Copper, the latest show from BBC America, explores New York circa the 1860s. The shorthand for those of you who slept through history class? Think Gangs of New York. In the sprawling world of the show, Ato Essandoh plays Matthew Freeman, a doctor with close ties to Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), the titular Irish-American copper.
Now in its second season, Copper is digging deeper into the muck and crime of the Five Points, with kidnapped children and brutalized prostitutes. Complex caught up with Ato to talk about his role on the show. He also found the time to tell a story about working on Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained that you won't want to miss.
Catch the latest episode of Copper on Sundays at 10 p.m. on BBC America.
interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Tell me about your role on Copper.
I play Matthew Freeman, a black doctor in 1864. When I first read the script, I thought no, that doesn’t exist, there’s no way! But I did my research and found out that about the first African-American doctor to practice in New York, how he had to be educated in Glasgow, Scotland because they wouldn’t take him at American schools. It was a fascinating story, and it made me realize how pivotal a role like this is. Usually roles like this are token roles, where the character is going to show up and say some cool scientific stuff so that you can check off the smart black guy. But with Copper, there's an amazing storyline. I have a wife who’s dealt with awul racism; her brother was lynched. My character allows the show to explore racism. When I look at it, I’ve never seen a character done like that on TV.
How does the show deal with the rest of the character and race relations? You don’t want to have a racist protagonist on the show, but it’s also the times—how does that work out?
It’s a really expansive show. They are dealing with the people at Five Points; they’re dealing with the these immigrant groups, the Irish, the Germans. They’re also dealing with the black people and the folks up on Fifth Avenue. The show has three principal characters: my character Dr. Freeman, the Kevin Corcoran character, and the rich Robert Morehouse. So, the rich guy, the Irish cop, and the black doctor. They haven’t really revealed this yet, but we all fought in the Civil War together and formed a bond that kind of transcends the racism that still exists within us. This season is about trying to probe into the characters even deeper. The times we're dealing with are fascinating. So gritty. They would let horses die and just leave them there. The set that they built in Toronto, it's amazing! They built uptown, they built Five Points. You walk into a building and the walls are real. You open a desk, and they've put tiny old stuff in the desks.
We practice the dog stunt a couple of times, just so that everyone sees I'm cool with it. Still, they give me a safe word just in case. My word is pickle.
Do you prefer doing period pieces?
I don’t care. Copper is my first period piece. It’s funny, because I’ve been doing a lot of episodes of Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu; they keep bringing me back on the show and so I go from being an outstanding black doctor to being a kind of hood, ex-car thief who went through rehab in Elementary.
How did you get into acting?
I was a chemical engineer in school. And, randomly, an ex-girlfriend dared me to do a play. And now I'm sitting with you guys, like, what the hell am I doing here? I should be a doctor—a real doctor at this point, you know what I’m saying? My parents are from West Africa, and when I first told them, they thought I was crazy. My mom was calling me every half-hour. Years later my mom came to visit me in Toronto, on set, and she said, "What! How did you do this?" And I said, "Mom, I don’t know!" She said, "Your father and me have been so worried about you. We’ve been supportive but we didn’t want to tell you how scared we were." I was getting tears in my eyes.
So at this point being a doctor is not a fall back?
That’s the past. Sometimes I think, If everything went to shit right now, what would I do? And I don't know. I was just in contact with my old professor from Cornell because he saw me in Django Unchained; he emailed me, saying, "When did this happen?" We started passing emails back and forth, and he started talking about thermodynamics. I'm saying, "Yo, yo, yo, I have no idea what you're talking about anymore. I love you, I know I did chem lab with you, but that's over. Now he sees me getting eaten by dogs in Django Unchained.
We have to talk about that scene. How difficult was that shoot?
