Paapa Essiedu Has Received Hollywood's Invitation
With a supporting role in the new A24 horror movie 'Men' and an appearance at the recent Met Gala, the British actor's star ascends.
Paapa Essiedu would rather not turn on his Zoom camera. "Just because my room is a total mess right now," he says, referring to the Manhattan hotel where he is staying while in town from his native London. "I'm kind of quite freshly conscious." It's 11 am. The night before, he attended his first Met Gala, wearing a navy-blue velvet suit designed by the late fashion wunderkind Virgil Abloh. Michaela Coel, his drama-school friend and I May Destroy You collaborator, had warned him how "weird" the starry fundraiser can feel in the flesh, but there's no way to prepare yourself to show up someplace and discover you're seated at the same table as Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson, and storied celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz.
"Kim and Pete are obviously experts at this, so they arrived very fashionably late, quite deep into the dinner," Essiedu says. "But yeah, they seemed like good guys and they both looked amazing. Kim was wearing an original Marilyn Monroe piece that she'd been training to fit into for the last three weeks, so I was happy for her."
Essiedu didn't attract as many flashbulbs as the Kardashian crew, but the fact that he made Anna Wintour and company's hyper-curated guest list is telling: The 31-year-old actor seems poised for a major breakthrough, appearing in this month's horror fable Men, directed by acclaimed mind-twister Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, FX's Devs) and released by the trendy indie studio A24. His main pals at the Met Gala, Harris Dickinson and Paul Mescal, know that on-the-cusp sensation well. I May Destroy You, in which Essiedu plays a gay fitness instructor named Kwame whose easygoing aura splinters after he is assaulted during a Grindr hookup, aired on HBO and BBC One in summer 2020, when the pre-vaccine pandemic was raging. Essiedu's star rose enough to earn him an Emmy nomination the following year, but only now is he starting to reap the corresponding career rewards.
"When the show came out, the industry was, for all intents and purposes, shut down," he recalls. "No one was making work. It was maybe August or July, and I was doing a lot of Zooms with producers, execs, casting directors—people who are involved in putting projects together being like, 'Hey, we can't do anything, but we can talk.'"
Early in 2021, Garland sent him the script for Men—"one of those top-secret ones" that "spontaneously combust" as soon as you finish reading the PDF. The director had seen some of Essiedu's stage work, which spans multiple Shakespeare productions (King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet) and the cerebral David Hare play Racing Demon, and pegged him as the emotionally destitute husband to Jessie Buckley's protagonist, Harper, an even-keeled urbanite who retreats to the English countryside for a solo diversion at an estate managed by a disconcertingly smiley innkeeper (Rory Kinnear). Harper is reeling because Essiedu's James, seen only in flashbacks, threatened to kill himself after she requested a divorce, unjustly saddling her with responsibility for his actions. James tells Harper the only thing he wants is her love; if she can no longer give it to him, what nightmarish turn of events awaits her?
Essiedu's role isn't huge—the movie's narrative thrust concerns the various men Harper encounters during her stay, most of whom are played by an increasingly demented Kinnear—but it demanded literal and figurative nakedness. His scenes are fragments of one long, volatile argument, the worst day in Harper and James' relationship. Buckley and Essiedu spent two weeks rehearsing together, which included deep discussions about the couple's history. The final time we see him, during Men's bizarre final act, he is nude, covered in goo (you'll see why) made from a concoction of crushed bananas, honey, and red dye that took roughly six hours to apply.
Such exhaustive prep is familiar territory, both psychologically and physically. For I May Destroy You, Essiedu and Coel worked with pioneering intimacy coordinator Ita O'Brien to choreograph every movement in the assault scene that would shatter Kwame's carefree self-perception. Coel had initially designed Kwame to be more flamboyant, but after casting Essiedu, she found a different angle on him.
"The character was not necessarily larger-than-life, but larger than the Kwame he presented to me," Coel says via email. "Both Kwames exist, but seeing Paapa's sort of blew any other notion I had of the character out of the water. He had a quiet confidence, his mask of security and assurance much more convincing than the Kwames I had written. I preferred his. Kwame's sudden adjacency to what we commonly perceive as heterosexual-presenting gave me hope that perhaps straight-identifying Black men might more easily empathize with his character. What to do when the person you conceive as other looks and acts just like you?"
For Men, "we talked about how they met and how they fell in love," he says of his time with Buckley, another fresh star thanks to The Lost Daughter and Fargo. "We spoke a lot about relationships and what it's like when you are fighting for them or when you stop fighting for them and why you stop fighting for them—and especially what happens when you find yourself in the position of desperation. You can find yourself flailing, like a fish in a bucket, trying to do anything to protect yourself, protect your relationship."
Many of these dynamics Essiedu had to discover for himself as an adult: His mother raised him alone while his father, who died when Essiedu was 14, stayed in Ghana, where both of them were born. At their home in Walthamstow, England, his mom spoke multiple Ghanaian dialects in addition to English, which Essiedu credits for his appreciation for language. Even though he "hated" Shakespeare as a young student and thought he'd become a doctor because he really liked the sitcom Scrubs, he now realizes that his mother indirectly instilled in him a worldliness that he hopes to translate to his acting work. The poise with which he carries himself—a reserved but endearing composure—complements the intense characters he tends to portray, as also seen in AMC's Gangs of London and the miniseries Anne Boleyn.
Essiedu's mother died of cancer when he was in college, shortly before he landed his first TV role in the British series Utopia. Like many parents, she was hesitant when he told her he would go to drama school instead of medical school. But now Essiedu—who is dating actress and comedian Rosa Robson—is an Emmy nominee and a budding A-lister. Days after he walked the Met Gala red carpet, it was announced that he is joining the cast of The Outrun, a Saoirse Ronan-headlined adaptation of Amy Liptrot's bestselling memoir about a Scottish hedonist who returns to the far-flung sheep farm where she grew up. Essiedu will also appear in the Mia Goth vehicle Sweet Dreams and a 1930s murder mystery opposite Colin Firth.
"She was always like, 'Whatever you do, as long as you do it properly, as long as you fully commit to it and you put your all into it and you find a way to make it important in a more global sense,' she'd be proud," he says of his mother. "I think she'd be really proud because it's not just about doing shows for the accolades. It's about doing work that resonates with people and helps people understand and inspires people to make changes in their lives. That's what it's about. That's what makes it meaningful. And I think that's what she would be proud of."