Paapa Essiedu may just be the finest acting talent of his generation. At 33, his career is already remarkable in its ambition and breadth. A mainstay at the RSC in his early 20s, he made a surprise breakthrough when he was an understudy thrust into a leading role mid-performance in Sam Mendes’s King Lear at the National Theatre aged just 23 (helpfully, in front of The Guardian’s theatre critic), before playing the hottest Hamlet in years for the RSC, firmly establishing him as the most exciting new talent on stage.
Then came a series of impressive screen roles. Essiedu caught the eye in Russell T Davies’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starred alongside his drama school pal Michaela Coel in her Bafta-winning I May Destroy You – all repressed pain and vulnerability. More recently, he played a smooth-talking ambitious politician caught up in a deepfake scandal in The Capture and the lead role in The Lazarus Project, joining a crew of secret agents who could turn back time in the event of an apocalypse.
Now, fresh from another compelling turn in Netflix’s Black Mirroras a demon channelling Boney M’s disco king Bobby Farrell, he’s returning to his first love.
He meets The Big Issue at the National Theatre’s stage door. It’s the first day of technical rehearsals for Successionwriter Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect. It is, he says, “an exciting and scary day”. But if Essiedu is feeling nervous at returning to the scene of his breakthrough after almost a decade, he’s a good enough actor to mask it.
“It feels very significant,” he says. “National Theatre and Arts Council-funded organisations like this have a big responsibility to make different types of work for different types of people. This is one of the most important artistic institutions that we have. So it’s really important for me to contribute to that for my own kind of raison d’etre.
“And in terms of joining these two events in my own career together, it does feel good. Last time, I was just so delighted to be here. I was doing this Shakespeare play with the best actors in the country. It was Simon Russell Beale, Anna Maxwell Martin, Tom Brooke, Adrian Scarborough, Stanley Townsend – the creme de la creme. Every single day was a joy to go to work just to watch and learn. Then this extraordinary thing happens to me, having to go on in front of an audience in the middle of a show just before press night.
“So to come back and in a more significant way, to have a different level of experience and more responsibility, feels really good. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of doing.”
The actor grew up in Walthamstow, raised by his late mother when his father returned to Ghana, and won a scholarship to the private Forest school. He was set to study medicine at UCL before finding his people at National Youth Theatre. Instead, he went to Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Essiedu loves the theatre. But doesn’t always love the rehearsal process. “It’s the pain of being confronted by inadequacy,” he says. “Or by the reality that you might be bad. It’s that sadomasochistic self-flagellation, you know?”
But this play, a meditation on love and depression and brain chemistry, deals with the kind of issues he loves to tackle.
“There is something fascinating about the feeling of falling in love and the logic and illogic of it,” he says. “And I’m always really attracted by fundamental humanity. Really drilling down into what makes us us. Because every single day, no matter how repetitive or low stakes life can seem, there is always something sublime or terrifying or infuriating. So the domestic is actually extraordinary and I like to explore that in my work.”
Essiedu describes himself as a Lucy Prebble admirer/fan/worshipper, citing I Hate Suzieand Succession, as well as her play A Very Expensive Poison.
“Her work on stage feels a bit secondary because of Succession’s global success, but right from the jump, Sugar Syndrome, she has been an absolute world leader in playmaking,” he says.
“She’s got that rare skill of being able to write characters and allow them to speak so they sound like normal people. They speak like you or I do. And you can drop them into extreme situations without losing the naturalism or realism.”
Sounding like normal people is one of Essiedu’s great skills as an actor. Stylistically, he may just be closer to Mark Rylance than anyone else in the business – an extreme naturalism, a line delivery that is technically brilliant, utterly compelling and entirely unpredictable allied to a magnetism and charisma that elevates every role he takes on.
He really is that good. Don’t believe us? Here’s The Lazarus Project writer Joe Barton. “Of all his many brilliant gifts I think Paapa’s greatest strength is that you’re naturally drawn to him whenever he appears on screen. He has an innate charm and an authenticity that means you want to follow his characters wherever they go. Also, importantly, he’s very funny.
