Paapa Essiedu: I'd approach 'every single one' of my roles differently if I could

The actor speaks to Yahoo UK about what made him who he is today

Watch: Paapa Essiedu reveals his Origin Story

Paapa Essiedu always strives for perfection, and even if he has garnered a lot of praise for his talent since making his debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012 he still thinks he has more to do.

The actor feels he has "failed upwards" since training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but Essiedu has proven himself time and again as an actor, first in theatre and then in TV and film.

With critically-acclaimed projects like I May Destroy You, Black Mirror and Gangs of London behind him, and a new season of The Lazarus Project ahead, he's made quite the mark in the industry but Essiedu feels he'd approach "every single" role differently if he could.

And to give better insight into why he thinks this is, as well as his life and career thus far, Essiedu sits down with Yahoo UK to reflect on his Origin Story.

Paapa Essiedu's acting journey

Paapa Essiedu looks back at significant moments from his life and career with Yahoo UK (Getty Images, Illustration Yahoo News)
Paapa Essiedu looks back at significant moments from his life and career with Yahoo UK (Getty Images, Illustration Yahoo News)

What first interested you in acting and brought you to the theatre?

I didn't grow up going down to the theatre, I probably didn't see a play for the first time til I was about 17 years old and that was just because that wasn't something that my friends did, and my family did. I grew up in East London, but there wasn't really a theatre that was that close to me.

I went to the National Youth Theatre just because I knew someone who was going there and that was the first time I was surrounded by people who were interested in these things called plays, or were interested in dissecting films or talking about actors and their journeys have been through and how you can become an actor and learn about acting.

And then I ended up going to drama school, I went to Guildhall School of Music and Drama when I was 18 and kind of failed a lot there, I kind of failed upwards a little bit. And I started off working in theatre mostly and then moved on to screen.

How would you describe your first experience on stage?

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet) in HAMLET by Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon  22/03/2016  design: Paul Wills lighting: Paul Anderson director: Simon Godwin
Paapa Essiedu first came to prominence as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he is pictured in 2016 when he played Hamlet (PA Images)

My first experience on stage was kind of underwhelming in some ways. I was playing a postman in a musical version of Pygmalion called Me and My Girl, and it had loads of cockney songs, and I'm a terrible singer so that was disappointing for both me and the audience.

But I was playing the postman in it and had a couple of funny lines and a fun little scene that got some laughs from people who were in my school, so suddenly my social status rose a little bit.

So, that was exciting and thrilling and I've kind of tried to recreate that feeling of newness and spontaneity in a lot of the things I've done since.

You gained critical acclaim for your role in I May Destroy You, which you worked on with your friend and fellow Guildhall alum Michaela Coel. How did you two first meet and how did your working relationship begin?

UK. Paapa Essiedu and Michaela Coel  in ©HBO new series: I May Destroy You (2020) .  Plot: The question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation.  Ref:  LMK106-J6949-051120 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets.
Paapa Essiedu and Michaela Coel studied together at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where their working relationship began and led to their collaboration in I May Destroy You (BBC)

Yeah, we met at Guildhall. We met on the first day, weirdly at that school they tell you whether you got in or not all on the same day, in front of everybody — it's a little bit like X Factor.

But we met on that day and she went to school not far from where I grew up, we're both from East London, and spent three years working, that was our working relationship.

We spent three years devising and, like I said, failing together and playing together, but mostly building a friendship. Our working relationship through I May Destroy You came through quite a roundabout way, the part was never written for me, or with me in mind, but somehow we came together.

But when we start working together, I guess because there's that pre-existing love and respect and understanding it was just very easy, and fruitful, and I feel very grateful for having had that opportunity.

Is there any role that you've played that you would approach differently now?

Every single one. Every single time I go back and watch anything I'm like 'Oh God, I should have done it like that', or like I thought I was doing it like that and it came out [differently].

So every single one, but not in a way that means that I would actually go back and change it. But with everything I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I'm always striving for them to be the very best version that it can be and so will never look back and think 'that was perfect', so every single one.

