Paapa Essiedu greets me at his local caff in London. He has a cold drink in his hand, and a bag featuring Basquiat-style daubings hangs over one shoulder. Essiedu is wearing huge shades, black nail varnish, a designer T-shirt that translates Jamaican patois into the Queen’s English, an open shirt and the coolest two-tone raincoat you’ve ever seen. He seems eye-poppingly confident.
And so he should be. Essiedu is establishing himself as one of the finest actors of his generation. His punk, graffiti-artist Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company was unforgettable, not least for his astonishing, tearful delivery of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He was heartbreaking as the hook up-addicted rape victim Kwame in Michaela Coel’s brilliant TV drama I May Destroy You, and complex in Jack Thorne’s Kiri, which dealt with the abduction of a black child from her white adoptive family in Bristol. As reporter Ed Washburn in the TV series Press, he constantly kept you guessing – is he too noble for the scuzzy world of the tabloids or the most unscrupulous of the lot? Essiedu has a rare suppleness as an actor, both verbal and physical, that keeps him one step ahead of his audience. Now he’s starring in Sky’s existential sci-fi thriller series The Lazarus Project as a regular fella who discovers he has the ability to turn back time. Essiedu gives another beautifully nuanced performance. As George, he is bewildered, soulful and utterly believable, anchoring both the premise and the series.
Well, you’re a very good actor, I say. “Do you really think so?” he asks. I assume he’s fishing for compliments. Well, don’t you? “Erm … I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I just started a job yesterday and on the day before the first day on every job, I have a nervous breakdown, thinking: this is the one where people will find me out, see that what’s underneath the car bonnet doesn’t work.” Genuinely? “Genuine!” he says fiercely.
Essiedu in The Lazarus Project
When you say nervous breakdown, how bad are we talking? “Like, really bad. I need a lot of support from the people who are close to me to drag me into the car to go to work on that first day. It’s generally only the first day or the first week.” You really don’t want to go? “Yes. I’m like: I’m going to fuck it up. I read, ‘What are you doing here?’ on everybody’s face. Or, ‘Oh my God I’ve made a huge mistake in inviting you to be in this’ in their body language. You know that thing when you project what your brain wants you to see on somebody who is probably just having a cup of tea? I read things into them that they are hopefully not thinking.” He comes to a stop. “Maybe they are thinking it.” Blimey, I think – we’ve only been talking for a couple of minutes.
He tells me he’s starving, and always has Colombian eggs when he’s here. “But I’ve got a real phobia of people watching me eat.” I tell him I won’t watch, and can’t see anyway because the sun’s so strong. “Do you want to borrow these?” he says, pointing to his shades.
Essiedu, 32, was born in London to Ghanaian parents. His father, Tony, a lawyer, returned to Ghana when he was a baby. His mother, Selina, who taught fashion and design at adult education colleges, was a single parent; he was an only child. They were a team, adored each other, relied on each other, and couldn’t be closer. She struggled for money, but Essiedu won a scholarship to a private school. She encouraged him to work hard, and he did – for himself and for her.
I ask if he has a photo of her. He brings out his phone. “Do you think I look like her?” He does, and it’s obvious he wants me to say so. His eyes burn with emotion. What made her so special? “She was just an amazingly loving, strong, resilient and, for me, inspiring person.”
‘I don’t think I fully understood the turbulence of what it means to be an actor.’ Photograph: Elliott Wilcox/The Guardian. Suit: Louis Vuitton
Occasionally, he and his mother would return to Ghana and spend time with his father, his half-brother and half-sister, and extended family. Tony was popular, extrovert, a raconteur. He died when Essiedu was just 14. Even though Tony had not been an active father, he felt his loss profoundly. “Finding out you’ll never be able to make the relationship what you would want it to be, or that they’ll never meet your children, is a huge thing.”
At school he continued to thrive and passed his exams with top grades. Were you very clever? “I was pretty clever.” Did you work hard? “Oh, very hard. Very hard.” He pauses. “Yeah, I was more hard-working than clever, now I think about it. Because nothing really came very naturally to me.” Doubtless he did work hard, but I think – as usual – he’s being tough on himself.
What is certainly true is that acting was not an obvious career choice. There had been no actors in his family, nor had he dedicated himself to drama in school. He studied biology, chemistry and French at A-level, and won a place at medical school. At the last minute, and much to everybody’s surprise, including his own, Essiedu dropped out. He had always travelled a predictable path. He cared about people and was good with them; being a doctor seemed a sensible choice. But in sixth form he was cast as Othello. It was his first play, and he was hooked. He told his mother he wanted to go to drama school. How did she take it? “She was great. She knew how important her consent was to me.”
