Paapa Essiedu heads to Cannes with Alex Garland’s ‘Men’ – Deadline
Deadline’s Annual Group To monitor in walking sticks is made up of actors and filmmakers who all bring something new to the festival. The accolade isn’t always reserved for new faces; instead, we have selected people who are diversifying or who find themselves in waters where they are likely to make waves. Cannes can be a place of reinvention, after all.
Paapa Essiedu has a secret. “I’m in Rio de Janeiro,” says the actor. “I’m on vacation and I’m still coming to terms with this. I find it hard to justify never letting go of the accelerator, but I’m in Rio de Janeiro, I’m on vacation and I own a property. Essiedu left London at the insistence of his partner, who was rightly worried about the amount of work the actor had been doing lately. It’s also arguably a good time to decompress before Essiedu plunges into the Cannes madness, where he can be seen in Alex Garland’s surreal psychological thriller. Menbecause of the Out of Competition screen at the Directors’ Fortnight.
The film is Garland’s third as a director, and it’s already generated a lot of interest for its bizarre trailer, which stars Jessie Buckley as a grieving widow, along with a number of characters all played by British actor Rory Kinnear, a familiar face of the sinister dreadful penny television franchise. Essiedu plays James, the widow’s late husband. “The context, explains Essiedu, is that it is about a woman following the death of her husband. She goes to the countryside, rents an Airbnb to escape and spends time in one of these so recognizable English hamlets where she meets various men. These encounters affect him in various ways, and let’s just say it gets more and more tense and more and more nerve-wracking, until…” He stops and laughs. “I’m not very good at doing spoiler-free synopses, as you can probably tell.”
Essiedu spends a lot of screen time with Buckley, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Maggie Gyllenhaal The lost girl. He describes those scenes with Buckley as “super intense” and “unrestricted.” He explains, “It asks a lot of you because she is so committed. She really comes in. She puts over 100% into every moment of the film, but especially into our scenes, which are about a husband and wife going through a tough time. You have to have real courage to go there, and she definitely did. I was really like, ‘Wow, I have to step up.'”
Essiedu is modest here, having made history in 2016 when he became the first black actor to play Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Described by The Washington Post as “lovely, combustible, [and] flash with language”, Essiedu received the British Ian Charleson Award for playing Hamlet and King Lear for the company. And to think he may never have become an actor, having first gone to school to become a doctor before dropping out and attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama instead. Would the loss of comedy have been the gain of medicine? “To be honest, I don’t know,” he says, “but it was very close. I had a place at the university that I was going to take, but I turned around at the last minute.
Growing up in Walthamstow, where his Ghanaian mother raised him after his father died in his early teens, Essiedu had little to no experience in the arts, let alone someone to do it. guide on this path. “Look, I didn’t know anyone who was an actor,” he says. “There are no actors in my family, or even artists in my family, I don’t think. I didn’t know anyone who had been to drama school, so the idea that the people on TV or people in movies being, like, normal people who had jobs was just surreal – those two things were completely separate to me. So meeting people who were like, ‘Yeah, we like this acting and we’re going to practice it so we can make a job of it,” was a real baptism of fire, in terms of the knowledge I gained.
Looking back, he still doesn’t remember a eureka moment that galvanized him. “Even today it seems absurd,” he says, “the idea of ’giving it a try’, because it’s such a tough industry and there are so many aspects that are tough. Graduating from drama school, finding an agent, getting my first job…it’s been a case of stepping up. Always trying to make sure the next thing was better than the last thing. It allowed me to learn by doing, because I know that when I left theater school, I wasn’t very good at all. But I was lucky enough to get jobs in plays and big theater companies that gave me the opportunity to see great actors perform plays night after night. I could see what they were doing that was interesting, exciting or inspiring to the audience, and then I could try to figure out how to integrate that into my own process.
He finds it ironic that his breakout moment happened in a Shakespearean play, even a reimagined one. At RSC, Essiedu’s Hamlet was a modern-day graffiti artist with a bad tongue. “It’s really weird, because when I was in school I fucking hated Shakespeare. I thought it was so, so boring and just so inscrutable, people speaking in a language I don’t understand about things I don’t care about, being taught by someone who didn’t give a damn. I hated it, but there was just a real difference when I got to do it, to see these works as something other than a literary bible, to see them as something living and breathing that could be changed. I’ve always been interested in Shakespeare as a reimagining, as opposed to a recreation of something of yore, and when we did Hamlet it was a big part of our modus operandi – how can we make this piece relevant to our world? »
Essiedu was surprised to find that fate had more in store for him than the bard. Last year, a role he did an old drama school friend a favor – playing Kwame in Michaela Coel’s hit series I can destroy you– led to Bafta and Emmy Award nominations. “We auditioned the same day,” he recalls. “I remember chatting with her on the escalator at Moorgate tube station in London, and we were like, ‘That’s crazy,’ because we were both from east London, and we were both like, “We don’t know anybody who does this shit.” “So we’ve had that kind of bond from the start. I consider myself lucky to meet her, but more like someone who does part of my life, rather than for professional reasons. Obviously being on his show was a big part of my professional life, but even when I did, even when I said I wanted to do it, I mostly did it because she was my mate. And it turned out – obviously, because she’s brilliant – it turned out to be brilliant, and the character that she created for me was brilliant. So, yes, he is a very, very important person and a figure in my life, for many reasons.
Even after the Baftas and the Emmys, however, Essiedu still doesn’t understand where it all started to go. After the promotion Men in Cannes, he will enter directly into the promotion of his science fiction series Sky The Lazarus Project, which he describes as “a kind of love story that builds the world and breaks time”. He is also set to appear on the BBC crime show Capturingbefore starting kill the lightan adaptation of Anthony Quinn’s novel reminder.
“I feel very lucky to have had the trajectory that I had,” says Essiedu. “I don’t think I would have done very well if I had been one of those actors whose first job was Spider Man or whatever. It was a much more gradual process, and I feel very lucky for that.