The British actor – best known for playing Kwame in I May Destroy You – tells Sagal Mohammed about the words he lives by and his intoxicating role in new film FEMME
When Paapa Essiedu was a kid, his mother gave him a piece of advice for his school sports day that has stuck with him ever since. “She said, make sure you’re going fastest at the end of the race, not at the beginning.” Her wise words have become a fitting reflection of Essiedu’s career thus far. Now 30, the British actor began his journey in theatre, with star-making roles in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear and Hamlet. He then made his mark on the small screen with stellar appearances in Black Earth Rising, Kiri and Gangs of London. While he’d been acting for over ten years, it was his unflinching role in his drama school mate Michaela Coel’s electric consent drama I May Destroy You that excelled his mainstream presence, bringing a new calibre of opportunities along with it.
His latest project is a short film by Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping. The directing duo have cast him as their lead in FEMME, a panic-inducing queer crime thriller that depicts the chilling realities of heteronormative oppression by way of toxic masculinity. Essiedu plays Jordan, a femme gay man who celebrates his queerness with a sequin string vest and blue eyeliner on a night out in London. Seduced by the flirt of danger, he gets in a car with a drug dealer (played by Harris Dickinson) to pick up some MD at his trap house – ignoring the warnings from his friend – and things quickly spiral. “I think really carefully before deciding to do the projects that I do and I thought this was a really sharp script,” Essiedu says. “It was really tense. It had a real engine and momentum behind it. I felt like it took the tropes that you expect from stories like that and flipped them, transposing it into an unprecedented setting. It was a familiar yet original idea.”
Taking up space in a film genre almost exclusively preserved for white, hetreosexual characters and creators, Freeman and Ng had their eyes firmly set on Essiedu to portray the story of Jordan. “Paapa lets you into his soul,” they say. “He has this amazing mix of vulnerability and edge that's so essential to what we want the viewer to feel – torn between rooting for him to pursue his desire and fearing for his life”. The film premiered at SXSW 2021 back in March, and will no doubt be rolled out across film festivals throughout the year.
FEMME marks Essiedu’s first of many on-screen performances in 2021, as he admits his filming schedule has been more hectic post-I May Destroy You, where he played Kwame, the gay best friend to protagonist Arabella (played by Coel) – a role he has just received a Bafta Television Award nomination for. “I’ve been really lucky to be working throughout the pandemic. I’ve been able to film some really exciting projects and continue to develop and deepen my craft. As an actor, it can sometimes be hard to know your worth and your value if you’re not working, and it’s hard to work as much when TV and film productions aren’t able to create the same level of output as they usually do [due to Covid restrictions]. There was definitely a long period where all of us were like, ‘so, what are we?’” he says, with a laugh. “Ultimately, we’re creatives and there are multiple different ways to express your creativity. I had the opportunity to do other things in that time like outreach work with young people, so there are blessings to even the panic of something like a pandemic.”
At the end of last year, Essiedu wrapped up filming for the highly-anticipated Anne Boleyn, Channel 5’s dark period drama based on the life of Henry VIII’s most famous wife and mother of the future Elizabeth I, starring Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner-Smith as the titular lead. “It’s going to be dropping this summer which is really exciting,” he says. He’s currently in the middle of shooting his first major TV lead as the star of Sky’s upcoming action thriller, Extinction: an eight-part series described as “a gripping exploration of memory, fate, and the limits of love,” with a Groundhog Day-style narrative. “It’s important for me to have an eye on the output of our industry as a whole,” he explains, speaking on his goals for the future. “I am interested in expanding the width and breadth of the work that we’re able to make and how the audiences are able to receive that. It feels like we’re kind of moving towards an era where there are more opportunities for different types of stories to be told, or for different types of people to tell them. But it needs us to consciously make an effort to platform those stories. That definitely plays into my mind when I’m thinking about what kind of projects to take on board.”
That, and the voice of his mother telling him to pace himself. “For me, it’s not necessarily about the idea that everything has to happen right now and if it doesn’t happen right this moment then you’re a total failure. It’s kind of like that 800-metre race at sports day, it’s a very long race so it’s about realising that there are moments in the future where you’ll also need that energy,” he says. “My focus is on being grateful and present in the now and looking forward to more things in the future.”