He says so many first-generation immigrants see medicine, law or accountancy as life rafts for their children. And here he was, jumping off into notoriously choppy waters. “I don’t think she fully understood the turbulence of what it means to be an actor, so maybe the naivety was useful. To be fair, I don’t think I knew. She was just like: ‘Look, if you’re going to do this thing, you’ve got to do it properly. You’ve got to treat it in the same way you would if you were a doctor, the same level of professionalism.’ It was just what I needed to hear.”
At London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he was one of only two black students in his group. The other was the actor and writer Michaela Coel, who became a close friend. They had so much in common. Both came from working-class backgrounds, had Ghanaian parents, grew up in east London and were brought up by single mothers who were devout Christians. And both felt alienated from the culture at Guildhall.
They remain great friends today, and Essiedu may still be best known for playing Kwame in I May Destroy You. But he was very nearly not in it. When Coel was writing the series, she would talk through much of it with Essiedu as a friend, without considering him for a part. Even though they have collaborated on a number of projects, when it came to casting she still didn’t think of him. She’d ask who he thought would make a good Kwame. He never put himself forward. Eventually it was casting director Julie Harkin who suggested Essiedu.
I ask Coel what makes him such a good actor. “I’ve been trying to figure that out since we met. He approaches characters with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. I have never seen him with any ego. He’s trying to discover things almost with fear and trembling.”
And what makes him a good mate? “He’s funny and very dependable. He’s better with his phone now, but I used to beg him: ‘Answer your phone! Be my friend! I want you to be my friend all the time!’ I don’t often do that with people – I’m not clawing for their attention, but I am with Paapa. We’ve been all over the world together. He’s a peaceful, lovely, strong, sensitive man. I don’t know how he manages to be so hard and soft, serious and playful, and he’s always there in times of crisis.”
With Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. Photograph: Laura Radford/BBC
At Guildhall, both he and Coel discovered that all the frames of reference were white, many of them reaching back to the days of colonialism and slavery. “I remember doing restoration comedies such as The Man of Mode, about the aristocratic class – slave owners, basically,” Essiedu says. “These plays ask a very different question of a black or brown actor whose ancestry might have been negatively impacted by those particular people than they do of actors who don’t have that same historical context.” He felt uncomfortable playing such parts, but there was no discussion about it. “I didn’t have the vocabulary, and the teachers never said: ‘Is this weird for you?’ You’re in direct comparison with other students, so it’s like: ‘Oh, that person is doing it right – and you’re not.’”
One teacher told him he didn’t enunciate clearly – ironic, considering he is now celebrated for his ability to make Shakespeare clear and relatable. “She compared the way I spoke to someone speaking with a mouthful of cake.” He pauses. “A mouthful of chocolate cake.” What? He laughs. “I think they had an idea of what an actor should be like and if you were anything other than that, then your job was to figure out how to be like that.”
That’s not the worst of it. He tells me of the time the class was improvising a prison scene and one of the students had to hide drugs. “We were supposed to be passing the drugs to each other, actually a beanbag, without the teacher seeing it. The teacher said: ‘I’ll play the prison warden.’ And suddenly she shouted: ‘Hey you, N-word, what have you got behind you?’ Essiedu can’t bring himself to say the word. “That was a real time-stops moment. Like: ‘Surely this can’t be happening.’ I didn’t know if she was talking to me or Michaela.”
‘Doing restoration comedies about slave owners, basically, the teachers never said: is this weird for you?’ Photograph: Elliott Wilcox/The Guardian. Suit: Gucci . Corsage: VV Rouleaux
How did the two of you react? “We were so shocked, we just stayed in the improvisation, so we were like: ‘No, we haven’t got anything behind us.’” The more he has thought about it over the years, the more it has outraged him. “It’s not even a scene from the play, and you’re the teacher and you say: ‘Hey you, N-word.’ It’s loaded in a million different ways. Who the fuck do you think you are, to treat someone who’s meant to be in your care like that? It so clearly shows a lack of respect and understanding of what the experience is of someone who is in that position, in that skin, in that institution. Neither of us had the beanbag anyway, and this is not an avant garde company where anything goes – where if you’re fighting, you’ve got to fight for real. It was a drama school improvisation, and the teacher wasn’t even part of the play.” What was it? “David Hare’s Murmuring Judges, the most middle-England play you can imagine.”
Essiedu feels conflicted about his time at drama school. “Some of my best friends are from that time.” And, despite everything, he says, he learned a huge amount there. “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to step into the career in the way I did if I hadn’t gone there.” He goes back to Guildhall to talk to students and directed a student play there just before lockdown. He acknowledges the progress it has made on diversity: “They are doing a lot of work to decolonise the syllabus.”
