Paapa Essiedu has presence and poise as soon as he enters the room. His perfectly clipped beard is probably the smartest thing in the smart London hotel where we’re meeting to discuss The Lazarus Project. Written by Giri/Haji‘s Joe Barton and starring Essiedu, the stylish time loop thriller is now returning for a second series on Sky Max and NOW. Unlike some actors, Essiedu doesn’t try to be instantly pally – a tactic that can make an interview feel more transactional. Instead, he speaks quietly and thoughtfully, holding eye contact for longer as the chat goes on. His dry sense of humour is a disarming delight.
When NME asks whether he was attracted to The Lazarus Project partly because it gives him a big, meaty lead role, he replies with a glint in his eye: “Being the lead is not the be all and end all. Yes, your name is on the poster, but nobody else [in the cast] is doing press right now.” Segueing into a more serious answer, Essiedu says it’s the “emotional complexity of a character” that he’s drawn to rather than their screen time. “I think that’s the thing that really gets into people’ psyches and makes storytelling worthwhile,” he says.
Essiedu’s storytelling record is already pretty enviable. His sharp-suited schemer Alex Dumani was a key player in the first series of splashy crime drama Gangs Of London. In this year’s dazzling Black Mirror episode ‘Demon 79’, he was wickedly impish as Gaap, a devilish entity dressed like a Boney M member who cajoles put-upon shop worker Nida (Anjana Vasan) to go on a killing spree. Perhaps most notably, he gave a devastating performance in I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s monumental 2020 series exploiting sexual assault and the snowballing trauma it causes.
“You don’t get nominated for a BAFTA and suddenly Steven Spielberg is waiting in your garden”
Essiedu picked up Emmy and BAFTA nominations for his haunting portrayal of Kwame, a fitness instructor who is raped by a stranger he meets on Grindr. Essiedu is rightly proud of the award-winning series created, written and co-directed by Coel, a close friend he met at London’s Guildhall School Of Music And Drama. “You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who worked on that show who doesn’t feel that way,” he says. “It felt true to where we grew up and the people that we hung out with and knew and loved.”
At the same time, Essiedu is wary of painting it as too much of a “breakthrough moment” for him personally. “It never felt like you get nominated for a BAFTA and suddenly Steven Spielberg is waiting in your garden,” he says wryly. “But I think the fact that lots of people enjoyed it led to me being discussed [for roles] in a different bracket.” Instead, Essiedu takes a more rounded view of his career trajectory. “I’ve always believed that I’m capable and I’ve always been ambitious in terms of what I want to achieve,” he says. “So yeah, it just came at the time that it came – not a second too soon, and not a second too late.”
The Lazarus Project gives him further opportunities to display his range as he pivots between action hero and interloper. Series one followed Essiedu’s George, an app developer he has previously described as an “everyman”, as he discovers he is reliving the same six-month period over and over. George thinks he’s losing the plot until he is recruited by Archie (Anjli Mohindra), a member of a covert organisation known as The Lazarus Project. Their remit is to save the world from terrorist threats by turning the clock back to a set checkpoint: if they mess up the first time, they just hit reset and try again.
It would be a shame to say too much about series one, which unfolds with a crisp attention to detail and super-slick editing in the time travel scenes. But, given that George begins series two as a somewhat compromised Lazarus Project operative, can we still call him an everyman? “Everything’s contextual, isn’t it?” Essiedu counters. “He’s in a very different place now – he’s got a kill count that many terrorists would be proud of.”
Unlike Archie and other Lazarus Project colleagues, Essiedu adds, George doesn’t come from a typical MI5 background. “He doesn’t have any superhuman capabilities, but he’s got an incredibly big heart and he’s incredibly stubborn-slash-persevering,” he says. “He’s a real person in unreal circumstances.” He normally creates a playlist for his characters, but interestingly, he didn’t make one for George. “I’ve really got no idea what kind of music he listens to, to the extent that I’m like, ‘Maybe he doesn’t listen to music?'” he says.
