Paapa Essiedu: 'Michaela Coel captures the reality of lives that I recognise'

Since his electrifying breakthrough as a hip-hopping Hamlet, the actor hasn’t stopped. He talks about overcoming challenges and his role in the provocative new BBC series from the creator of Chewing Gum

At the moment when his best friend is being interviewed about a traumatic sexual assault, Kwame – a hunky young gym instructor – is rattling the cubicles of a public toilet with a stranger he has picked up on Grindr. Minutes later he is fielding a tentative pass from another man, who confesses: “I never really spoke to a brother who was…” To which Kwame replies: “Go on, you can say it. We’re in Britain. No one’s going to throw me off a building...”

The line is delivered by actor Paapa Essiedu with such glowing self-confidence that it takes a few seconds for the layers of irony to sink in. We’re four episodes into I May Destroy You, a topical new TV series from Michaela Coel, the Bafta-winning creator of Channel 4’s Chewing Gum, and it is true that the dangers that lurk for Kwame, and his friend Arabella, are more insidious than those that are often served up by chroniclers of black British experience. Coel, who also co-directs and stars as Arabella, faces down the perils intrinsic to the lifestyle of a young, multicultural generation high on chemicals, partying and casual sex.

For Essiedu, this means a deep dive into what masculinity means when its boundaries are broken, not by racist thugs or harassing police, but by demons unleashed by its own desires. “I’m into everything,” boasts Kwame on another casual date, minutes before he is reduced to pleading: “Not that.” The representation of the moment when good sex turns bad is so up-close and personal that I wonder if he had any doubts about taking on the role?

Watch a trailer for I May Destroy You.

“I’ve done scenes before where we’ve had nothing to support us and it’s so stressful,” he admits. “But I didn’t have any qualms, mainly because of how sensitively it was handled – like we have an intimacy coordinator at all times. We spent a lot of time in preparation for those scenes.”

The intimacy co-ordinator was Ita O’Brien, who also worked on the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. For all that it is being hyped as a #MeToo drama, Essiedu rejects the idea that I May Destroy You is “pandering to a zeitgeisty type thing”. Obviously, he says, “it’s a series that confronts and challenges our current ideas around sex and consent and romance, and our responses to trauma as well. But a lot of it is inspired by things that have actually happened.” In 2018 Coel spoke out about being assaulted. “Michaela is jumping from a place of authenticity,” Essiedu continues. “She captures the reality of lives that I recognise.”

At a time when London has been in lockdown for several weeks, the teeming hang-outs and unguarded intimacies of those lives seem to belong to a far-off era. Bearded and keen to chat in his south London flat, where he has been keeping himself in shape with yoga and running, Essiedu says he’s also been having “insane dreams”.

Essiedu, left, with Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.
Essiedu, left, with Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. Photograph: Natalie Seery/BBC

He was co-starring in a three-hander, Pass Over, at London’s Kiln theatre, when the curtain came down on live performance. Now, when many young actors are wondering whether they will ever work again, the 29-year-old is being beamed into the nation’s living rooms from several directions.

His award-winning Hamlet, from 2016, is being streamed on iPlayer by the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has also been cutting a dash as Alex, smooth-talking son of a gangland boss, in Sky Atlantic’s horribly compelling Gangs of London. He shakes his head and admits it’s all a bit bewildering. “It’s just a very happy coincidence that all of them are coming out around the same time.”

I May Destroy You reunites him with a drama-school friend, whom he credits with helping him to get his first break. As two black students at London’s predominantly white Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he and Coel would often work together and, for their final showcase, performed a duologue that Coel knocked up for want of anything that suited them in the college library. “It was set on a basketball court, which was a bit of a risk since we were performing in a West End theatre,” he says. For all that the ball did at one point bounce off into the audience of agents and casting directors, it clearly demonstrated his star quality. Within months he had joined the RSC for a small speaking part in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and two years later he proved his Shakespearean mettle by stepping up midway through a performance to play Edmund to Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear, after Sam Troughton, whom he was understudying, lost his voice.

