Ato Essandoh

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By Beth Saulnier

These days, Ato Essandoh ’95 is famous enough that almost nobody thinks he was murdered by Leonardo DiCaprio anymore.

Um … what’s that again?

To clarify: about a decade ago, the prolific actor had a small but pivotal role in the Quentin Tarantino drama Django Unchained, playing an enslaved man named D’Artagnan whose vicious owner (DiCaprio) punishes him for escaping by having him ripped to pieces by attack dogs.

In the years after the film came out, an Internet meme persisted that Essandoh’s on-screen death was real. As the rumor went: in service of his art, he’d agreed to be killed on camera.

Ato Essandoh in "Altered Carbon"
Essandoh faces danger on the sci-fi show “Altered Carbon.” (Netflix)

“A friend sent me the link, and I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever seen,” Essandoh recalls with a laugh. “But as I was about to click away, I saw it had like 500 comments. ‘That’s against the law! They should throw Quentin Tarantino in jail!’ And I thought, ‘These people believe this!’”

So Essandoh decided to have some fun with it. He started tweeting responses from the afterlife, including the news that one of his neighbors in heaven was Jimi Hendrix. “It went on for a number of years,” he says. “Every once in a while, somebody would be like, ‘Hey, are you alive?’”

For Essandoh, it was another twist in an unlikely journey that began on the Hill—where he majored in chemical engineering and got his first taste of performing.

Ato Essandoh sits at a kitchen counter while being filmed for "The Diplomat"
Shooting “The Diplomat” with costar Ali Ahn (far left), who plays his colleague and love interest. (Alex Bailey / Netflix)

Now in his early 50s, Essandoh is a veteran character actor with dozens of film, TV, and stage credits—and 2023 has brought his career to new heights, with a lead in Netflix’s Emmy-nominated hit drama “The Diplomat.”

Among the evidence of his rising cachet: a spot in the weekly New York Times series chronicling how notable city dwellers spend their Sundays.

“I’m glad that it’s happening at 50 and not at 25,” Essandoh says of the renown that now gets him regularly recognized in his Brooklyn neighborhood. “I think at 25, I wouldn’t have been able to understand or really appreciate it. This has been, for me, a slow burn—and I’ve enjoyed every step of it.”

This has been, for me, a slow burn—and I’ve enjoyed every step of it.

The son of Ghanaian immigrants who have since moved back to that country, Essandoh grew up near Albany and in suburban New Rochelle, NY. When he matriculated into the College of Engineering, the performing arts never crossed his mind.

But during junior year, a girlfriend convinced him to try out for a play, a production by the Chinese Students Association that explored issues of diversity and assimilation.

“I’ll never forget coming on stage and hearing people laugh, feeling them connect, hanging on every word we said,” says Essandoh. “That’s an amazing power, telling a story that they’re listening to. I really think that’s the core of—dare I say—human existence. We all tell each other stories.”

Essandoh completed his degree but tossed out his grad school applications, taking a job in technical sales and contemplating what to do with his life. He studied French, took scuba lessons, traveled.

“Acting,” he says, “just kept coming back.”

Ato Essandoh wearing an astronaut's flight suit in a scene from "Away"
As an astronaut in “Away.” (Diyah Pera / Netflix.)

A software consulting gig allowed a move to NYC, where he took classes at the Acting Studio under a protégé of legendary teacher Sanford Meisner.

“To my parents’ credit, they didn’t disown me,” he says of telling his family that he was devoting himself to his craft. “They saw how much I wanted it and how hard I was working.”

His first TV role came in 2001, as an injured bike messenger on the NBC drama “Third Watch.” (“My lines were like, ‘Ahh! Ahh!’”)

Ato Essandoh suspended in the air for filming of "Away"
Zero-G, behind the scenes. (Diyah Pera / Netflix.)

In 2003, he marked the New York actor’s rite of passage: a role on “Law & Order.”

The following year, he played Natalie Portman’s adopted African brother in the hit indie film Garden State; in 2006, he was a Sierra Leonean revolutionary in the Oscar-nominated Blood Diamond.

Around that time, he stopped having to take non-acting jobs to pay the rent—but all in all, it took 15 years of pounding the pavement until he felt like he was truly a working actor.

“Luckily, my career has always gone up,” he says. “There’s never been a real lull.”

Essandoh’s first “series regular” gig was as a doctor on BBC America’s “Copper”; he had a recurring role on the Sherlock Holmes reboot “Elementary” as the protagonist’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, a master thief.

He played an alien in Marvel’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix; in the action flick Jason Bourne, he was the right-hand man to Tommy Lee Jones’s malevolent spymaster—and got offed by Matt Damon.

(The latter film put him at the center of another meme, as jokesters mashed up his delivery of “Jesus Christ, that’s Jason Bourne!” with a variety of comically unrelated clips.)

Ato Essandoh and Keri Russell in "The Diplomat"
Advising the ambassador (Keri Russell) as Stuart Hayford, deputy chief of mission, in “The Diplomat.” (Alex Bailey / Netflix)

On “Vinyl,” the HBO series set in the NYC rock scene of the 1970s, he played a blues singer; he also had a three-episode run as a grad student on the network’s “Girls.”

He landed another recurring role as an activist preacher on “Blue Bloods” and yet another on “Chicago Med,” playing an Orthodox Jewish surgeon on the autism spectrum.

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And the series regular jobs kept coming, including as a former Marine medic avenging his family in Netflix’s “Altered Carbon”; an astronaut in the streamer’s “Away,” starring Hilary Swank; and a military attorney in CBS’s “The Code.”

Meaty roles, one and all—and far from the sorts of parts stereotypically offered to Black men.

“Somehow, I lucked out,” Essandoh observes. “From the beginning, I’ve played roles that are different. I dodged the stereotype bullet, the compartmentalization bullet. I feel like I’ve ridden a wave that has now met this whole renaissance in roles available to people of color, as well as to women. There’s much more work to be done, but I’m happy to see that progress.”

From the beginning, I’ve played roles that are different. I dodged the stereotype bullet, the compartmentalization bullet.

Once the current writers’ and actors’ strikes are resolved, Essandoh will be back in England to shoot the much-anticipated second season of “The Diplomat.”

The drama stars Keri Russell as a longtime foreign service officer who’s tapped to serve as U.S. ambassador to the UK, navigating both international intrigue and the incipient end of her marriage.

Essandoh plays her closest aide, the deputy chief of mission—a brilliant, fundamentally decent guy who’s balancing a hugely demanding job with a covert workplace romance.

Ato Essandoh and his costars in "The Diplomat" pose on the red carpet.
On the red carpet with costars at the NYC premiere. (Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for Netflix)

“When I read the script, I said, ‘This is an adult show’—it’s a show in which intelligence is respected,” says Essandoh, whose preparation for the role included watching The Human Factor, the 2019 documentary about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

“You have to pay attention; you can’t be washing the dishes or checking your email.”

In fact, the show’s intellectual demands and density of information remind Essandoh of a certain major on the Hill.

“Chemical engineering was so hard, it gave me a work ethic that I still enjoy today,” he observes. “Actors always get asked, ‘How do you memorize all those lines?’ And I’m like, ‘Number one, that’s the easiest part—and number two, I went through organic chemistry at Cornell.’”

Top: Photo by Lelund Durond Thompson.

Published July 17, 2023

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