It was fun! I had been on a million callbacks and finally they said, "OK, go to this office. You’re going to meet Quentin Tarantino. He's one of my favorite directors, so I was all hyped and ready to go. I walk in expecting five guys who look like me, but nobody was there. It was just the casting directors and a couple of people in production. I’m looking at my script, waiting for the competition, and then this shadow comes over me—it’s Quentin. In this empty room, we start doing the audition; he sits me down and says, "When you get down there, you’re going to be crying. It's going to be a big set, and I just want to make sure you have the mind set." I say, "Yeah, man, if you give me the part, I will make sure to give you my best." And he’s saying, "So when I see you down there..." and I just keep saying, "Yeah, if you want me down in New Orleans, we can work this out." He laughs and shakes me hand. Later, the casting director asks me what's wrong and I ask if I got the part. She says, "Are you an idiot?"
So then I get to the set, and everybody knows I'm the dude who's going to do the dog stunt. The producers tell me they can't use a stuntman. That's cool; I love dogs. When they work out the stunt, the dogs are taught to attack pads. When you give them the pad in real life, they’re like, "grr," and that’s it. What they do is they put you in a big leather sleeve, put the pad over that, then put clothes on over everything. When the dog attacks, it attaches to the pad, and knows it's time to play.
We go to the set in New Orleans. They shoot all the acting first, me in the tree begging Leo. By day three, we get to the stunt. Everybody from the set is coming to see me. Two people had already been bitten by the dogs, one in the ass, one in the arm. The dogs got too excited. Anyway, we practice the stunt a couple of times, just so that everyone sees I'm cool with it. Still, they give me a safe word just in case. My word is pickle. All the stunt people, all the dog wranglers, if they hear the word pickle, they shut it down. We do the take, and right before, one of the stuntmen says, "If you see the dog release, that’s potentially bad because the dog then has to try it again. And he may miss your leg."
We’re doing the take, and in slow motion I see the dog release and I start screaming, "Pickle!" Pickle! Pickle!" But then the dog reattached at the right place, so I kept going. They eventually call cut and Quentin is all happy, jumping around. "That was great," he says. And the stuntman says, "Did you call pickle?" I say "Yes, I did, but then the dog reattached so it was cool." I suddenly got all kinds of respect from the stuntmen.
How have people reacted to the scene?
There was an Internet death hoax about me. I got a tweet one day of a meme with my face and a screenshot of me being eating by the dogs. It said that Quentin Tarantino wanted the thing to be real, and I wanted it to be real, so I agreed in my contract that the dogs could kill me. I’m reading this, and I’m about to click away because it’s so stupid, but then I look at the 500 comments, all these people asking if it was real. So I got on Twitter to fuck around. I started tweeting from heaven, saying, "There’s no beer in heaven, but Jimmy Hendrix is God!" It kind of went viral.
When I went out to the premier in L.A., I had a great date with me. I saw Magic Johnson. I twas great. But then Sam Jackson walks up to me. We hadn't met; we had no scenes together. He comes up to me and says, "Fuck you, man—I saw you in this movie and I was like, 'Yo, I love this actor—is that the nigga from Copper?’ I was shocked. First of all, he called me a nigga, which is awesome! No one else can, but Sam Jackson can. And on top of that, he watches Copper!? He pulled out his cell phone and took a picture of us. I told my date, "If I die tomorrow, do not weep because I’m good!"
Did you grow up in the States, or were you born in Ghana and then came over?
No, I was born in upstate New York. My parents met here, had a couple kids, and then they went back fifteen years ago. My mom comes and visits the sets; I think my dad is going to come, but he’s more hesitant.
Where in Ghana?
Accra. And Cape Coast is my mom’s family.
Do you get back often?
I haven’t been back in three years. After we shoot, I’m trying to get back. I need to spend at least two weeks. I haven’t physically seen my dad for three years, which is not cool.
You said your parents let you know what the reaction to you in Ghana is. Do you meet a lot of Ghanaians in this country who feel like you're holding the flag for the country?
Traveling, I’ve met Ghanaian people who have seen me in minor stuff but they see the name Ato Essandoh and they recognize it as a Ghanaian name. They come up to me and are always so excited. You don’t think about it, but they really absorb American culture. I had a couple of scenes with Will Smith, who my dad always calls Bruce Willis—he always messes up the names. He'll say, "My son did a movie with Bruce Willis!" and I always say, ‘Dad, Will Smith—dude, what is wrong with you?!"
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)