Ato Essandoh has to think.
Not about what to do with his life. He’s figured that one out. Not about his next major acting role, either. Those are all booked, for the most part.
Instead, when I ask him which of his on-screen performances was the toughest to prepare for in his 25-year career, he really has to think. To him, though, that’s a good thing. It means he’s made it.
And in his defense, there are numerous performances to shuffle through in his mind. He played Tanis in the 2005 Will Smith romantic comedy “Hitch.” He acted alongside Leo DiCaprio in 2006’s Civil War thriller “Blood Diamond.” He’s appeared as D’Artagnan in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning film “Django Unchained” — which he ultimately says was, hands town, his toughest to prepare for. And he was also a regular on the 2016 Scorsese-Jagger collab “Vinyl,” with an upcoming streaming role in Netflix’s “Away,” coming in September.
But as he heads for Mars in his latest stint as an astronaut, and as he celebrates a career of rubbing shoulders and working with some of the greatest actors and directors of the modern era, it’s important to remember where Essandoh’s story began: Schenectady.
Essandoh was born in the area in 1972, to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana. His parents met in the states before eventually coming to Schenectady years later, when his father got a job at General Electric.
“My mom was going to college in Washington and my dad was up at Cornell,” Essandoh said. “And then they met somewhere in between. Then my dad, who was studying electrical engineering at Cornell, got a job at General Electric. So that’s why they moved there and then had the greatest thing ever in their life. They had me. And we lived in Schenectady, Woodcrest Drive.”
When talking about his childhood, Essandoh’s memories bounce back fairly quickly. He lived in Glenville until the 5th grade (so about age 12). He went to Glencliff Elementary School in Alplaus and later was sent to St. Helens [now Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Parish School]. What sticks out the most for him, he admits, was how easy it was to ride his bike around his Glenville home.
“What I remember about Schenectady was just riding bikes all over the place,” Essandoh said. “And that was back in the day where, you know, your parents just kicked you out of the house and then told you on the weekend to come back for dinner.”
Essandoh’s favorite place to ride his bike was an old gravel pit off Woodcrest Drive, known as “the pits.” “We would go there with the rest of the neighborhood kids for hours and just tear it up.”
Moved to New Rochelle
Unfortunately, Essandoh’s time in Schenectady came to an end around 1984, when his family moved to New Rochelle. He eventually went to Cornell, following in his father’s footsteps, and decided to study chemical engineering.
That was until one day at school, somewhere around 1993, when he got a call.
“It was a director who was doing this play and she was looking for my best friend Marcus who was also an engineer. I was like, ‘Marcus isn’t home, can I take a message?’ Then she offered me a part in the play. I never acted or anything before, so I was just like, ‘You want me to do a play, I don’t get it?’ I sort of froze.”
So Essandoh called his then-girlfriend up, explained that a stranger offered him a role in a play and his girlfriend started laughing. At that point, she dared him to do it and hung up the phone.
“And so I ended up doing the play,” Essandoh said. “And it was the most amazing experience in my life. I never thought of acting as anything more than what I see on the screen, like Denzel Washington. I never thought of it as something that is a thing that you do as an endeavor.”
But he did it. And after a few years of still pursuing a life as an engineer and moving to Rhode Island, he wrote himself a mission statement.
“Then the acting just kept coming back to me,” Essandoh said. “So when I found myself in New York City, maybe three to four years later [around 1997], I started going to an acting class. I had no idea what an acting class would look like, but I felt like I was at home, dude, it was like, these are my people. I get it. These people understand me.”
Essandoh started taking up smaller theater roles throughout New York in the beginning. His first gig on screen, in a show called “Third Watch,” was as a bike messenger who was hit by a car by none other than then-rising actor Bobby Cannavale. Essandoh remembers telling all of his friends about the role — and his massive scream in the show — like it was the greatest thing in the world. And he recalls meeting Cannavale later on somewhere on the set of Vinyl. “Fifteen or so years later, we’re on ‘Vinyl,’ ” Essandoh said. “And I’m like, ‘Yo, Bobby what’s up man? You remember that ‘Third Watch’ show you did?’ And he was like, ‘No, dude.’ ”
Jokes aside, Essandoh’s career soon took him to great heights, as he starred alongside Will Smith in 2006’s “Hitch.” Throughout filming in New York, Essandoh recalls massive crowds surrounding Smith, and later surrounding him in the scenes to follow, which he says was by default due to Smith’s superstar aura.
In terms of literal heights, however, his favorite Smith story from the set wasn’t necessarily all the freestyle rapping they’d do in between scenes. It was when he sat with Smith in a taxi cab.
“We’re driving down Fifth Avenue or something like that,” Essandoh said. “And you know, this is Will Smith at the height of his power so I think he’s doing that movie, ‘I Am Legend.’ We’re in the back of the cab we shot one of the scenes in, and then we’re just sitting there waiting for the cab to back up so we can do another take or something. We just happen to stop under a 300-foot poster [of Smith] on the side of a building.”
“It was like a perfect picture: The cab rolls up and I see the silhouette and he doesn’t see it because he’s facing me. And then, in the middle of the conversation, he kind of just looked over his shoulder, looked up, saw the poster and he just went back to the conversation. He looked at it like it was just everyday for him. And I was like, ‘That’s amazing.’ ”
Essandoh’s amazement grew as he started landing roles left and right after the film. But his hardest to prepare for, he admits, was “Django Unchained.”
“Just because of the emotional sort of weight of playing somebody who knows he’s going to die, is begging for his life,” Essandoh said. “That was emotionally draining and also knowing that I’d be having to do that all day long.”
But, for Essandoh, the preparation is what gets him excited for each role. For the last several months — as much of the world remained in quarantine — the actor joined everyone in feeling isolation firsthand, after filming his scenes for “Away” in January. The irony is that his character, Kwesi, has to manage this feeling of loneliness as he’s sent off to Mars — a feeling that has now become the norm for a lot of Americans in lockdown.
“I think we all did a fantastic job on it,” Essandoh says of the 10-episode series “Away.” “As an actor, you’re always looking at your performances and going, ‘Oh, I could have done this.’ Now I have a lot more information. So if we get another season and if we all survive this season, I have a lot more to give to the role.”
This season — of life at least — has been quite hectic for Essandoh. While he wishes he was spending time with his family in Ghana, he’s currently using his extra free time to co-host two podcasts.
“Unrelated,” recorded with his friend Chris Cecot, whom he met during his time in Schenectady, follows the two men — Cecot being white and Essandoh being Black — as they discuss race, identity and the world. “Having been born in the same place, we wanted to sort of juxtapose our two lives and try to sort of talk about the differences growing up in the same place, how I was affected, as opposed to how he was affected,” Essandoh said.
His other show, “Radio Zamunda,” follows him and another friend as they dive into art, culture and music. The pair bring on guests that only one of them knows, and have deep, intellectual conversations about how that person got to where they are today.
Little does Esssandoh know, his own story would make quite the podcast. While both shows are keeping Essandoh busy, he’s grateful that Schenectady can still be a part of his life with his work on “Unrelated.” And above all, whether locals catch him on screen or not, he wants you to know that he is “Schenectady born and raised.”
“There’s a fertile soil of creativity that’s up there, that’s anywhere you’re born. There’s always interesting stories wherever you go. I’m just another example of those things.”