On the BBC America drama series Copper, set in 1865 New York City, actor Ato Essandoh plays Doctor Matthew Freeman, an African-American physician who served in the war with Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) and Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones). Freeman always seems torn between his calling as a physician and his devotion to his wife Sara (Tessa Thompson).
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Ato Essandoh (who also plays Alfredo Llamosa on Elementary) talked about the differences between Season 1 and Season 2, finding the voice for his character, how 1865 has changed things for Dr. Freeman, how deep he delves into the actual history of the time period, what it was like to shoot the emotional scene where they knock down the lamppost, what it was like to add Alfre Woodard to the mix, how unexpected things turn out, and how he can’t wait to get rid of the beard at the end of the season. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: This show has gotten a lot of promotion, with billboards on Sunset Blvd. and posters all over the subways of New York City. What’s the strangest place you’ve ever come across an advertisement for the show?
ATO ESSANDOH: My parents are from Ghana, and my mom came to visit, last year. She was excited about the show, but she was kind of pissed off, as the show was mounting, that she hadn’t seen enough advertising. She was complaining and complaining and complaining, and I was like, “All right, mom.” I knew that they were going to wallpaper Times Square, so on her birthday, I took her to see a play, and she happened to put on a Copper t-shirt. I knew that we were going to get on the subway and go to see the show, and I was going to take her through Times Square and pretend I didn’t know. So, she was complaining, the whole way. She was like, “There’s no Copper. Why is there no Copper? Why haven’t I seen anything? There’s no Copper here!” And I’m like, “Oh, mom, I don’t know. I’m not the advertising person. Calm down!” So, we finally get to the subway station and she’s looking around, and then she walks into this whole Copper display. She was so happy! We took a picture.
Cut to this year, I just happened to be in New York and I was like, “I wonder if they did that Copper thing again.” I just happened to go on a day that they didn’t, so I was like, “Oh, I guess they’re not doing it, this year,” and I left kind of disappointed. The next day, I happened to be walking in the same area and I walked into the subway station. I wasn’t expecting anything, so I was looking at my cell phone, as I walked into the subway station, and then I looked up and saw Anastasia Griffith’s picture on a poll. I thought, “That’s weird. Is she doing another show?” And then, right in front of me was my head on a poll, and I was like, “Dude, that is so cool!” I started laughing out loud, and everybody passing by me was looking at me. I just looked around and Copper was everywhere, all over the place. That was totally unexpected. We walk around, all the time, and we see all these ads, all over the place, but it’s usually not your face. Suddenly, it was like, “That’s me, looking back at me!” It was so weird! After I took all of my pictures, I got a little weirded out and left.
Because you had some time off, between Season 1 and Season 2, is this the type of show that you felt like you needed to re-immerse yourself in the world again, before you started shooting?
ESSANDOH: Yeah, it’s a really specific thing with my voice. And maybe nobody would actually notice, but there’s a rhythm that Dr. Freeman speaks in, and there’s a timbre that I like to use. It’s really a muscle that, if you’re not used to it, you can’t just walk on set and start doing it, so I had to practice to myself. In fact, I did a little bit of Elementary on the side, as well. I would have to shoot them on subsequent days, sometimes. Every once in awhile, I’d walk in as Dr. Freeman and realize, “No, that’s not how Alfredo Llamosa speaks.” It’s a very specific voice thing, in all of my acting. I have to hear the voice, and then I can feel confident in what I’m doing.
Were there any major differences in Season 2, compared to Season 1? Did having a new showrunner affect things?
ESSANDOH: It’s definitely an extension and growth. We really expanded the roles for everybody, so it became much more of an ensemble piece. Everybody had a pretty wicked character arc, which was new. And we brought on a new showrunner, Tom Kelly, who really lit the fire under everybody. The fire was already there, but he’s really stepped this show up to a level of great character-driven stories. It’s even more exciting to come to set because every time you get a new script, you’re like, “Oh, my god, I get to do that?! That is awesome!” I was really excited about the journey that Dr. Freeman took this season.
How much more difficult was 1865 for Dr. Freeman?
ESSANDOH: What was most interesting was that Freeman was dealing with his own struggles of how to stay an upstanding black person, in this world that is quite violently oppressive to black people. It was about, “When is the breaking point? When can his own humanity and his own frustrations come out, and how does that manifest itself?” It was dangerous for a person of color, back then, to mouth off or to have an opinion, much less do something potentially violent or risky. There was a lot of him dealing with that. The stakes that he has are larger, as far as what he has to do, not necessarily from a forensic standpoint, but a more medical standpoint, which was really exciting to get my hands around.
