Paapa Essiedu: I gave up the chance to be a doctor to become an actor

From being the first black man to play Hamlet at the RSC to TV roles in Press and Black Earth Rising, Essiedu's brave career decision is paying off

Paapa Essiedu, Press (BBC, EH)

Paapa Essiedu is the man of the moment. The young British actor appears in not one but two BBC TV series this week: journalism drama Press and war crimes thriller Black Earth Rising. Just to keep things interesting, he’s also currently starring in a new collection of Harold Pinter plays. If that CV doesn’t scream ‘the next big thing’, then nothing does.

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It’s only when you dig a little deeper into his life and career that you realise just how unexpected – and hard-won – his success has been.

We meet in a bar on London’s South Bank called The Understudy, which feels appropriate given Essiedu’s takeover of a part in King Lear at the National Theatre, just metres away, in 2014.

He was Sam Troughton’s understudy for the role of Edmund, and had to step up to the stage literally half way through the play one evening after Troughton lost his voice.

The understudy made headlines; in fact it might have been his triumph in this instance that led to him becoming the first black actor to play Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2016.

Essiedu, whose TV roles also include Kiri and The Miniaturist, says Hamlet is the part that has meant the most to him in his career so far: “That was really significant because it was the first time I’d played a leading role for a major company which was, for me, a big leap in terms of what I thought I could do, and a big leap towards where I wanted to be,” he says. “It was particularly personal; it’s a story about grief.”

Essiedu’s father died when he was 14 and he lost his mother to cancer when he was 20. While his father had stayed in Ghana, Essiedu, now 28, grew up with his mother in Walthamstow – “very different then to what it is now, now it’s all vegan cupcake shops. Back then it was a little bit more ends.”

He says it was challenging for his mum as a single, first generation immigrant parent to raise a child in the UK. “It was difficult raising black children in this country, especially in the 90s and the noughties,” he says. “It’s really hard. And the system is not set up to support you, it’s not set up to provide success for minority individuals.”

Essiedu recalls being subject to Stop and Search by the police over and over as a kid, a practice he says creates “a toxic connection to your own identity”.

Paapa Essiedu and Ellie Kendrick, Press (BBC, EH)
Ellie Kendrick and Paapa Essiedu in BBC1 drama Press (BBC)

His first ever role on stage was as a wise man in a school nativity play at around the age of seven. “I remember thinking I’d smashed it,” he laughs. “I remember doing it and thinking, ‘If I wanted to do this I could just do it.’ But I didn’t do any acting really until I was 17 or 18.”

Instead, he had been on the verge of studying medicine at University College London: he’d even been allocated a room in a halls of residence. In a sudden U-turn, he decided to reject his place at UCL to try to carve out a career in acting.

So what was the catalyst for this change of heart? “When you find something that really keys into the more essential part of your character – your brain, your body, what feels right – the more you do of it the more you feel like you need it,” says Essiedu.

“I did one school play and I was like, ‘this is really something’, and then I did drama A-level and I started reading these Shakespeare plays and a Pinter play and going to the theatre. I’d never been to the theatre until I was 17.”

He says that turning his back on becoming a doctor for acting was “oppositional”. “It was oppositional in the fact that you go to school and if you’re lucky enough to have any academic success you’re expected to go down an academic route: study medicine or economics or whatever. Acting is seen as a doss.

“It was oppositional in the fact that I had this other pathway set up that was ‘the good one’. I was going to do medicine at UCL; it took a big leap of faith to actually pursue something that was not really based on anything substantial. Because it’s not like I’d done any acting professionally or even outside of school.”

Essiedu says that, funnily enough, it was being “obsessed with Scrubs as a kid” that made him want to be an actor. “I was like, ‘that guy’s a doctor – but he’s an actor.’”

How did this decision go down with his mother? “For all anyone knew I could have been terrible at acting. I still could be so it was a big thing, but absolutely props and ratings and eternal respect to my mother, she was just like, ‘Whatever you do, just make sure you do it properly.’

“I feel like that’s even more enormous than the parent who supports the kid who did acting all the way from when they were three years old. To have faith in something without reason to have faith is the ultimate act of bravery as a parent.”

The Miniaturist – Paapa Essiedu as Otto
Paapa Essiedu in Christmas drama The Miniaturist (BBC)

Essiedu is softly spoken, but he has a deep and generous laugh and his words are packed with power. For him, being a performer is “a political act”.

All of his current roles are political in some respect; even in his three-minute cameo in Black Earth Rising he delivers a punchy monologue in the opening scene, holding a leading prosecutor in international criminal law to account, accusing her of being neo-colonialist and of self-righteous western paternalism for her involvement in prosecutions in Africa.

“Telling stories that allow you to understand your own experience or the experience of someone else in a more sensitive or educated way is a political act. It’s a political act to put yourself as part of that mechanism and make sure that happens in a way that helps. By taking steps towards changing the status quo [with] the stories that are being told and the way that they’re being told, all of us have got a chance to be political.”

Essiedu is also fascinated with the politics of another storytelling vocation, journalism, something he has been thinking about a lot since working on Mike Bartlett’s newspaper drama Press.

“I feel like we need journalism to be clean and brave and bold and fearless; I feel like particularly liberal left-wing newspapers have got to have the courage to be fearless, because publications like The Mail and whatever don’t give a f***. They will write whatever they want, they don’t care about hurting someone’s feelings, they don’t care about ruining someone’s life,” he argues.

He says he gets his news mostly from Twitter, as well as Media Diversified and Gal-Dem – both online zines produced by writers of colour and, in the case of the latter, women and non-binary people of colour.

“I’ve never properly thought about the fact that news is something that’s being told through a medium. How well you write that, how urgently you write that, how passionately you write that and how biased you are when you’re writing it, how much you let your own opinion influence it, all combines into either good or bad news, or dangerous news, or news that can help change the world in a positive way.

“Increasingly I’m like, ‘Wow, you need to pick your journalists and make sure they’re the right ones.’ Because you can really get led astray quickly.”

Paapa Essiedu, Press (BBC, EH)

His character in Press, Ed Washburn (above), is a recent Oxford graduate who, after his application to broadsheet The Herald was rejected, was offered a job as a reporter at tabloid paper The Post. He is struggling to reconcile his liberal views with his duties at the paper – including door-stepping bereaved parents – and his desire to progress.

Essiedu says he sees the conflicts and nuance of his character reflected in his real-life friends who work in journalism. “You come out of Oxford, Cambridge, or wherever you do your degree and you want to become a journalist: you’ve got to go to the place where they can give you a job. And at the moment there are more jobs going for The Daily Mail and The Sun than there are going for The Guardian.

“I’ve got friends who are exactly like my character who are Guardian or Independent readers who write for The Daily Mail, The Evening Standard, in order to get a foot up.”

He adds: “I don’t think it’s as hard and fast as the good guys are the warriors for justice in the left-wing newspapers and all the money grabbing grotesque nasty arseholes work for the tabloids. Regardless of what the end product is.”

Does Essiedu think he’d make a good journalist? He says if he was to go down the journalism route, being an investigative reporter “would really turn me on”.

“I really like the idea of an elusive story, chasing that down and doing research and meeting up in car parks and all that stuff to get a scoop. I think I’d be good at that. Again, it means you’re backed by what you’re doing; what you’re doing is important.”

But for now, he’s sticking to acting. After Pinter at the Pinter, he says, he has another play but he’s not allowed to disclose any details. And following Press and Black Earth Rising, “that’s actually it for now” on TV. But given how hard he’s worked so far, Essiedu is unlikely to be unoccupied for long.

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This article was originally published on 10 September 2018