Ato Essandoh is an American stage, film, and TV actor. After graduating with a B.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell, he eventually found himself in New York studying at the Acting Studio. Since then, he’s been seen on stage in the critically acclaimed productions of Streamers at the Roundabout Theatre, Mother Courage and Her Children with Meryl Streep at the Public, and Death of a Salesman at Yale Rep. His film credits include Hitch, Blood Diamond, Nights in Rodanthe, and a hilarious turn as Natalie Portman’s adopted brother Titembay in Garden State. TV credits include Law and Order, Third Watch, Royal Pains, and Chappelle’s Show, among others. He most recently played the lead in John Guare’s classic play, Six Degrees of Separation, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, receiving a host of stellar reviews for his performance.
He is the co-founder of the Defiant Ones writing and performance group, and one of his plays was published in the venerable Plays & Playwrights collection in 2003.
His impression of Al Pacino is incredible. He’d also probably impersonate you if you wanted.
How did you find your way from majoring in chemical engineering at Cornell to becoming an actor? That’s a pretty drastic transition.
Yeah, and it was pretty random. Here’s the story: I was at home alone at the place I shared with a bunch of my friends when I get a phone call from this woman from the Chinese Student Association. She asks, “Is Marcus home?” Marcus was one of my best friends and he’s basically my doppelganger – like a light skinned version of me. “We’re doing this play and we’re wondering if he’d like to be a part of it.” I actually started laughing because I knew he wouldn’t be interested. And then she said, “Theres a quick turnaround so we really need someone today if possible. Would you be interested?” And all of a sudden I just had this anxiety attack. I started shaking and stammering, and I’m just like: What’s wrong with me? I told her I’d call her back.
You were freaked out about the idea of performing?
In hindsight, yeah, I was freaked out about the idea of doing it. But also excited about it? It was just in the moment. So I called my girlfriend at the time and she starts laughing at me and she’s like, “Dude. Of course you’re gonna do this.” So I call the woman back and two days later I’m in rehearsal, and all my chemical engineering buddies are just like, “What the hell are you doing?” They couldn’t believe I was doing this play. And this other actress in my scene is really cool, and she’s teaching me all the acting terms like what ‘blocking’ is and what ‘stage left’ and ‘stage right’ are – but i’m having the TIME OF MY LIFE. Cannot believe how much I like this. And finally we do the production – and I’m the only non-Chinese person in the cast. 300 people showed up, 90% are Chinese. And then five friends who showed up to laugh at me. Finally my scene comes up. It’s set up as a blind date – and the last person these people are expecting to see is a 6’4 black guy come out – and the audience just explodes! I’ll never forget that feeling, ever.
So did you switch majors at that point?
Well I was on my way to get my PhD – applying for grad schools, stuff like that. But I changed my mind and decided to graduate with my B.S. and go off and ‘find myself’ or whatever you want to call it. I moved to Rhode Island and, basically said the next few years are to do whatever I’ve always wanted to try. I’m taking scuba diving lessons, French lessons, whatever. I was doing a really easy, mindless job. But I kept coming back to the acting thing. That was where my head was. So a couple years later I moved back to NYC to start taking acting classes.
You never worked a chemical engineering job?
Never. I was a software consultant, selling battery backups for computers, temp work, all that stuff. But I made the decision to pursue acting.
What was your first show in New York?
The first one I remember was called Speak Out. The voice coach for a school put on a show to showcase speaking skills. I played Frederick Douglass and did these long, big monologues. Then I did Checkhov’s The Bear - a short play, and then I did an Off-Broadway production of Our Town.
How long was it before you didn’t need a day job anymore?
I got an agent after Our Town, and did a few Law & Orders, and then I got a great part in Hitch, (the Will Smith movie). I’d been in New York five or six years at this point. And that paid quite well and did well in the theaters and I got a lot of residuals. I also started doing diversity training for corporations – these big corporations would hire actors to teach them about diversity [laughs]. And for the next few years I was able to live off that.
Was your family always supportive of the acting?
At first, they weren’t quite sure. They thought I’d be a chemical engineer, you know, but after a while when I started doing the TV shows and they saw me on TV and knew I was doing other shows they could be like, “OK, he knows what he’s doing.” Also, I was producing my own theatre as well.
You started your own company?
Yeah, my friend and I started a group called “The Defiant Ones.” I wrote a bunch of plays, shorter plays and a few full-lengths. I certainly remember it being this very fervent time where I was really excited and working all the time, but I only had $17 in my bank account and sometimes I was just like: “What are you DOING,” you know? But I lucked out with parents and friends – I owe them a lot of time and money and hugs. They’ve really helped me out over the years.