ESSANDOH: It’s a fine line, I think. If you get too deep into the history, what often happens to a lot of us actors is that we become stilted. We forget that we’re reading about something that happened a hundred years ago. If we don’t put the human emotion that would naturally be in there, we end up being stilted, instead of being human beings. I see it in a lot of period pieces where everybody is standing and talking, in a stilted, archaic way, instead of being loose in the world. So, I try to do a little bit of research, just so that I can feel like I’m grounded, but then I try to bring as much of my human understanding that I can, under the filter of it being 1865. The way I might move in this situation is going to be different because of the circumstances of the time.
As an actor, you want to keep your set as light as possible, even though you’re often doing pretty dark material. But, when are those moments that you prefer to just keep to yourself or stay distanced?
ESSANDOH: Actually, that’s a great question. I do a little bit of both. Sometimes I just need to separate a little bit because I know a moment has to be in a certain way and I can’t go into it with a jovial mood. But, sometimes I’ve also felt that you need to let a little bit of that out in a joke, or in some way that acknowledges that. You just want to loosen yourself up a little bit, so I’ll just tell a funny joke. I like to dance on set. I like to shake my ass, a little bit, and make a fool out of myself, in front of the cast and crew. Then, I have the confidence to be able to pull off what I’m trying to pull off.
That scene this season with everyone knocking down the lamppost that Dr. Freeman’s wife’s brothers were hung on was just so moving and emotional. Did that scene feel emotional to shoot, on set?
ESSANDOH: Yeah. In fact, Ken Girotti, the director of that particular episode, told all the extras what was going on and explained the scene to them, so that they understood the gravity of what it meant, and he started crying. That made Tessa Thompson, who plays Sara and who was unbelievable in that episode, and I cry. It put it in our hearts, as well, and we started crying. So, when we finally shot that scene and performed the whole thing and it was wrapped, I went to Kevin Deiboldt, who had written that piece. When I read it, I was like, “I cannot believe we get to do this.” So, we gave each other a big hug and said, “We did something good here, I hope.” It was a very emotional evening for us.
ESSANDOH: Yeah, and everybody in the whole cast got to have a little bit of that. I was really thankful because when you separate Freeman from the cases, you get to see much more of what his deal is, and what his hopes and aspirations are, and what really fuels him to do all the things he’s doing, including helping Kevin Corcoran with his cases. I think he has a real quest for truth and a real desire for justice and fairness in the world, and I think that’s what he bumps up again. He doesn’t understand, sometimes, when things aren’t fair, and no matter how hard he works, it doesn’t seem to fix the entire problem. He’s a fixer. He’s a scientist, so he wants to make things work in an academic way, which might be his downfall sometimes.
What was it like to add Alfre Woodard to the mix?
ESSANDOH: Woah! When they told me that Alfre Woodard was going to be in the show, I collapsed. She’s got like two thousand Emmys, a couple of Golden Globes and some Academy Awards. She’s a national treasure. So, I was a little bit scared and I hoped that she wasn’t going to be a diva or somebody who was untouchable. When I heard that she was in the make-up trailer and I hadn’t met her yet, I walked into the make-up trailer and introduced myself. She has one of those glows about her. She just turned her head and looked at me and said, “Very nice to meet you,” and I felt like I had been kissed by an angel. She is a wonderful woman and an incredible actor. She’s so giving and so loving and so supportive of everything. It was a real honor to have some scenes with Alfre. It was awesome!
How much different did things end up this season, then how you expected when it started?
ESSANDOH: Everybody ends up in such a different place. It’s almost like, “What could happen next?!” I just don’t know. We have now really developed this characters to a point where they can go anywhere and anything is possible, so I don’t know how to answer that question, really. The writers are so creative and inventive that I almost am a viewer of this show, as much as I am a part of this show. I get a script and I’m like, “Wow, Sara and Matthew Freeman get to knock down that lamppost. That was unexpected. That’s incredible!” And there was stuff like that, in every single episode.
Do you enjoy getting to have the beard, or has it become more hassle than it’s worth?
ESSANDOH: You know, I have the softest beard in the world. As far as growing it, it doesn’t itch and it’s so non-intrusive. But, I am so sick of hair on my face and on my head. Because I’m not a really hairy guy, I’m not really used to it. Last year, I shaved a mohawk into my hair. And then, shaved everything off and went to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks to just surf. I cannot wait to get rid of the hair on my face.
Copper airs on Sunday nights on BBC America.