A spokesperson from Guildhall says: “Guildhall School apologises unreservedly for the racism experienced by Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel and other alumni. The experiences he shares were appalling and unacceptable. We have since undertaken a sustained programme of action to address and dismantle longstanding systemic racism within the acting programme. We understand that this work is long-term and will require sustained commitment to build a culture that is inclusive and equitable for everyone.”
In his first year at drama school, Essiedu’s mother died of breast cancer. It’s a grief he’s still coming to terms with. “My mum was my best mate,” he says, simply. Did you know she was dying? “No. It maybe feels dumb retrospectively, because she had cancer for seven years and was in hospital for four months before she died. But at no point did we have a conversation, or me and the doctors have a conversation, about her dying. It didn’t enter my mind that it was a possibility.” Do you think she knew? “Maybe. Probably. But she definitely protected me from that.”
Without his mother, he felt lost and alone. “I went back to drama school the day after it happened,” he says. Was that better for you? “It was an emergency act of self-preservation in order to stop myself thinking or feeling or engaging.” Could you talk to Michaela about it? “I’d talk about it happening, but not how it made me feel.” To lose your best mate and your mum is huge, I say. “Yeah. The other thing about being that age, 20 – you’re aping adulthood or grownup-ness. Suddenly I’m living by myself and making money and setting the foundation for my career, so you think: ‘I’m a man, I’m a big person now, I don’t need to feel all these things, I can handle it.’ You know … ” He trails off.
‘I would have made a good doctor. I like people. I’m relatively smart. I’m definitely diligent.’ Photograph: Elliott Wilcox/The Guardian. Clothes: Valentino . Corsage: VV Rouleaux
He was living in student accommodation when she died. Afterwards, he found it difficult to go back to the family home, but he didn’t want to get rid of it. “I never lived there again, but I couldn’t bear to sell it, so I did a halfway house of taking all her stuff, our stuff actually, and putting it in the loft. I literally put the lock on it, then walked away from it for about 10 years. I only sold the house last year. I rented it out but didn’t get rid of anything. I rarely went back. I found the experience of walking down that street hard. I had five years of quite repressed grief when I wouldn’t talk about it.”
Essiedu and his mother used to visit Ghana every two or three years when she had enough money. After she died, he couldn’t face going back alone, and lost touch with some of the family. “I didn’t go by myself till six or seven years after she passed away.”
Did you ever deal with your grief? “Yeah, I started going to therapy. Maybe only on the third attempt did it take hold for me. I still go every week, though not really to talk about my grief any more.” At 20, he says, he wasn’t old enough to understand her life fully – her struggles, sacrifices, all she had done for him. “When you lose people, you’re forced to fill in the gaps. When my mum died I was still coming into an understanding of what her experience was like. As a child you’re just like: ‘That’s my mum, that’s what my mum does.’ So I’ve filled in a lot of the context of her experience as a single mum, as a black woman, after the fact.” By talking to other people or exploring his memories? “Both. I probably knew her better than anybody. So you can do it with a certain level of informed opinion.”
After drama school, Essiedu focused on his work. At 22, he made his debut for the RSC in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Despite his angst, or maybe because of it, he had a natural ease on stage. He played Hamlet four years later in 2016, and prickled when journalists asked him about being the company’s first black Hamlet in the predominantly black production. There was an inevitability to the question, but he felt that all the journalists could see was his blackness.
Essiedu says every choice he makes as an actor is political – what roles he takes, where he performs, who he performs with. In 2020 he appeared in Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, a Godot-inspired drama about racism and police brutality, at London’s Kiln theatre. He also read one of the letters in the online production My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid), a series of fictional letters by 10 black writers in which they say the thing they have always wanted to but never dared. This year, he appeared on stage alongside Lennie James in Caryl Churchill’s A Number, a father-and-son two-hander exploration of identity.
James has long been an inspiration. “Lennie is the don,” Essiedu tells me. “He can do it all. He writes, directs and acts to acclaim, and is still the most down-to-earth person you’ll meet. He was a big reason why I became an actor in the first place.”
The week we meet, Sue Gray has just reported on Partygate, and Essiedu is outraged. He lost an aunt and uncle to Covid – hospital visits were not allowed and only six people could attend the funeral. “If I’m honest, I thought Partygate would bring down Boris Johnson. Rory Kinnear, the amazing actor, wrote a brilliant article in the Guardian about burying his sister on the day of one of Johnson’s lockdown parties. People were not seeing their mothers and fathers dying, not spending their last moments with them, when he was having parties. Johnson can get away with breaking the rules he made.”
