During the first season of BBC America's drama "Copper," Ato Essandoh knew he had found a rare TV character in Dr. Matthew Freeman.
Matthew is not only a free African-American during the Civil War, but he's a practicing physician in the rough Five Points neighborhood of 1860s New York City and a skilled forensics expert working, however covertly, with his war comrade Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish-American who is now a detective.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is a sort of really amazing role for especially an African-American actor. The honor's almost overwhelming to me,'" Essandoh said of his first reaction to the role. "When I think about it I'm like, 'Wow, I've never really seen this before and they're really going for it.'"
For the show's current second season, Essandoh was thrilled to see that important role expanded to even greater dimensions. Matthew and his wife, Sara (Tessa Thompson), have become even more entwined in the storytelling as they face even bigger challenges.
They've already met the great African-American reformer Frederick Douglass (played by Eamonn Walker) and moved back to Five Points, where Sara is forced to deal with her fears after the lynchings of her brothers in the draft riots. Matthew also has enlisted the aid of his other former war comrade, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), in his search for Sara's mother (Alfre Woodard). Her introduction, Essandoh says, will bring "a lot of surprises."
"It's really fun," he said. "What it actually sets up is an awesome dynamic that I think is subtle, but it's so beautiful that there are basically three black people with three differing views of, let's say, racism and the Antebellum South and what the future of the black race is in America."
As unlikely as a black doctor seems during the Civil War, Essandoh explained that he based Matthew on Dr. James McCune Smith, a former slave who was educated as a doctor in Scotland and came back to the U.S., where he treated both blacks and whites.
"It means so much," Essandoh said of playing Matthew, "but it carries a responsibility to portray this as realistically as possible, and it's hard not to feel pride that I get to represent this part of African-American history."
Essandoh talked more about what's coming from Matthew and Sara, Dr. Smith's story and how Essandoh went from being a chemical engineer to acting.
I think Matthew and Sara have two of the most compelling journeys this season.
Yeah, I think they expanded it to be much more of an ensemble piece. Sara and I get to do a lot more cool stuff. There's a lot more of an in-depth sort of journey that we get to go on. So it's really exciting for me because I'm like, "Wow, what a great character, and now I get to do even more."
Did you find, even before you got the role, that you thought this would be a great role for you?
I thought it would be a great role. Like I said a bunch of times, just because of the times I thought first of all it was impossible to have an African-American doctor, but then I learned that that was possible. And then to see how [Matthew] was a three-dimensional role and not just a sort of, dare I say, token role or sort of a magical role. He has a life, and he has a life outside of the copper world. He has worries and doubts and fears and aspirations.
Were you very familiar with the free blacks of the time before you started?
I was, but I didn't know how much freedom they actually had. Do you know what I mean? I heard about a lot of the free blacks in Louisiana, I should say New Orleans, and that kind of thing but I never knew that there was this freedom ... to practice, let's say, medicine.
There's one guy in particular that I learned about. His name was Dr. James McCune Smith and he was actually the first African-American doctor and he happened to be from New York. He was born in New York. I think he was the son of freed slaves and he excelled in school but because of racism he wasn't allowed to go to the Princetons and the Harvards of the world. So he found a benefactor, or I should say a benefactor found him, and he took him out to Scotland to educate him and allow him to get his M.D. He came back to New York and practiced; he had his own practice and he also had his own pharmacy. So it was really astounding to read that kind of stuff.
Did you take a little bit from his story?
Absolutely. Absolutely, because it was grounding. You don't want to feel like you're doing something that could not be possible, especially when we're doing something with historical context. So when I found something to ground it with, it was quite thrilling and compelling. Also, he wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass' second autobiography. And he also wrote a lot of papers excoriating, let's say, some of the Jeffersonian eugenic views. So he was very active as well as an abolitionist, too. So it was really cool to read that.
This season we meet Matthew's mentor, Dr. Hagel, when Matthew take over his practice.
Which allows him and Sara to move back to Five Points, which obviously is going to be a problem within the marriage because of Sara's feelings about Five Points and because of what she has to go through as well. So it's really great stuff.
Eamonn Walker plays Frederick Douglass.
Yeah, that's pretty cool. Eamonn Walker's one of my favorite actors ever, so I stayed around in set while he was there. I wasn't even shooting but I was like, "It's Eamonn Walker and I love that guy."
Alfre Woodard joins the cast this season as well.
Alfre Woodard too, yeah. And she is absolutely amazing to work with and as a human being. So I was really nervous when I heard that she'd gotten the role because before I knew I wanted to be an actor she was one of the people that I would look at and say, "Wow, she's a wonderful actor and performer." And so to be able to sort of do scenes with her or sit in a makeup trailer with her—it was a high honor for me. And she's a sweetheart.
She comes in later in the season. Does that become a very interesting part of the season?
I think so, just because of the dynamic between the three of us. There are a couple of very subtle scenes, but they're some of my favorite writing in all the episodes because we're not beating anybody over the head with it and we're not being sort of maudlin with it but we're sort of presenting three distinct black characters. Instead of having them all have the same opinion about something, they actually have a different experience of something which is, you know, going to my three-dimensional view of Dr. Freeman and Sara Freeman and now Alfre's character. So it's really wonderful to watch something like that.
In both seasons, Matthew's so level-headed except the time he went after the snake-oil salesman, when he trashed the man's cart after he sold his junk to Sara. That seemed uncharacteristic for Matthew, but how much anger do you think he has simmering below the surface?