“Whether he’s playing a guy trying to set off a nuclear bomb or a demon trying to convince someone to commit murders, it doesn’t matter, you just want to see what he’s going to do next.”
Prebble confirms their mutual admiration: “Paapa is one of the finest stage actors working at the moment,” she emails to us. “He’s playful, brave and also technically brilliant. That’s a rare combination. I never feel unsafe when he’s on stage. Unless he wants me to.”
The huge range of roles Essiedu has already taken on is not accidental.
“It’s almost a political act,” he says. “This industry in general, but especially if you come from a minority community or background, is very quick to attempt to put you into a pigeonhole. I’ve always been very resistant to that.
“I faced it relatively early in my career when I was playing Hamlet at the RSC. There was a whole lot of rigmarole and debate about me being black and how that hadn’t happened at the RSC before. There was almost more focus on that than the actual production and I found that so difficult.
“I was 25 years old and having to field questions about the significance of my blackness when it was hard enough for me trying to figure out how to play this part and have this production on my shoulders.
“So from those times, I’ve been very aware and I’ve tried to be savvy about the propensity of the industry to try and clip my wings. But that involves saying no to a lot of things and not always taking the easy route. I’ve said no to things that have gone on to be very, very, very big successes. I’m not gonna say what!”
These are difficult times for anyone working in the entertainment industry. Just a few years after the pandemic shut down so much film and television production, wrecking a few dreams in the process, actors and writers are currently on strike.
While this means Essiedu is unable to talk about some upcoming projects, he is more than happy to go on record with his feelings about the state of the industry and the vital importance of the industrial action SAG-AFTRA members are taking.
“It feels like a really important moment. And it’s really important that the right decisions are made at this point,” he says. “Because the history of this industry, and this society, is one of exploitation. And if people don’t stand up for what’s important and for the right for people to be able to work in a way that allows them to have a sustainable life and lifestyle within this industry, then the future is very, very, very bleak for us. So I feel very galvanised by and inspired by the bravery and the commitment and the courage that’s been exhibited by the unions and creatives in my industry. And I stand by them wholeheartedly.”
Whether it is Hollywood stars (who can afford the unpaid career break) joining their more precariously employed peers on picket lines at major studios in the US or the determination of writers and actors to stand up for a more secure and more fair future in the streaming and AI age, the solidarity across the industry has been impressive.
“I didn’t start out in television or film, and the nature of doing plays demands at least an understanding of ensemble and collaboration,” he says. “So I’ve always had relationships with writers and directors and musicians and designers and everyone involved in the process.
“It would be crazy right now for there not to be a sense of solidarity. Because the impact of the moment of time we’re in will affect everybody. So solidarity is a minimum for us to face this down.
“You’ve got to check your privilege. Because it’s very easy for me to say we’ve just got to wait it out. And that’s why I wanted to talk about the courage and bravery and sacrifice. Because this is an intersectional movement, and not everybody is in that position.”
Essiedu initially found community in actors and writers he came up through the ranks with. These include, he says, I May Destroy You creator Michaela Coel and The Miniaturist co-star Hayley Squires.
“It’s that thing you’re picking up on in terms of sharing the reality of the experience – sharing the frustration or the disappointment or the rejection as well as celebrating the wins,” he says. “Working in this industry, even though collaboration is a central tenet of it, you can feel very alone. But I’ve found community and strength, especially among people that have come from the same place as me.
“This strike is about creating the circumstances for writers to be properly and sustainably remunerated as we move into the future. People like Hayley, people like Michaela, they are representative voices of these times – and we need them. The studios need them. The actors need them. Viewers need them. So I feel it’s an important time to protect the rights of those people.”
And that’s where Essiedu is. A serious talent, making a serious cultural contribution because he knows just how important it is.
“It’s hard for me not to be political in the work that I do. I am not the kind of person who puts his head in the sand and will say yes to anything without thinking about the impact or the influence or the way it could be read or what it can do for people.
“I think what we do can be very powerful. And I don’t think it is idealistic to say films, TV shows, plays significantly impact and change people’s lives.”
The Effect runs until 7 October at the National Theatre. The Lazarus Project returns to Sky this autumn
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