can get out.”
Also key to the drama is the idea of the American Dream. “That’s so interesting, because that’s still quite homogenously a vision seen through the eyes of the middle American white nuclear family: if you work hard, you can become a CEO. America is composed of so much more than just that, but everyone buys into it, from the guy selling drugs on the street corner to the kid who’s raised in Rhode Island or wherever.”
So how will this speak to a British audience? Essiedu argues that the parallels are real and undeniable. “I don’t know if racism here is any less overt, personally. I definitely don’t think it’s any less systemic. We look at America, and it has the biggest prison population in the world. But in this country you’re four times more likely to be arrested if you’re black than if you’re white for the same crime, and you’re likely to receive a longer sentence, and you’re less likely to be able to get parole. And it’s top down. We have a prime minister with a long track record of racist remarks – ‘piccanninies’, ‘bank robbers’, ‘letter boxes’ – and this is the guy that is the face of our country.
“Just talk to people that have had encounters with the police. Thank God, our police officers on the beat don’t carry loaded weapons – they don’t carry guns. So of course fewer people will be shot by police – our Black Lives Matter is going to have a different sensibility to it. But ‘Stop and Search’ is, for me, one of the most violent things you can do to a community in terms of putting fear into people, and creating distance between one race and another. This play is set in an American city, but it’ll be fascinating to see whether audiences can see their own country in it.”
When the play opened at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017, it provoked a furore, not just because of the potency of the writing and staging (Spike Lee was so impressed that he made a film of the production), but because of the shocking critical response to it. Hedy Weiss, then the long-standing theatre critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, sniped, in her astonishingly tone-deaf review, at Nwandu’s portrayal of a white, racist police officer and asserted that the work could better have shifted its focus to black-on-black crime. Her pronouncements were publicly condemned by the theatre community.
Does Essiedu expect better from the London critics? “I try not to read reviews, but…” he sighs and smiles ruefully. “I’m not hugely hopeful. Look at the media – look at this whole Meghan and Harry thing – it just makes it really obvious what the agenda is: if it sells newspapers and gets clicks, people will do it. Look at Laurence Fox on Question Time [on the BBC]. It feels very clearly motivated. I challenge the press not to follow in those footsteps.”
‘Theatre is an extension of the world at large – I don’t think it’s useful to separate the two’
Essiedu’s own experiences with the media have taught him to be wary. When he played Hamlet, he was made standard bearer for black artists, whether he liked it or not: little that was written about him, or his performance, failed to mention that he was the first black actor to take on the role at the RSC.
“It makes me quite angry when I look back,” he says. “I was 25 years old when that was happening. It was my first major role. And it was Hamlet. So all I really wanted to do was focus on what was a very daunting task. It’s a scary thing, and there’s a lot at stake, it feels like your life could end if this goes wrong. And I really do think that journalists who write these articles need to look at themselves. Like, why does that feel like the thing that is most interesting, most zeitgeisty, to focus on? What does that say about the greater culture of the way we treat our artists and try to profile them? Not that I’m owed anything by the press and the media, and I’ve had wonderful experiences with journalists, and I really enjoy talking to the intelligent ones. But when journalism becomes reductive, when journalists try to zero in on something and make it all about that one thing, which doesn’t take in the multiplicity of wonderful things there could be to discuss about an artist and their artistry…”
When it comes to diversity, Essiedu says: “Theatre is an extension of the world at large. I personally don’t think it’s useful to separate the two. In terms of whether it’s moving forward, to me it’s really inspiring to see women and people of colour in meaningful positions within the structure of the theatre profession.” He cites Nadia Fall, Lynette Linton, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan as artists whose appointments as artistic directors have been “really buoying, and long may it continue”.
But there is, of course, still an enormous amount of work to be done. “Over the past four years, the conversation seems to be at least developing and moving, and partly thanks to social media there’s more vocabulary to deal with it, because of the amazing work that’s being done by activists and other artists around the world. It’s so obvious to say this – but talent can’t happen along ethnic lines.
