(JTA) — Ato Essandoh isn’t Jewish, or British, or an astronaut — but he plays an African-British-Jewish astronaut on TV.
In Netflix’s new hit drama “Away,” about an international crew of astronauts who set out on a critical near-future mission to Mars, Essandoh plays botanist Kwesi Weisberg-Annan, an orphan who is raised by a white Jewish mother and an African Jewish father in England after his parents are killed in his native Africa. Kwesi prays in Hebrew when the going gets tough on the spacecraft — it happens often during the crew’s multi-year journey — and early on he notes that he brought aboard a Torah.
Luckily for Essandoh, he already had the Jewish side of his role down, as he put it, since he had previously portrayed a Black Jewish character — Dr. Isidore Latham on “Chicago Med.”
“The British part was the problem — I was like, now I have to learn a dialect! But I said, ‘OK, I have the Jewish thing down,’” he said with a laugh on the phone from his home in Brooklyn.
He also had a head start on learning Jewish culture from his childhood in upstate New York, where he said he was surrounded by Jewish friends and brought up by parents who encouraged him to explore different histories and belief systems — ranging from Norse mythology to the New Testament to the fairy tale stories of West Africa.
The role of Kwesi is just the latest in a wide-ranging career that kicked into high gear after a supporting part as Natalie Portman’s adopted brother in Zach Braff’s 2004 indie hit “Garden State.” Essandoh, now 48, spoke with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Black-Jewish representation on screen, his favorite Jewish prayer and his family’s obsession with bagels.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
JTA: This isn’t giving much away for viewers, but there is a virus plot in this show. I have to know: Was the entire thing written and filmed before the COVID-19 crisis?
Essandoh: Yes. At Netflix they practice witchcraft, so I think that’s what happened. [laughs]
When you saw this role, did you say to yourself: “Again with the Black-Jewish character?”
Where I grew up, when we moved from Schenectady to New Rochelle in like sixth grade, most of my friends were Jewish, so I got sort of a primer on a little bit of Hebrew, I got the Yiddish curses. I tasted bagels for the first time.
I have a funny story about that. We’re African kids living up in Schenectady, and my dad would do business down in New York City sometimes. One time he brought back bagels. And we had never seen bagels, we were probably 7- and 8-year-old kids. We were like, “What is that round bread with a whole in it?!” And my dad is like, “Trust us, eat it.” We’re kids, so we said, “No, we don’t know what it is!” Then he pulled out cream cheese and he’s like, “You spread this stuff on it.” And he’s coming back to us like he’s discovered something from the new world — and of course he’s Ghanaian, so he’s never seen this.
I will tell you, when we put those bagels in our mouths and ate them, we became the bagel family. To this day — since my parents have moved back to Ghana — if I dare go to Ghana from New York without bringing New York bagels, I will not be allowed to stay in the home. My mom is trying to teach herself how to make bagels. This is 30 years of bagel expertise. We love bagels in our family.
And I think that was kind of a precursor, speaking of witchcraft, to my career as an actor, now playing twice a Jewish character, which I think is great.
So how prepared were you this time? What kind of new things did you have to learn for this specific character?
“Chicago Med” prepped me for this. [For that role] I spoke to [Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye] and what was nice about speaking to him was that in our culture, I guess writ large, a nonwhite person who’s a Jewish person is a rarity to most of us. So it feels like somebody is just trying to make an interesting character for interesting character’s sake. When I spoke to the rabbi, he was like “Oh no, Black Jewish people and nonwhite-looking Jewish people are more than you think. They’re all over, even in Ghana.” And for an actor what that helps with is then I don’t feel like I’m sort of the sore thumb that somebody slapped together; there’s a real person here. Part of acting is just allowing yourself to believe you’re that person.
So that helped me with this character [in “Away”] because i was like “Yeah, OK, Black Jewish guy, no problem.”
But then speaking Hebrew in an English dialect was also sort of a mind-bending thing.
Any words or phrases that you struggled with?
I have to give props to the coach that they got for me out in Vancouver, who I believe is Israeli — he made it very easy. I think I can still do the “Traveler’s Prayer,” let’s see: Y’hi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu ve-lohei avoteinu she-tolichenu l’shalom v’tatz’idenu l’shalom … I can’t even believe I can say that part, oh my God. I think I’m honorary at this point. [laughs]
What I love about that prayer, at least how I translate it, is that it’s about the journey. It’s almost about “appreciate the journey, appreciate the opportunity of being able to go to a different place than you were before.” And hopefully you learn something, hopefully you do not die on the way, but learn and strengthen yourself through that travel, and that’s a lovely sort of way to look at life.
The conversation about Jews of color has really flourished and expanded in recent years. Have you followed that thread at all, and have any Jews of color reached out to you expressing appreciation or anything like that?