I think there's a thing simmering below the surface. I mean, the writers and I have talked a lot about it. What racism I have experienced as an African-American in my life is nowhere near what Matthew Freeman must have, or anybody who lived in that time must have. So the interesting thing for me is when I hear the n-word I have a natural reaction to it because you juxtapose me with Matthew Freeman in that time—I'm fully free. I went to whatever school I wanted to go to. I became an actor. I did everything that I wanted to do.
Matthew doesn't have that, so he has to really walk a fine line that I will never experience, hopefully, in my life. But that does not belie the fact that under the surface there is a wish and desire, not to speak out but to defend himself and defend his own honor as a man. And you will definitely see some of those cracks and warts in Matthew as this season progresses.
I was very interested in exploring the emotional toll it takes to sort of be the level-headed guy under the extraordinary circumstances that Matthew has to endure every day. And so I think as a human being there has to be a place where sometimes he's got to let the steam out some way or he's just gonna implode completely.
Here's a guy who, no matter what room he goes into, is the smartest guy in the room. Yet he still has to deal with racism.
Yes, yes, yes. We definitely tackle that issue. That was something that was very important to me and the writers as well. You'll see a slow build all the way up until at least the first 10 episodes where you'll see Matthew having to deal with that specifically. And yes, you put it very brilliantly, he is the smartest guy in the room. Not from an ego's standpoint. He just is.
And so it's hard to always have to justify that, "No, I know what I'm talking about. If you allow me to be a part of this I could really help you rather than you ruin the situation with your own preconceived notions of what I am." And I think any human being, any man, has an ego and has a desire to sort of be needed and wanted and useful. And when that is constantly oppressed and that's constantly sort of challenged I think there's a point where you explode.
Even the fact that he helps Corky out so much but they have to keep it quiet.
Yes. It's interesting. It's actually fascinating because the man that I researched that I referenced before, Dr. James McCune Smith, he wrote a lot of papers. He wrote a lot of basic medical papers that he could not himself present to, let's say, the Medical Board or whatever. So he had to get a white colleague to present those papers for him because he wasn't allowed to do that. So I can't imagine how frustrating it is. I can't imagine being an actor and not being able to admit that I'm an actor ... or you're a writer and you have to go under a pen name because nobody would believe it if it came out of your mouth. But if somebody that didn't look like you from a different culture said it then, "Oh, OK, we understand this Curt guy, great." Do you know what I mean? That's gotta be insanely frustrating.
These are good examples of what went on at that time, but do you feel like this still sort of reflects the current times a bit?
I think, yeah. And not just with African-American people. I think it still happens to a huge extent with women. I've been in places where when a woman says something, nobody listens. But if a guy says the same exact thing then everybody's like, "Oh, OK, yeah. He knows what he's talking about."
But definitely there is that racial component. I know that I went to Cornell University and I was a chemical engineer and things like that. And I know that I've been in situations where I have to state my pedigree, if you will, before somebody will believe what I'm saying. Do you know what I mean? So I felt that. But again, not writ large like somebody back in the '60s or '50s or '40s and beyond would have to deal with.
So, yeah, and I wouldn't know how to dial it back. I would stand up and say, "This is where I'm from and you should listen to me and blah, blah, blah." Because I'm not afraid of really getting lynched or anything like that, you know? But they were back then, so it's a different thing.
You brought up the chemical engineering degree. I'm wondering how a guy goes from that to being an actor?
I was dared by my girlfriend at the time. I got a random call to do a play and I had a lot of work to do as an engineer. And so I called my girlfriend and she goes, "Are you crazy? Of course you're gonna do it. Of course." And I ended up doing the play and I had just a lovely time. And it was the first time I felt that I belonged somewhere and that this was something that was my own thing.
Chemical engineering was something that I enjoyed and that I think I was good at, but it was a thing that I knew I was supposed to do because that's what everybody else was doing. But this is the first thing in my life that I felt like I owned. So I found my way back to New York. I sort of jettisoned all my grad school applications. I was going to get my Ph.D. somewhere. And I ended up back in New York, took some acting classes and it really set in then. And I started doing theater. I started writing plays. And then I found myself with little TV roles and lo and behold, now I'm on a great show like "Copper." Yeah, it's a pretty amazing story.
This is just after college, right?
A couple of years. I wrote a mission statement and in that mission statement I told myself I would always do what I thought I should in my head. And so acting just kept coming back. It kept coming back. So a couple of years later when I found myself back in New York City, that's when I started taking classes. And there was no sort of going back. And my parents, my beautiful African Ghanaian parents sort of lost their minds because at first they were like, "We paid all this money and you were going to be a doctor or something and now you are a what? An actor." To them it came out of nowhere. But to me it was something that had been simmering and brewing and that I had sort of meditated on for a long time. But they're happy now.
Has the chemical engineering background helped you with the CSI stuff Matthew has to do?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean it was sort of full circle because when the writers would write something, and especially if it had to do with the chemical breakdown or makeup of something, I can't say that I remembered exactly what it was but there was a familiarity that I had with it and a comfortability that I wouldn't have had had I not spent four or five years of my life slaving over that stuff and memorizing organic chemistry molecules and so forth. So it was pretty good. And so I look back to my parents, I go, "See, I'm using the chemical engineering. Look at this."
Have you caught the writers making mistakes?
No. No, they're really good because they've got a couple of consultants on there. So they're pretty much on their toes.
And are we going to see more of you as Alfredo in "Elementary"?
I hope so. We'll see. It's a scheduling thing with "Copper" and "Elementary" and so forth. But that was a lot of fun doing that show as well.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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