Paapa Essiedu Q&A: “Where would I like to live? Ghana in the 12th century”

The actor talks Will Smith, James Baldwin, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

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Paapa Essiedu, 27, grew up in east London and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012. He appeared in the film “Murder on the Orient Express” and on television in “Kiri” and “The Miniaturist”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on the floor of my mum’s kitchen surrounded by pots and pans, and using a wooden spoon to make a drum kit out of them. My mixtape is still to come.

Who are your heroes?

I don’t really have heroes, just a lot of people I admire. When I was a teenager it was Will Smith (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air onwards) and Denzel Washington. Now, there are so many of my peers and friends who I admire and respect. Daniel Kaluuya – the first black British male under 30 to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar! He’s a king.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Every book I read has an effect on the way I think. I’m reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi right now and it’s a banger. It follows the descendants of an Asante woman from 17th-century Ghana to the modern day USA. It’s the author’s debut, she’s still in her twenties – watch this space.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

James Baldwin. He was a polymath – playwright, novelist, essayist, activist. So articulate and unflinching and unrelenting in his politics. His speech to the Cambridge Union is beautiful.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Manchester United goal scorers from 2003 to 2013.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The kingdom of Ghana in the 12th century. Mansa Musa vibes. If you don’t know, look it up.

What TV show could you not live without?

Donald Glover’s Atlanta blew me away when it came out. Mind-bending and unapologetic – genuinely original.

Who would paint your portrait?

Jean-Michel Basquiat.

What’s your theme tune?

“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” by Kanye West.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

My mum used to say: “When you are running a race, you don’t slow down as you near the end of it, you run faster.” I’m not at the end of my race yet.

What’s currently bugging you?

The dominion that smartphones have over us. I hate that when you sit on the Tube no one talks to each other. That said, I do love Twitter. I’m a hypocrite.

What single thing would make your life better?

More love.

When were you happiest?

Today. Maybe tomorrow.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?

Something else that involves dealing with people – maybe a taxi driver, or that person who stands on the platform on the Tube telling people when the next train is due to arrive. Love that guy.

Are we all doomed? 

Our fate lies in our own hands, so the responsibility to change the way we are rests with ourselves. But whether we are ready and willing to take on that responsibility? Doubtful.

Paapa Essiedu’s “Hamlet” is at Hackney Empire, east London, until 31 March

This article appears in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war