That I haven’t seen yet directly, but I think that it is happening, and that brings up a broader point that you are making, which is that it’s seeing all of the diversity of different people, especially right now … is something that is tantamount to our progress as a human species. We have to learn the constructs that we have been under — like my construct that “all Jewish people look white, that’s what they are.” No, there’s a whole set of people who practice Judaism who don’t look this way. All protagonists of movies have to be white men — no, look at Hillary Swank, look what she’s doing [in “Away”]. And what it does is give us a diversity of ideas, a diversity of things that we can learn from each other and everybody belongs at this table and nothing should be off the table because it can only make us stronger. That’s my feel-good message of the day.
President Obama used the Passover Seder to draw parallels between the African and Jewish quests for freedom over the millennia. In “Away,” there’s a scene in which Kwesi’s adoptive father makes a similar kind of comparison as he explains to young Kwesi why he adopted Judaism. Have these roles made you think more about the similarities between African and Jewish culture?
It’s funny, having all the Jewish friends I’ve had all throughout my life, I realize it was only last year — and I’m mad at all my Jewish friends at this point — when my agent invited me to a Seder. I had never been to one before, which is extraordinary for someone like me, and what I absolutely loved — I’m not a very religious person — but what I loved was the family sitting around, talking about this shared history, this shared story, and laughing and joking about uncle so-and-so and auntie da-da-da, and there’s this sort of ritual which forces or which encourages the family to bond. Which is the same thing with my family. When I go to Ghana, since our family’s now spread all over the world, my dad has this thing that he calls the “family state of the union.” We all go around in circles and shake each others’ hands and then we just sit there and talk about the year — “How did the year go for you? Oh, this is what happened, this is what I’m worried about, this is the thing that I’m looking forward to, I got this new television show, I can’t wait for you guys to see.” I feel like there are a lot of those parallels.
The thing my mom used to tell me all the time growing up, because I’ve always been a person who’s stuck between multiple cultures — American and Ghanaian and Black and this and that — my mom said you know having that kind of diversity, see it this way, take the things that work from each culture and leave the other stuff behind, make your own culture, make your own identity. You get to pick and choose because you have a diversity of choices, and that’s something I’ve tried to uphold throughout my life.
This character has a deep religious narrative; it’s not just a token inclusion. Did playing it make you rethink your own spirituality at all?
I thought about it, but I thought about it in the way that I have an admiration for people of faith. Faith is the belief in something with the absence of evidence, so you’re looking into the void and your faith tells you that there’s somebody or something there that will help you and will guide you and has a plan — as opposed to somebody like me, who looks into the void and goes, “All right, guys, I don’t know where we’re going either, let’s all hold hands and try to figure this out on the way.” And I think somewhere in the middle is perhaps the reality of the universe.
So it didn’t necessarily change my point of view, but it has sort of helped me navigate the things that I think are true and have empathy for another person’s way of looking at the universe. Because who says I’m the one who’s right? I don’t know.
While we’re seeing greater diversity on screen, it’s a tricky time to play a character with traits that you as an actor don’t have. Do you ever think about people calling you out for being a non-Jewish actor playing Jewish characters? And what do you think about the whole debate?
Yeah, I think about it a lot with this role and my “Chicago Med” role, and a role I had just this past summer on Amazon’s “Tales From the Loop” where I played a gay man. And it’s really tricky because you can argue that I’m not Jewish, but you can also argue that I’m not a botanist nor am I an astronaut nor am I a British citizen nor am I a Ghanaian citizen.
So I don’t understand the problem in a binary situation. I understand it if you’re doing “Raisin in the Sun” and you cast the family as white people. That is problematic because this play is about being Black. There’s a difference between something that is tied to the identity of the piece that you’re doing and an actor playing a role. And so I think it should be a much more nuanced conversation than it is, and I do think about that all the time, I do anticipate people saying, “If you’re not even Jewish, if you’re not even somebody who says you believe in God, why should you have the right to play a religious character, much less a Jewish character?” I don’t know how to answer that question.
I love to act and I love to tell stories, but I also want to have respect for the stories I’m telling. If it’s a situation where it’s going to ruin the show or people aren’t going to watch it, then I’ll step down — I mean not for this show, too late now I guess — that’s something I have to take into consideration. Because I don’t want to offend people. I wouldn’t want to offend everyone who’s a Jewish person who would look at that and go “Oh, my god, what is he doing!” If I’ve done something wrong, I don’t want to be in the boat of maligning a whole entire group of people. So it’s a really delicate situation. I hope I’ve brought some reality to it and I haven’t shined the wrong kind of attention to it.
So what if someone comes to you, let’s say a few roles from now, with another Black-Jewish character. What’s your response?
I guess I’d say I’ve been doing a pretty good job, that’s why you’re coming to me, I’m the Black-Jewish expert at this point. I’ll stick it on my resume — I’ll put the “Traveler’s Prayer” on my resume.