Tessa Thompson and Ato Essandoh in BBC America's "Copper." (BBC America )
During the first season of BBC America's drama "Copper," Ato Essandoh knew he had found a rare TV character in Dr. Matthew Freeman.
Matthew is not only a free African-American during the Civil War, but he's a practicing physician in the rough Five Points neighborhood of 1860s New York City and a skilled forensics expert working, however covertly, with his war comrade Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish-American who is now a detective.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is a sort of really amazing role for especially an African-American actor. The honor's almost overwhelming to me,'" Essandoh said of his first reaction to the role. "When I think about it I'm like, 'Wow, I've never really seen this before and they're really going for it.'"
For the show's current second season, Essandoh was thrilled to see that important role expanded to even greater dimensions. Matthew and his wife, Sara (Tessa Thompson), have become even more entwined in the storytelling as they face even bigger challenges.
They've already met the great African-American reformer Frederick Douglass (played by Eamonn Walker) and moved back to Five Points, where Sara is forced to deal with her fears after the lynchings of her brothers in the draft riots. Matthew also has enlisted the aid of his other former war comrade, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), in his search for Sara's mother (Alfre Woodard). Her introduction, Essandoh says, will bring "a lot of surprises."
"It's really fun," he said. "What it actually sets up is an awesome dynamic that I think is subtle, but it's so beautiful that there are basically three black people with three differing views of, let's say, racism and the Antebellum South and what the future of the black race is in America."
As unlikely as a black doctor seems during the Civil War, Essandoh explained that he based Matthew on Dr. James McCune Smith, a former slave who was educated as a doctor in Scotland and came back to the U.S., where he treated both blacks and whites.
"It means so much," Essandoh said of playing Matthew, "but it carries a responsibility to portray this as realistically as possible, and it's hard not to feel pride that I get to represent this part of African-American history."
Essandoh talked more about what's coming from Matthew and Sara, Dr. Smith's story and how Essandoh went from being a chemical engineer to acting.
I think Matthew and Sara have two of the most compelling journeys this season.
Yeah, I think they expanded it to be much more of an ensemble piece. Sara and I get to do a lot more cool stuff. There's a lot more of an in-depth sort of journey that we get to go on. So it's really exciting for me because I'm like, "Wow, what a great character, and now I get to do even more."
Did you find, even before you got the role, that you thought this would be a great role for you?
I thought it would be a great role. Like I said a bunch of times, just because of the times I thought first of all it was impossible to have an African-American doctor, but then I learned that that was possible. And then to see how [Matthew] was a three-dimensional role and not just a sort of, dare I say, token role or sort of a magical role. He has a life, and he has a life outside of the copper world. He has worries and doubts and fears and aspirations.
Were you very familiar with the free blacks of the time before you started?
I was, but I didn't know how much freedom they actually had. Do you know what I mean? I heard about a lot of the free blacks in Louisiana, I should say New Orleans, and that kind of thing but I never knew that there was this freedom ... to practice, let's say, medicine.
There's one guy in particular that I learned about. His name was Dr. James McCune Smith and he was actually the first African-American doctor and he happened to be from New York. He was born in New York. I think he was the son of freed slaves and he excelled in school but because of racism he wasn't allowed to go to the Princetons and the Harvards of the world. So he found a benefactor, or I should say a benefactor found him, and he took him out to Scotland to educate him and allow him to get his M.D. He came back to New York and practiced; he had his own practice and he also had his own pharmacy. So it was really astounding to read that kind of stuff.
Did you take a little bit from his story?
Absolutely. Absolutely, because it was grounding. You don't want to feel like you're doing something that could not be possible, especially when we're doing something with historical context. So when I found something to ground it with, it was quite thrilling and compelling. Also, he wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass' second autobiography. And he also wrote a lot of papers excoriating, let's say, some of the Jeffersonian eugenic views. So he was very active as well as an abolitionist, too. So it was really cool to read that.