And then there is the bigotry. “Gordon Brown basically lost an election for calling a woman a bigot, off camera. But Boris Johnson’s bigotry seems to be part of the backbone of the character he built up to get elected.” Does he think Johnson is a racist? “I think his quotes about Muslim women looking like letterboxes; about piccaninnies and watermelon smiles tell you everything you need to know about a person. I’ve never heard him try to distance himself from those comments. I’ve never heard him say: ‘That was me once and I’m a different person now.’ [In 2019 Johnson insisted the quotes had been taken out of context.] His bigotry was, is and will continue to be a part of him, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his political career in a negative way. If anything, it has bolstered it.” Would you ever … ? He finishes the sentence off for me: “go into politics? No.”
Photograph: Elliott Wilcox/The Guardian, assisted by Andy Mores and Charlotte Hartley. Styling: Helen Seamons, assisted by Peter Bevan. Grooming: Carlos Ferraz at Carol Hayes Management using Fenty Beauty. Hair: Chris Okonta for Ama’s Hair Salon. Clothes: Casablanca Paris
Essiedu has been in a relationship with the actor and comedian Rosa Robson for six years. When I ask him about her, he briefly becomes monosyllabic, though he does so with an apologetic smile. Do they live together? “Yes.” Is she nice? “Lov-e-ly!” he says, relishing every syllable. Do they have children? “No. I think I’d be a good dad when the time is right.”
The only other subject he is less than forthcoming about is his work. Like many good actors, he doesn’t enjoy going on about it. I congratulate him on his superpowers in The Lazarus Project. “Have you seen it?” he asks. I tell him I’ve seen three episodes and the more human it becomes, the more I like it. “You’re getting there!” he says, then quickly changes the subject to Boiling Point, a film about the pressured life of a restaurant chef, featuring his Lazarus co-star Vinette Robinson. “Have you seen it? It’s amazing.” I mention his new horror film Men, and he tells me how incredible co-stars Rory Kinnear and Jessie Buckley are. Then when I say how much I liked him as the machiavellian schemer Edmund in King Lear, he gives me a positively hostile look. “Lear? You liked me in King Lear?” Erm, yes, I say, have I said something wrong? “Oh wait, which King Lear?” The one with Antony Sher. He relaxes. He had previously stepped in as an understudy in Sam Mendes’s 2014 production of Lear when Sam Troughton’s Edmund lost his voice mid-performance. “Oh, with Tony Sher? I thought you were talking about the other one where I had three lines, so I thought you were trolling me there.” He laughs loud and hard.
I return to The Lazarus Project. While he has often played the leading role on stage, this is the first time he’s had top billing on screen. Did it feel any different? “Not really,” he says. “I suppose there’s pressure that comes with that. But the cast – Tom Burke, Anjli Mohindra, Charly Clive – were all super talented and we were all really close. So there was never a feeling that this is my thing. It felt like an ensemble.”
We talk about his future. I ask if he has plans to write. “No, I don’t enjoy it. I’m very slow. There are people who are very good at it and I’d rather work with people on stories than write them. I want to direct more, though.”
It’s time to leave. My English breakfast was scrumptious, his Colombian eggs looked lovely, and he managed to eat them without a panic attack. The bill arrives and he makes a concerted effort to pay. I tell him it’s on the Guardian. “OK, next time it’s on me,” he says.
As we head off, I ask if he thinks he would have made a good doctor. “I think so,” he says with a rare confidence. “I like people. I think I’m relatively smart. I’m definitely diligent.” Would you ever retrain or are you in acting for life? “Go back to medicine? I think it’s unlikely. I don’t know that I’m in anything for life, but I definitely feel there’s a lot more I want to do as an actor.” He pauses. “As long as people don’t cotton on to my limitations.”
A week later we catch up. I’ve been thinking about the intensity of Essiedu’s young life; how his experience at drama school, the putdowns, the racism, the buried grief, the ghosts from his past, being left to fend for himself at such an early age must have contributed to his ability to plumb incredible emotional depths.
He says he’s been thinking, too; about how he was so dismissive of his achievements. Sure, he knows why he’s like that – class, insecurity, impostor syndrome, self-preservation. “If it all gets taken away, you don’t feel that loss so keenly.” When he was away recently, he met somebody who asked him what he did. He told her he was an actor, and she asked if he had been in anything they would have heard of. “I was like: probably not, just a few little things. Then I asked her what they did and she was like: ‘I’m really high up in the second biggest mezcal company in the country’ and I was like: ‘Cool! That’s really exciting.’ And I thought: what is wrong with me!” If he can’t enjoy his success, what’s the point, he asks. “Perennially living in the expectation that things are going to fuck up is just mad. Even if it makes it feel quite sweet when they don’t.” But hopefully, he says, this is going to change. Next time somebody asks what he does, not only is he going to say he’s an actor, he’s going to tell them he’s a half-decent one, too.
• The Lazarus Project is on Sky Max and Now from 16 June. Men is out now.