Gangs of London
Paapa Essiedu and Joe Cole in Gangs of London. Photograph: Sky UK Photograph: Sky UK/Sky UK Limited.

But it was with his hip-hopping, graffiti-daubing Hamlet – performed when he was just 25 – that he proved himself a classical actor of the first rank. Reports at the time acclaimed him as the RSC’s first black Hamlet – which he dismissed as a backhanded compliment, preventing him from being evaluated simply as Hamlet.

Some pointed out that he too was carrying the burden of having been orphaned young – his father died in Ghana when he was 14 and his mother, a fashion and design teacher who brought him up alone in the east London suburb of Walthamstow, succumbed to cancer when he was still at drama school. “That is something I do carry with me, but you’ve got to remember that at the end of the day it’s still acting,” he says. He doesn’t belong to the school of method acting. “I wouldn’t be so self-indulgent as to see it as a means of me digesting my own guilt,” says Essiedu, “but of course everything I do is informed by what has made me what I am, so there are levels of empathy.”

Whereas I May Destroy You is fiercely contemporary, Gangs of London is rooted in colonial history. The gang at its centre is an alliance of Irish and African-Caribbean dynasties whose patriarchs – we learn in a grand funeral set piece – teamed up in defiance of notices proclaiming “No blacks, no Irish”. Both Essiedu’s Alex and Sean, played by Joe Cole, are grappling with what it means to be sons and heirs, and both notably speak in RP accents very different from those of their parents. In one quietly revealing scene, Alex’s young nephew is dropped off at what is clearly a private prep school.

It’s a reflection of a parental ambition that powered Essiedu’s own childhood. When he was seven, his mother entered him for a scholarship to the private Forest school, a couple of miles from their home, after spotting an advertisement in the local paper. He got in. “I think I just got lucky,” he says. “But my mum really pushed me. I worked really hard from an early age.”

Paapa Essiedu
Paapa Essiedu in the RSC production of Hamlet in 2016. Photograph: RSC Photograph: RSC

At school, there was quite a big Asian population, “but not many who looked like me,” he says. “I grew up in a single-parent, low-income family and I saw very different lives – kids who had PlayStations and would go on holiday to Center Parcs, which seemed the fanciest thing in the world.” He did well enough academically to be offered a place to read medicine at University College London, before deciding to throw it up for drama college on the buzz of a single school performance as a postman in Me and My Girl.

While his main home was London, he kept up a relationship with his family in Ghana, where he has an older half-brother and sister. In I May Destroy You there’s a moment when a chat-up alights on the “Where are you from?” question. “It depends who’s asking,” says Kwame’s date. “If it’s a black person, I’m from Nigeria. If they’re English, they’re getting Barking and Dagenham.” Being part of the diaspora, says Essiedu, “I identify as being Ghanaian and British equally enough. I grew up in London but that culture is in my blood.”

One result of this mixed background is an ability to code-switch between different linguistic cultures, which electrified his Hamlet, creating a prince who is also a rude boy. He recently reprised one of the play’s key speeches for The Monologue Library – a lockdown archive of recordings by leading actors to console bereft theatregoers. His voice sits in the library alongside more than 100 others, including those of fellow Shakespeareans Simon Russell-Beale, Derek Jacobi, and his Gangs of London co-star Sope Dirisu.

Does the success of actors such as Essiedu and Dirisu reflect a society that is finally accepting the responsibility to represent its own diversity? “I think it’s complex,” he says cautiously. “For example, with Gangs it’s great and important that there’s a central family who aren’t defined by their blackness, who are comfortable in their own skins and their own race. It’s also great to have Michaela, a young woman of colour, present at every level of a BBC/HBO series that will be shown on BBC One.

“But it’s all very well having a couple of people playing good parts in a couple of series or films. The question is: is that reflected in the other departments – in makeup, in lighting, in producing? It’s a good way to be walking, but we still have many, many steps ahead of us.”

I May Destroy You starts on BBC One on Monday 8 June


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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