By Gabe Friedman
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, 48, 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.”
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?
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 hole 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.