Still, Essiedu stops short of framing him as a blank slate. “In terms of getting into George, you’ve got to embrace [the fact] that there’s a slightly chaotic underbelly to him,” he says. “On the surface, he presents a sense of normality, but there’s a real engine underneath him. So for me, it’s about figuring out the moments where it’s this [chaotic engine] that truly drives him and the moments where that takes more of a backseat.” His co-star Mohindra tells NME over Zoom that Essiedu is “thrilling” to work with because he “makes bold choices” and isn’t afraid to “raise the stakes” in a scene. “I guess it’s his theatre background that lends itself to finding different ways to play things, which keeps it really fresh and alive,” she says. “I think the best acting comes when it feels a little bit dangerous and unpredictable.”
Eleven years after he began his acting career by joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, Essiedu says he’s “done a pretty good job of not doing the same thing twice”. He has nearly as many stage credits as screen roles, and won the prestigious Ian Charleson Award in 2016 for his classical turns in Hamlet and King Lear. This August, he scored another stage triumph when he starred opposite Taylor Russell in The Effect, the National Theatre’s timely revival of a dark contemporary drama written by Lucy Prebble (Succession, I Hate Suzie).
He and Russell played two young people who fall in love during a clinical trial, but can’t be sure whether their passion is genuine or the by-product of a massive dopamine hit. “It was a very formative experience, being able to do a play that felt very small and intimate and real, but done in a way that really reached outwards,” Essiedu says. “And I’m really proud of the work that I do, like, on most of my projects, which is about audience development and outreach. It’s about diversifying the type of person that engages with the work and is part of the making process.”
Essiedu says that when he stepped out on stage every night, he could “really feel” that this outreach work had paid off. He felt the charge of first-time theatregoers in a “fucking massive barn” of a theatre space that is “famous for actors feeling very detached from their audiences”. He was drawn to acting in the first place because he “likes being with people and collaborating with people”, so this sense of connection must have felt incredibly gratifying.
Essiedu was brought up in northeast London by his mother, who taught fashion and design at adult education colleges. When he was a baby, his lawyer father returned to Ghana, where he passed away when Essiedu was 14. He and mum Selina, who died of breast cancer during Essiedu’s first year at drama school, formed a tight two-person team. “I grew up in a kitchen where the sewing machine was a permanent fixture,” he recalls fondly. “There were pins everywhere and they were constantly going into my feet.”
Originally, Essiedu wanted to become a doctor because it would have involved “spending so much time with people”. He was “very hard-working” at school and won a place to study medicine at University College London, but pulled out at the eleventh hour after starring in a sixth form production of Othello. “The idea of acting came to me way later than medicine, so it was way more exciting and titillating,” he says. “As an 18-year-old, I wanted to test myself in a space where I didn’t know if it was going to work or not.” He laughs, then compares himself to his character in The Lazarus Project. “It was kind of George-like, in a way – a pretty chaotic decision to make.”
Essiedu says he started drama school feeling “500 metres behind” classmates who already had professional acting experience. “I hadn’t grown up going to the theatre, you know, or even thinking that acting could be a job,” he says. He and Coel met on their very first day, and became “very close from the jump” because they had so much in common: Coel went to school close to where Essiedu grew up in Walthamstow, and they both had Ghanaian parents.
“Michaela Coel and I were the only dark-skinned Black people in our group at drama school”
“I remember seeing her and she was an immediately charismatic individual,” he recalls. “But we were the only two dark-skinned Black people [there], and two of only three people of colour at all.” In a 2022 interview, Essiedu revealed that a Guildhall teacher addressed him with a racial slur during an improvisation class, prompting the school to “apologise unreservedly for the racism experienced” by Essiedu, Coel and other alumni.
Understandably, Essiedu doesn’t bring up this sickening incident today. He says he loved “loads of drama school” while finding other aspects “challenging”. “Sometimes it felt like they were taking away some of your natural instincts and trying to implement a bit of formality, which was difficult,” he adds. So, now he’s leading one of TV’s most exciting sci-fi series, what advice would he give to his younger self – the fledgling actor who felt behind? “For me, there was always this fear that you’re going to be found out and told to walk out the door. That’s what imposter syndrome is,” he says. “So I suppose my advice would be: ‘Don’t be afraid someone’s gonna close the door on you because you’re here for a reason. You’ve got a right to be in this room.'”
‘The Lazarus Project’ season two is available on Sky Max and streaming service NOW from November 15
The post Paapa Essiedu just wants to tell proper stories: “Being the lead isn’t the be all and end all” appeared first on NME.