“There’s talent everywhere, and it’s clear that structurally, opportunity has been suppressed in some areas, and of course when you start removing some of those structures of repression, people start flourishing. It’s not rocket science. So it’s not like there’s suddenly loads of really talented black and brown artists – they’ve always been there. But the door has been tight shut. Like: ‘Maybe one person can come in, David Oyelowo can come in, but that’s it – shut it again,’ you know?”
Essiedu works with Open Door, which helps widen access to drama schools through a scheme of workshops, tuition and mentoring. Growing up in Walthamstow, east London, he had no real access to theatre, and says he didn’t really know what acting was. “The only actors I kind of knew about were people on EastEnders, or in movies, but I thought of them as the characters – who cares about how it actually happens?” The turning point came in his late teens, when he joined the National Youth Theatre. He says: “I had a mate that had been there. And then I fell in love with it, the storytelling of it, the thrill of it, doing plays in front of an audience. I guess there must be a kind of narcissism to it – ‘look at me’ – I can’t ever fully buy into the idea that actors have total humility.”
Essiedu was smitten enough with the stage to chuck away a place at UCL, where he had already been accepted to read medicine, and instead went to Guildhall. “That was a very steep learning curve for me. I felt that I arrived with nothing, and quite a long way behind a lot of my peers, both in terms of the way I felt educated about theatre, and experience. It was a very challenging period.”
Did he enjoy it? “At the time I did, I think. I wonder if everyone looks back on their schooling and higher education and five years later thinks: ‘Wait a second…’ I didn’t ever play a character that was my own race the whole time I was at the school. Never. And all the teachers were white. So I look back on that and think: ‘Maybe that was a bit weird.’ But I met my best friends in the world there, and I had amazing teachers. It was an incredible training in the craft, which set me up to enter the industry with at least a bit of a shot – because it’s fucking hard…”
That career choice – to become an actor rather than a doctor – felt like a massive risk, but it’s certainly paid off. As well as becoming one of theatre’s most exciting performers, he’s also a commanding screen presence: among his credits are dramas by Jack Thorne and Mike Bartlett, and he’s just wrapped on a new series about sexual violence and consent, January 22nd, starring, written and co-directed by his former Guildhall classmate Michaela Coel.
‘I didn’t play a character that was my own race the whole time I was at drama school’
For 10 years he lived with fellow actors, moving out into his own place just a year ago – and those alliances are, he says, precious and essential. “You have to do a lot of self-preservation and self-care to do this job: 90% of it is not the acting, it’s making sure you’re ready for it. So you need to do anything you can – the maintenance, the protection of your mental health, your friendships and your sense of self. They’re so important. And obviously that all feeds into the work that you’ll eventually do. But you’ve gotta be there for each other.”
So what does the future hold? Is there any chance we’ll lose him to Hollywood? “I don’t really think like that. I’m really comfortable being led, project by project, by what I find inspiring, and stories that I think are important and innovative. I’m also interested in creating work myself, and writing, and directing, that kind of stuff. So I don’t think about it in as linear a way as ‘I want to be on Sunset Boulevard’ or ‘I want to be in a Marvel film’, or even ‘I want to play that particular role’.” So it’s a more holistic approach? “Well, yeah, but that makes me sound so wanky. I don’t want to say I’m trying to be holistic out here, you know.” He laughs. “But yeah. My ambitions are not about chasing fame.”
Born: 1990, Walthamstow, east London
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
• King Lear, National Theatre, London (2014)
• You for Me for You, Royal Court, London (2015)
• King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company (2016)
• Hamlet, RSC (2016)
• Pinter One, Harold Pinter Theatre, London (2018)
• The Convert, Young Vic, London (2018)
• Not Safe for Work (2015)
• The Miniaturist (2017)
• Kiri (2018)
• Press (2018)
• Black Earth Rising (2018)
• Ian Charleson award (2016)
Agents: Lara Beach at Curtis Brown; Sean Liebowitz and Adam Schweitzer at ICM
Pass Over runs at London’s Kiln Theatre from February 13 to March 21, with press night on February 19