Younger actors tend to think that once you get an agent your path suddenly changes, (I know I was in this boat, as well), but really there seems to be a lot more terrain to navigate.
Like I tell everybody – you can’t be a 24/7 actor. If your whole life is about your headshots, who your agent is, what your next gig is, you’re not really living. You don’t have anything to pull from when you play a character. I mean you can certainly be a successful actor this way, but you have to have other things to pull from.
A funny story: When I first started getting sent out [on auditions] I was getting this amazing feedback, and things felt really hot, and I was going out on these amazing things, and I was like: I’m going to get an Oscar in six months! No problem. And after this one audition the casting director said, “My good friend is casting this Martin Scorsese movie, let me give her your name.” And, again, I was like: Yup! Six months and I’m done. Six months tops. Me and Bobby D are going to hang out! You know, that whole thing.
The audition was for Gangs of New York – but there was still no script, so my audition was just a really generic monologue from the movie. And I was this really green actor, so I worked it over so many times, like “How should I say this? Who is this guy? Should I go in there with a limp?” You know, all these actor-y bullshit things that we feel like we have to add in. And I get there and they’re like: “Just do the monologue.” And I do this big character and she stops me and she’s just like, “No, just say it. Speak to me.” And I’m sweating and freaking out, but I get a callback AT Martin Scorsese’s office. And he’s not there, but it’s his office and there’s all these posters of these movies I’ve watched and loved. And I go in there and I’m basically trying to be Daniel Day-Lewis. And I was so nervous, you know? And I feel like I might as well have gone in there and shat on her desk and it would’ve been better than what I’d done.
It was that bad?
I leave the audition and I’m borderline suicidal. I’m like: my career’s over. Scorsese’s going to call everyone in Hollywood and I’ll never work again. I’m like, “Should I go back to engineering?” And I call my best friend Marcus and he’s like, “So how long were you in the room?” I tell him, “Five minutes.” And he says, “So.. that’s your whole life? Five minutes?”
And however he said it, I don’t know, it was suddenly like it clicked to me that he was right. Because such a big part of it is just letting these casting directors know who you are, who you really are, it’s about them knowing you. I’ve never met a casting director who doesn’t remember almost every time you’ve come in – like ten years ago, even. And then when it clicks for you, it’s like: Oh yeah, there it is. It takes a long time, but if you’re good they will keep bringing you in. You’ve just got to be patient.
Yeah, it seems important to know that those first few years in New York or L.A you’re not really going have any idea what the hell you’re doing.
The only way you can drop the nervousness, the freaking out, is just to live your life, and figure out how to be who you are. Otherwise you’re never going to develop the confidence to go in and say, “You need me.” Because they want to pay you money, you know, but they want YOU, as a person, and you need to have that attitude like, “I have something I can give you.” They don’t want to see a desperate actor. They don’t want to give a desperate actor a million dollars for a part.
Do you have any regrets or things you wished you’d done differently in your career?
No, I don’t actually. I mean, in hindsight, sure, there are a few things, but there’s nothing I would’ve done differently. I feel like I’ve lived. My experience has showed me that the universe has a way of letting you know when there’s an opportunity. A lot of us misinterpret anxiety as a bad thing. You know, at this point I worry if I’m not anxious before a performance or before a big event – because thats the leap. I think that’s where we want to be as people. To know everything, to be omnipresent, that’s kind of like being dead. It’s over, game over. But to live in that moment – that anxious moment – that’s being an artist. That’s what sets us apart from everyone else.
That’s interesting, because a lot of artists I know kind of crave that stability a lot of times – the idea of knowing your next move – financially and artistically.
Well I’m lucky. Not everybody has the kind of vast network of family and love that I’m lucky enough to have. So I had to figure out that there’s no way I’d ever be living on the street… if your family’s supporting you and telling you they love you then you should go for it. Let that network support the things you want to do. It’s tough, but if you ask them for money, it’s an investment into your future. My parents have given me some money over the years, but I’ve always looked at it as an investment. Hopefully I become the next “XYZ” and I can pay them back monetarily as well. And if you have folks that love you, then it’s a good thing. And if your folks don’t love you, well… you’re fucked in a lot of other ways as well [laughs].
Any final mantra or piece of advice for younger people starting out in this business?
Live your life. Don’t be a 24/7 actor – those are boring people. If you want to be an artist, get a girlfriend, get a boyfriend, break up, go to your best friend’s wedding, do everything. All that stuff gives you the tools, it makes you a better actor.
Interview by Lucas Kavner