Deadline’s annual group of Ones to Watch in Cannes is made up of actors and filmmakers who are all bringing something fresh to the festival. The distinction isn’t always reserved for brand new faces; rather, we’ve selected people who are branching out, or who find themselves in waters where they are liable to make waves. Cannes can be a place of reinvention, after all.
Paapa Essiedu has a secret. “I’m in Rio de Janeiro,” confides the actor. “I’m on holiday, and I’m still coming to terms with that. I find it hard to ever justify taking my foot off the gas, but, I’m in Rio de Janeiro, I’m on holiday, and I’m owning it.” Essiedu left London at the insistence of his partner, who was rightly concerned about the amount of work the actor had been doing lately. It is also probably a suitable time to decompress before Essiedu dives into the madness of Cannes, where he can be seen in Alex Garland’s surreal psychological thriller Men, due to screen Out of Competition in Directors’ Fortnight.
The film is Garland’s third as a director, and it has already piqued much interest for its strange 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 from the sinister Penny Dreadful television franchise. Essiedu plays James, the widow’s late husband. “The context,” Essiedu explains, “is it’s about a woman in the aftermath of the death of her husband. She goes to the country, rents out an Airbnb to get away from it all, and spends time in one of those oh-so-recognizable English hamlets where she encounters various men. Those encounters impact her in various ways, and let’s just say it gets increasingly tense and increasingly distressing, until…” He stops himself and laughs. “I’m not so good at doing synopses without spoilers, as you can probably tell.”
Essiedu spends a lot of screen time with Buckley, who was Oscar-nominated for her role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. He describes those scenes with Buckley as “super intense” and “no holds barred”. He explains, “It takes a lot out of you because she is so committed. She really goes in. She puts more than 100 percent into every single moment of the film, but especially in our scenes, which are about a husband and wife that are going through a difficult patch. You’ve got to have real courage to go there, and she definitely has. I was really like, ‘Wow, I need to step up.’”
Essiedu is being 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 “charming, combustible, [and] lightning with language,” Essiedu received the British theatrical Ian Charleson Award for playing Hamlet and King Lear for the company. And to think he might never have become an actor, having originally gone to school to become a doctor before dropping out and attending Guildhall School of Music and Drama instead. Would acting’s loss have been medicine’s gain? “To be honest, I don’t know,” he says, “but it was very close. I had a place at college that I was going to take up, but I made a bit of a last-minute U-turn.”
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, much less anyone to guide him on that 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’d been to drama school, so the idea of people on TV, or people in films, being, like, normal people who had jobs was just surreal—those two things were completely separate for me. So, to meet people who were like, ‘Yeah, we enjoy this acting thing and we’re going to train in it so we can do it as a job,’ was a real baptism by fire, in terms of the knowledge that I was gaining.”
Looking back, he still cannot remember a eureka moment that galvanized him. “Still today, it feels absurd,” he says, “the idea of ‘making a go of it’, because it’s such a difficult industry and there are so many aspects of it that are hard. Graduating from drama school, getting an agent, getting my first job… it has been a case of incremental steps forward. Always trying to make sure the next thing has been better than the last thing. That has allowed me to learn while doing, because I know that when I left drama school, I was not very good at all. But I was lucky enough to get jobs in plays and in big theater companies that gave me the opportunity to watch big actors do plays night after night. I was able to see what they were doing that was interesting, or exciting, or that was inspiring audiences, and then I could try and figure out how to put that into my own process.”
He does find it ironic that his breakout moment occurred in a Shakespeare play, even a reimagined one. At the RSC, Essiedu’s Hamlet was a modern-day graffiti artist with a wicked tongue. “It’s proper weird, because when I was at school, I f*cking hated Shakespeare. I thought it was so, so boring, and just so impenetrable, people talking in a language that I don’t understand about things that I don’t care about, being taught by someone who didn’t give a f*ck. I hated it, but there was just a real difference when I had the opportunity to do it, to see those pieces of work 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 reimagination, as opposed to recreating something from once upon a time, and when we did Hamlet that was a big part of our modus operandi—how can we make this play 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 as a favor for an old drama-school friend—playing Kwame in Michaela Coel’s hit series I May Destroy You—led to Bafta and Emmy nominations. “We auditioned on the same day,” he recalls. “I remember chatting to her on the escalator in Moorgate tube station in London, and we were like, ‘This is mad,’ because both of us were from East London, and both of us were like, ‘We don’t know anyone who does this sh*t.’” So, we had that kind of bond from the beginning. I do count myself lucky in meeting her, but more as someone that’s in my life, as opposed to for work reasons. Obviously, being a part of her show has been a big part of my professional life, but even when I was doing it, even when I said that I wanted to do it, I was mainly doing it because she was my mate. And it just so happened—obviously, because she’s brilliant—that it turned out to be brilliant, and the character that she made for me was brilliant. So, yeah, she’s a very, very important person and figure in my life, for many reasons.”
Even after the Baftas and the Emmys, however, Essiedu still can’t fathom where it all started to go right. After promoting Men at Cannes, he will walk straight into promotional duties for his Sky sci-fi series The Lazarus Project, which he describes as “a kind of world-building, time-bending love story.” He’s also set to appear in the BBC cop show The Capture, before starting on Kill the Light, an adaptation of Anthony Quinn’s novel Curtain Call.
“I feel very lucky to have had the trajectory that I’ve had,” Essiedu says. “I don’t think I would’ve done very well if I was one of those actors whose first job was Spider-Man or whatever. It was a way more gradual process, and I feel very lucky for that.”