After playing the legitimate face of the Dumani crime family in Sky One’s ultra-violent hit Gangs of London, Paapa Essiedu is back on screen in his second buzzy role of 2020. BBC/HBO’s I May Destroy You is an accessible series about a challenging subject – consent and recovery from sexual assault. Inspired by real experiences, the 12-part drama created by Michaela Coel is currently airing on BBC One on Monday and Tuesday nights.
Though his character Kwame’s story is yet to get moving, Essiedu is already delighted by the response. His friends and family outside the industry “are just buzzing to see [him] on BBC One,” he laughs. “If this is as good as it gets, a lot of people would still be pretty happy.”
If that’s humility (I May Destroy You is far from his first BBC One appearance, following parts in Press, Black Earth Rising and The Miniaturist, not forgetting the title role of the RSC’s Hamlet in 2016), it feels genuine. There’d be plenty to boast about if Essiedu had the inclination. Repeatedly picked as a standout in reviews, since graduating from drama school he’s built up an enviable collection of stage and screen credits.
In the first of a new interview series below, he takes us back to where it all began…
Which TV show inspired you to start your acting career?
The serious answer is a show called Fallout on Channel 4 around 2008. It’s based on a Roy Williams play and about a guy who gets stabbed. I had never really seen young black men from the same kind of background that I was, in a TV series. Weirdly Aml Ameen [Simon in I May Destroy You] was in it. I remember at the time thinking ‘that guy’s sick, I want to be an actor too’ and now we’re in a show together, it’s a bit mad.
And the less serious answer?
Scrubs! I don’t think it needs an explanation. At the time I was also thinking of going to medical school, so Scrubs was the perfect amalgamation of my desire to do something that was medically oriented and also wanting to be a performer and be on TV.
Growing up, which TV character did you most want to be?
I wanted to be Turk from Scrubs! [Laughs] That was me. I guess I wanted to be the actor playing Turk from Scrubs [Donald Faison], because then I’d literally be doing both things: I’d be being a doctor and on the telly.
.…and which TV character do you most want to be now?
I would really love to be like any of the central three in Atlanta. Donald Glover’s character or LaKeith Stanfield’s character or Brian Tyree Henry’s character, I just think they’re unique and funny and unprecedented on television – the fact that they’re allowed to be abstract and weird and black and famous and rich and poor. Amazing three dimensional characters.
Which TV show has given you nightmares? This might go back to childhood…
[Laughs] Actually, Gangs of London. We shot the series two years ago, so I had kind of forgotten what the story was. When I was watching it on telly, it was more as a punter and I just found myself watching these incredibly violent, gruesome scenes at 2am and going to bed and having awful dreams of torture and gun fights. That’s why I’m glad it’s not PG-13. I’m glad it’s got a proper restricted rating.
Nothing as a kid?
I was a proper little wimp as a kid, I remember by accident – this isn’t a TV show so it probably doesn’t count – I accidentally watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was on VHS and my terror was so all-encompassing that I also became scared of the physical tape and then I got scared of the box that the tape was in, and then I got scared of the box that that the box was in. I was really young, seven or eight. There was some PTSD that I’ve worked over with a therapist.
When did you last cry watching television?
I don’t know if you watch Ozark on Netflix? There’s one episode, episode nine of season three and it’s got the most incredible performance I’ve seen in a long time, with a really heart-wrenching conflict at the centre of it. Something happens at the end of that episode that I just found heart-breaking, all to do with Tom Pelphrey’s performance as Ben. He’s incredible, unbelievable, he’s so good in it. I was so affected by it that I was watching the next episode still crying remembering back to the previous one.
And when did you last laugh out loud watching television?
Did you ever watch that episode of Extras that David Bowie’s in?
The Little Fat Man song?
Me and my girlfriend were watching that [laughs] the other day and it was just so genius. Ricky Gervais’ character is really earnestly talking to him about the perils of feeling like a sell-out and Bowie’s looking him straight in the eye and singing ‘Chubby little sad man, nobody likes you…’ It’s so funny, so funny.
Name an iconic TV moment for your generation
The ending of Game Of Thrones. The bit where Arya stabs the… demon. That show was so huge and there was so much expectation about how it was going to end. I don’t know if it’s the most iconic bit of TV I’ve ever seen though.
Were you satisfied by the Game of Thrones ending?
No, I was very unsatisfied. I was very unsatisfied! [Laughs] I thought it was a bit of a copout. I thought that bit was cool actually, that one isolated bit where Maisie Williams jumps out of nowhere. That was cool.
Which TV show would you bring back from the dead?
They’re sort of doing that. Are you planning to watch the movie prequel?
I want them to bring the actual Sopranos back from the dead. James Gandolfini back from the dead! That show is iconic. I’m asking for season eight.
You want to know what happens to Tony after that scene in the diner?
I want to know what does it all mean?!
Have you ever done fancy dress as a TV character?
I hate fancy dress so I don’t really do it, but I did a show called Press and I had to, as a journalist, break into a fancy dress party dressed as a polar bear. The scene took eight, nine hours to shoot and those costumes are so hot and uncomfortable and sweaty and it was hell. That’s the reason I don’t like fancy dress.
Which TV show do you wish more people would watch?
Atlanta, I’d say. I think it’s brilliant, genius and I assume that the whole world has watched it but apparently loads of people haven’t. I think it’s a proper radical take on modern black American culture.
Which TV theme songs do you know the words to?
Obviously got to be The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Surely.
When was the last time you performed it?
Performed it? [Laughs] I haven’t been selling tickets any time recently! I could do it right now.
I won’t ask you to, but good to know. Which TV character would you like to beat in a fight?
I want to take on Sope’s [Dirisu] character in Gangs of London, because in Gangs of London, my character’s always sat in front of a computer moaning about how someone’s nicked the money whilst everyone else is off shooting guns and kicking people in the head and I think the show that [laughs] we’re all waiting for is the computer geek vs the James Bond shoo-in.
Is that what you’d like to see for your character in season two?
Paapa the person does, but Paapa the actor probably thinks it might be a little bit of a stretch. Maybe in the interim, he can have some sort of SAS training.
What’s the most fun you’ve had making TV?
I really enjoyed doing I May Destroy You because Michaela’s a good mate of mine and has been for a long time, so to be able to work with someone who’s a mate on something that you think is good and that you’re proud of and the energy around the set was a laugh. I’ve got to say that.
And finally, what was the last TV show you recommended to a friend?
I’m telling everyone to watch Devs on BBC One and FX. Right now, the world seems like it’s falling apart and it feels like we’re losing our sense of free will and we’re becoming more polarised and I think Devs is an amazing excavation of the potential for artificial intelligence to affect our past, present and future.
I May Destroy You airs on Monday and Tuesday nights at 10.45pm on BBC One and iPlayer, and on Sunday nights at 10.30pm on HBO.