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HERO 31 Cover Interview: Paapa Essiedu in conversation with Saoirse Ronan
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 29 March 2024
Photographer Matt Healy

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This article is part of Print Edition

When Paapa Essiedu auditioned for his upcoming role in The Outrun, Saoirse Ronan (in her first time as producer and actor) immediately stopped looking for her male lead – “because he’s Paapa and he can do it all.” Starring opposite Saoirse as Daynin – a love interest she loses due to her all-consuming troubles with addiction – the pair delicately embody Amy Liptrot’s bestselling memoir of a life lived on the edge with a compassionate mix of optimism and strife.

Essiedu is equally beguiling on stage as he is on screen, with award-winning runs in the Royal Shakespeare Company as a modern-day, hate-filled Hamlet and a chilling stint as Edmund in King Lear under his belt. Swapping Shakespearean tragedies for contemporary love stories, Paapa returned to stage last year opposite Taylor Russell in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect. Spinning on the compass of human morality, Prebble’s story focuses on an intoxicating love affair at the centre of a drug trial – questioning whether those strange feelings are actually love, or merely an artificial surge of dopamine. Following a sell-out run at the National Theatre, the play is heading state-side for a stint on Broadway, and Saoirse Ronan is just one of many who can’t wait to experience Paapa at his best.

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Saoirse Ronan: Hi, Paapa!
Paapa Essiedu: Hello mate, how are you doing?

SR: I’m good. What are you up to? Is the next thing for you The Effect on Broadway?
PE: Yes it is. I don’t know if you feel you have to do this between jobs, or when jobs line up one after the other, but I find the need to take myself completely out of the day-to-day environment to reset. I haven’t done that many transfers of projects, but I think it’s always important to make a concerted effort to wipe the slate clean before going back to it, otherwise you can get lulled into trying to do what you did last time. It’s a tightrope of honouring where you ended, but allowing that to be that, and allowing this to be a completely new thing. It will be a new thing because we’re in different places and it’s been a while since I’ve done a play in America.

SR: I was so gutted I missed it [in London], but I want to come when you’re on Broadway. I’ve always wanted to see you on stage because I love you on screen. As you and I both know, not everyone is magnetic on stage and in front of the camera, but you genuinely do have both, which is why when we were casting The Outrun, Jack [Lowden, co-producer] and I said from the very beginning, “We want Paapa, because he’s Paapa and he can do it all.” I’ve seen footage of you on stage, you’ve got an openness and command over what you’re doing, and you’re able to translate that so beautifully between both mediums.
PE: Oh mate, it’s so nice of you to say that. The guilt friends or colleagues of people who are doing plays accrue from missing stuff – we’re all going to miss things. It’s completely fine whenever someone says they can’t make it, because when you’re in the middle of these play runs, they feel like they’re years long, but in reality they’re only weeks long.

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“The best thing we can do is not try and force ourselves into a certain direction.”

SR: I don’t know if you feel this more with theatre than film, I know I do, but when you do plays you feel like you’re in a vortex and the whole world around you just falls away. The two times I’ve done it have felt so all-encompassing that I actually can’t take anything else in. So when people are like, “I can’t come and see your show,” I’m like, “Well I’m just literally trying to survive this for as long as I can.” [laughs]
PE: It’s survival mode. It’s funny because when you’re on set you’ve got these crazy long days, you know you’re going to be in at 7am and out at 8pm. When you look at the play and it starts at 7:30pm and finishes at 9pm it sounds easy. But the psychological preparation or the physical girding of the loins in theatre starts from the moment you wake up until you’re struggling to get to sleep afterwards. It’s just as demanding on your time and energy.

SR: I’m so glad you said that because my partner Jack [Lowden] has done loads of theatre – like you – and he’s just like, “Yeah, I’m just going to go and do the show now. What do you want to do tomorrow?” And I’m like, “Do you want to go over your lines again or think about it some more, or stress some more?!” [both laugh] He’s not necessarily like that on film but he is when it comes to theatre, so I’ve always felt like I’m the only one who is so consumed by the life of doing a play. It’s wonderful but I will say, when I did The Crucible on Broadway, one of the things I always loved, no matter how many days I would go in and not want to go on that stage, driving through Midtown to do the show and seeing the landscape of New York change into a place that is built for theatre was really exciting. Broadway is a whole different beast – I never got over that, I always found that really cool.
PE: I’m excited to do it this way around because last time I was in New York doing a production of King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music but I was staying in Midtown, basically on Times Square, and that was hell. Times Square is such a gorgeous place to visit once, but trying to sleep… I was on the twentieth floor of this apartment building and in New York fire engines come every ten minutes, relentlessly. Last time, leaving Midtown to go somewhere else was amazing, so this time I’m going to try and reverse it. Being able to go into Midtown to work, to be enveloped in that whole Broadway feeling, the energy focused on that small grid of the city is thrilling but I love being able to go in and then go out of it.

SR: How are you feeling about taking a show to the States that did really well and I’m sure you’re proud of? Does it feel different to doing a brand-new show? Do you feel like you can go in knowing you’ve got something good or are you feeling just as nervous?
PE: To be honest, I don’t know. The Effect is a very particular, symbiotic organism, it very much depends on the intensity and how intimately connected we are as a company, and that company is comprised of the actors on stage but also the actors off stage and the stage management department. At the National Theatre, you get six or seven weeks to incubate and bed-in that magnetism between everybody and by the end of the two-month run we’re so intermingled – it becomes familiar. I think the real challenge is how to rebirth that without forcing it. Four months isn’t a long time, but it’s also a really long time. If we get too obsessed with making it exactly like the last performance then we’re fucked, we’ve got to have a really light touch with it. Our production was directed by Jamie Lloyd and he’s a real investor in that kind of work, he’s not interested in sitting around a table and creating backstories or circumstances – he’s a very immediate director. I’m nervous, excited and very open-minded about how it’s going to be, I think the best thing we can do is not try and force ourselves into a certain direction with it and allow whatever comes of being in that new space – especially in front of a new type of audience. This feels like a very British play to me. Lucy Prebble is so famous for her work internationally and her work on Succession but this play has a real feeling of Britishness even though the themes are universal. I’m more curious than anything else, to be honest.

SR: It’s so good to have that. I don’t think I’m there with theatre yet but I would like to do a modern play.
PE: Have you got any more feelings towards doing plays?

SR: I’d love to do something at the National purely because of their ethos and how they structure the work day and the work week seems so much more civilised. [laughs] It’s an institution, even when you’re going as an audience member you feel the history there and you feel how special of a place it is. That does something to you, you feel very inspired when you’re there. I’d love to go back to the Almeida [Saoirse performed in The Tragedy of Macbeth in 2021], I’d work there again and again – I had such a great time. At this point in my career and my life, doing a show in a smaller, intimate space rings true to me right now.
PE: How much time was there between when you did The Crucible and Macbeth?

SR: Six years, they were such different experiences but very similar plays. Very dark, very much about paranoia and people turning on one another. It was interesting because when I was doing The Crucible that was the year Brexit and Trump got voted in, so it was a horrible year. It was a really scary time when we didn’t know what was going to happen, Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw were in the play, and I remember seeing them each day go from, “It’s not going to happen,” to “Oh my god, I think this is actually going to happen,” to coming in one day and just being in total shock that the UK had been turned on its head overnight – then America quickly followed suit. I feel like that has snowballed over the last few years.
PE: How do you find that kind of tension? In 2016, I remember that feeling and it felt like being in a simulation, it was like being in a video game that was going very badly. The day Trump got elected I had to go on a BBC radio show and read a Shakespeare sonnet or something, there was just a real dissonance between the hellscape that was releasing itself in the ‘real world’ – and we’re getting towards a similar position now. I often think about being an artist and how your work or your existence can line up alongside, or in contrast to, what’s happening in the grander scheme of things. Do you ever think about that?

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SR: I do. I’ve started to think about it a lot over the last few months because as someone who wants to continue to develop projects whether I’m in them or not, being more involved in a project as an actor earlier on means you can help shape it. I’ve been talking to a lot of filmmakers and producers about not only what we all want to make but what people want to see, and I have gone from being such a champion of wanting raw, independent, thought-provoking stuff to feeling like I just want escapism – more than I ever have in my whole life. I want to disappear into a film and have it completely take care of me for two hours. I went to see Maestro before Christmas, I know it’s a movie that’s very polarising for a lot of people, they either love it or hate it. For me, it was genuinely one of the best things I’ve ever seen and I was so grateful Bradley [Cooper] had created this movie that I could just completely give myself over to. Sometimes it was hard to watch but it was beautiful, it was a movie and it took us back to this beautiful golden time in cinema. That’s also what I want to do as an actor right now, I want to do big, swelling pieces that have got everything there. It’s so scary right now, no matter where you are in your life it’s such a fucking weird time to be on this Earth and you’re also so aware of the fact that it’s all so cyclical and it never really changes. It can be very hard to keep the hope and I feel like now more than ever, cinema needs to give us that. I’ve been tapping into movies in a way I’ve never done before.
PE: That’s a real maturation and understanding of what our roles are as actors. Speaking from my own perspective, when you first start out you can be so inward-looking in terms of your reasoning for doing it or your ambitions of what you want out of it. If you put that side-by-side with what’s happening in the grand scheme of things, that can feel incredibly disempowering because it makes you feel pointless or powerless. But once you start looking outwardly and thinking about what you, as part of a project, can do, or what you at the spearhead of a project can do, then suddenly it becomes a very empowering and powerful position to hold. That’s when I think you realise the people who work in these industries, in whatever capacity, are completely vital, crucial cogs in the grander scheme of negotiating how we as humans navigate what’s happening. It’s a massive privilege to be put in a position where you can do those things, where those strings are in your hands. Once you get that privilege there is also responsibility, but that makes me so excited. Another reason why the National Theatre is amazing is that they have the resources to make plays more than just plays, they’ve got the money and the research to expand the audience or to do outreach work, to make the play more than something which is a vanity project showing how good someone can be at acting or how clever someone can be at directing. It can be about how you can make this a space for someone who’s never had the opportunity to receive stories in this way, inspire them to make their own work and find their own pathway in an artistic field.

“The psychological preparation or the physical girding of the loins in theatre starts from the moment you wake up.”

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SR: It reminds me of Tim Bevan and Barbara Broccoli [founders of The London Screen Academy], they’re doing a similar thing to the National and asking, “How can we make an impactful change that has longevity instead of shoehorning people in?” They’re taking people at a grassroots level, training them and allowing them to grow in the right environment where all their peers are able to work with them, encourage them, push them and they can all be in this wonderful creative space together. I hope more and more initiatives start to come out like that. There is a film workshop in Northern Ireland that’s always been about bringing communities together through film and putting everything else aside to create. Maybe it’s because you and I are getting older now, the people who are ten years older than us are like, “Yeah, this happens to everyone when they reach 30 and they’ve got their partner, they’re thinking about kids.” Suddenly we’re like, “Oh my god, the world is going to be handed over to us next. What the fuck do we do with it?” Something like The Outrun has addiction as part of the tapestry of the story, but it’s so full of hope and it’s got this constant energy throughout that keeps it moving forward. It’s because of Rona a.k.a Amy Liptrot who it’s based on, but it’s also because of all the really important relationships she has along the way, like with your character. It either completely destroys her when she loses that or it’s the thing she can be reminded of that keeps her going, there’s a real flow to that which is quite amazing. I feel like I’ve really woken up in the last few months to what we need.
PE: This is your first major role as an actor as well as a producer, right?

SR: Yes it is.
PE: Taking all of what you just said into account, how did you feel when you were on that first day of pre-production? When you’ve had all your conversations with Amy, you’ve got the book, you’ve got the script and you’re getting to the bit where it’s like, “Oh fuck, we’re actually going to make a movie now.” How did that feel and how was the journey for you?

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SR: If I’m being totally honest about it, I am an actor first and foremost. I helped this get developed and I was in all the meetings, we all had a say in what kind of shape this story was going to take. But selfishly, what was so great for me about being involved in a producer role was that it gave me more time and information that fed the performance. Whether you are an actor, director, producer or writer, ultimately you need to have those brilliant central performances and brilliant writing to make people connect and care about it. Having the time to flesh it out, shape the shooting schedule, and help choose who the creative teams and cast were going to be was wonderful. I was able to sit in a room early on and go, “I’ve always wanted to work with Paapa, please can we get him involved? We need someone to play my best friend and one of my really good mates is a phenomenal actor, please can we put her in the film?” It felt very personal and I think the film industry will do well to have more of us involved early on.
PE: I’ve been really lucky to work in various projects that have had the creative mind at the centre of the logistical process. Working on Michaela [Coel’s] show [I May Destroy You], she was writing and directing bits of it, which means it’s got a creative throughline at the centre of all the logistical decisions. To people who don’t work in this industry, it is boring to talk about schedules, but the schedule is so important to how the final product can get manifested, and if the person in charge of those decisions is not creatively-minded and is completely logical or unemotional it can just mean something is missing at the centre of it. On our movie, for me it was quite a weird experience doing all our stuff at the top end of the movie and then you guys all went off to Orkney to film for another two months.

It was such an intense top end of that shoot, which I feel was necessary for a film that had so much emotional heft, so much potential for joy and sadness and loss and gain and learning. It needed to be supercharged and I remember we were doing scenes in the club or in our flat on day four, five or six of shooting which set the pace and the agenda. It requires someone who can creatively understand what is required of the actors and of the creative team to make the decision to schedule it that way. I think it’s no surprise that at this point in time, these projects that are so heralded like Maestro, Past Lives, I May Destroy You, Atlanta and Fleabag, have got those creative minds at the very centre of all processes.

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SR: It ends up being better for everybody if they’re able to have some sort of emotional chronology. There are so many projects where the crew haven’t read the script and don’t even know what it is that they’re filming, so they find it very hard to connect to the material and they’re trying to piece it together as they go. I’m so grateful to everyone who was in those earlier stages, from the very beginning we were able to live this very full life in three weeks. But then when I was left without everyone, the void of that was very real. I missed you guys so much and we missed the version of my character Rona we had when she was at her best with you – she was happy and she hadn’t properly spiralled yet. As soon as you and I met over Zoom there was an instant chemistry. If you’re going to have a limited number of scenes between the central character and her one love interest that really is the heart and soul of the film, those two actors have to have something special. I remember you and I were improvising and we didn’t have scripts, our director Nora [Fingscheidt] would just give you a setting, loose scene or idea to build on and you did it. You found the truth in it somehow. We really clicked in the twenty minutes that we auditioned. We came off and I was just like, “Let’s stop now, we’ve found him.” Nora was the same, we were just adamant that it had to be you – it was just a pleasure.
PE: That process of working with Nora and the freedom we had was great, there was a script but it wasn’t shackling in the way the dialogue emerged. When you see the film it allows this real authentic, organic, spontaneous, unpredictable, shapeless thing to emerge. I remember even when we were doing our audition there was a freedom which allowed us to find great ebbs and flows and range. Watching the movie, so many of the moments I loved the most came out of those situations and that way of working. I think a lot about that scene between you and Nabil [Elouahabi] when you’re sat in a park smoking, there was something so simple but so electrifyingly ‘un-acty’ about it. With some of the ‘non-actors’ on set, I was like, “Fuck me, that’s how you do it!” So much of acting is getting rid of the acting or getting out of the way of your fancy ideas and just doing it, and people who aren’t actors can just do that.

SR: What I found really cool about that whole experience is that we as professional actors all can be that ‘un-acty’. [laughs] When we’re given the time and the space to shape it ourselves and we’re given a rough outline of what the scene needs to be. It also helped that we were using our own accents so there was this unfiltered quality to it from the get-go and it meant that whatever relationship was starting to form between the two characters was kind of our relationship anyway and that could be honoured. I loved that. I never wanted the movie to be no one saying anything, or everyone overcompensating like they do with improv, it felt like there were these core relationships we had all formed early on. In fairness to Nora, she was like, “Just have a chat, maybe drop this in, let’s shape it a little bit, let’s tighten it.” For all of us to have one eye on the structure of the scene and that be of our own making was really cool. Yet again, it gave us ownership over the material that we don’t always get as actors.
PE: It’s a very brave and confident approach because it can be terrifying, sometimes the script is there because you need it and that’s the exoskeleton upon which you can build something. Allowing yourself to see what emerges more organically requires a lot of courage as a director, but it is very empowering and freeing for us as actors. I for one was very relieved and exhilarated that it started to feel so easy, so natural and truthful. That is one of the things about the film I love and I think others will love very deeply. Nora had great success with the movie System Crasher in Germany, which also had this same element of, “Is this a documentary? Is this real?” which I find thrilling in a world where it can be so formulaic and acting can be so in your face. Obviously, there is a time and a place for that, and when it works it’s a rewarding style of filmmaking.

SR: Was that your first time seeing it a few weeks ago or had you seen it before?
PE: Yeah, I’d only seen little bits of it in ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement]. The bits of the movie I’m in are located in one timeline of the movie so I was curious to see it because I didn’t know anything about what was happening in Orkney, I hadn’t heard or seen any of those things since the readthrough that I wasn’t even there for because I had Covid. Do you remember that? I was trying to improvise with you over another dodgy internet connection.

SR: I feel like our relationship is 90 percent on screen. I was like, “Please Daynin, just come back!” [both laugh] While you’re walking away with your mask on the screen.
PE: That was the first time I’d seen it and it blew me away – I was quite happy I didn’t have the context there. What hit me was how much hope, achievement and joy there is in this movie. People who will look at the film from a very two-dimensional perspective will see it as a very trauma-led ‘addiction drama’, and I feel like it’s not that, it has so much creativity in its depictions of triumph and joy and growth and learning and success in the context of struggle, of the reality of the grip that addiction can have on a person and the aftershocks it can have on families, friendships and relationships. That’s something you get from the book of course, but I feel like there was something really unexpected about the way it was executed in the movie.

SR: I really hope so. It’s a unique piece and it sounds like your play is as well – you’re so very edgy, it’s great.
PE: I definitely need to do a pantomime this year I think, just to mix it up a bit.

SR: I think that’s what you and I should do next. [both laugh]


Feature originally published in HERO 31.

Buy HERO 31 here.

All clothing and accessories by Gucci Pre Fall 2024

set design JOSH STOVELL;
retouching ADAM REINBACH;
photography assistant LEIGH SKINNER and JAMIE HUBBARD; fashion assistant SUZIE FAURE

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