Is there any role you didn't get that you regret missing out on?

Anjana Vasan as Nida, Janie Booth as Sweet Gran, Paapa Essiedu as Gaap in Black Mirror (Netflix)
Paapa Essiedu as Gaap in Black Mirror (Netflix)

I remember I auditioned to be in this play with Chiwetel Ejiofor that was called Season in the Congo. It was maybe eight years ago, I was doing a play at the time and I had to travel from Bristol to be in London at 9am and I was broke so I got this coach that left Bristol at 4:30am.

I was knackered and so I was like, 'let me have a coffee to wake myself up' and [at the time] I didn't really drink coffee [so] I had this double espresso which sent my brain insane, I lost my mind. I went into this audition completely wired, losing it and messing up the audition.

I think it ended up going to Daniel Kaluuya, to be honest I'm sure it wouldn't have made a difference. But Chiwetel was someone who [inspired me to] became an actor, someone I looked up to so much and I wanted it so bad.

It was so 'hold on tightly to it' that there was no relaxation. There was no ability for me to just show myself, and that was the thing that they're looking for. So whilst that one really hit hard it was a really valuable lesson to me.

Sometimes don't think too much about how much you want it just think about how to show yourself with the the person that you're working with, because those auditions are opportunities to work with somebody as opposed to prove yourself to someone.

Paapa Essiedu: Quick fire questions

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 02: (Exclusive Coverage) Paapa Essiedu arrives at The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating
Paapa Essiedu reveals his favourite things for fans (Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue )
  • Movies you loved growing up: The Rush Hour films with Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan because I just thought they had amazing chemistry and they're really funny.

    Anything that Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Jamie Foxx was in. I was a real lover of seeing people who looked like me or my family on screen being brilliant and being on posters and all of that.

  • First cinema trip: The Flintstones movie with John Goodman. They weren't a cartoon, they were real people, it was crazy. I remember seeing that when I was four or five years old.

  • First film that made you cry: I cried a lot in The Lion King — the old school Lion King not the new one. No spoilers, but when whatever happens to Mufasa happens that was a hard one for me to take as a youth so I cried a lot in that.

  • First TV obsession: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, going back to Will Smith, it's astonishingly brilliant, so well written and so charismatically performed. I hate to say it, but I think it's probably the best thing that Will Smith has done, so that just shows the high esteem I hold that show.

  • One song to define your life: Can't Tell Me Nothing by Kanye West. There's something about the defiance of it or the resilience of it that's very meaningful.

Final thoughts with Paapa Essiedu

The Lazarus Project (Sky)
Paapa Essiedu's latest performance is in the second season of The Lazarus Project (Sky)

Were there any mentors in your life or career that had a defining impact on you and or who set you on your path for acting?

I suppose, like my first drama teacher at school, who's called Mr Oliver, was the first person to say 'you're good at this, or you might be good at this so maybe you should try doing it, try learning more about it', so I gotta shout him out.

My teachers when I was at Guildhall, or actors that I've worked with since. I've just done a play [The Effect at the National Theatre] with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith who's now mainly a friend but has always been incredibly forthcoming with advice and mentorship towards me, even when we weren't friends. So I feel like you can find mentorship in anybody.

If you could go back in time and give young Paapa any advice on how to change his Origin Story. What would it be?

I mean watching The Lazarus Project, you should be very careful going back in time and meddling with anything, but I think if ever I was to go back in time and talk to myself it would always to be kinder to myself, or to be as kind as possible to myself.

We all think the immediate moment is so important and so high stakes, and so full of jeopardy and danger. And sometimes it is, but sometimes it's not.

In those moments, I think it's incredibly important to take time for yourself and be kind to yourself and to allow things to take the time that they need to progress in whichever way feels right. So that's what I would tell myself, my very anxious 20-whatever-year-old self.

The Lazarus Project season 2 airs on Wednesday, 15 November at 9pm on Sky Max.

Read more:

Watch the trailer for The Lazarus Project season 2: