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Ato Essandoh’s Unusual Climb from Laboratory to Limelight

How the Jason Bourne star found the formula to become Hollywood’s next big thing

Ato Essandoh gets the kinds of roles any actor would be proud of. He’s made a name for himself on television series like BBC America’s Copper and HBO’s Vinyl, and has landed on the big screen in movies including Blood Diamond and Django Unchained. But until recently, he’s had trouble impressing one very important critic. “My dad doesn’t know anything about the entertainment industry and isn’t really interested,” the 43-year-old actor says, his 6-foot-4 frame folded into a couch in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel. “He doesn’t know who Martin Scorsese is, and maybe he knows who Mick Jagger is—but when I said I was going to be in a Jason Bourne movie, he was like, ‘Whoa!’ ”

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It wasn’t an unwarranted reaction—after all, Essandoh never planned to be an actor. He had been a chemical engineering major at Cornell when, on a dare, he took his first role in a student production. He hadn’t been counting on leaving behind the laboratory for the limelight, he says, but from his first turn onstage, something just clicked. “I could feel the electricity,” he recalls now. “It was the first time I felt I was doing something that made sense, because even though I loved science, it was something I was doing because I thought I was supposed to.”

Despite the lightning that struck during that initial experience, Essandoh graduated as planned, moved to New York City and took a series of consulting jobs. A few years into his adult life, feeling an urge to indulge his dramatic side, the upstate New York native signed up for acting classes, and just like that, he says, “I was hooked.” He cast a wide net, joining small theater companies and writing his own plays, and before long he found himself with an agent and a manager and a full-time focus on auditioning. “Suddenly,” he says, “it was my life.”

And what a life it’s been. After landing early roles alongside Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State and opposite Will Smith in Hitch, he worked steadily, hitting seemingly every network procedural, from Law & Order to White Collar. “I paid off my engineering student loans with acting money,” he says, still sounding a bit surprised. These days, he’s decidedly playing in the big leagues. After taking a turn earlier this year in Vinyl, the Scorcese-and-Jagger-produced paean to the excess of the 1970s rock scene, Essandoh’s next role—his highest profile yet—will be as Craig Jeffers, part of a team of CIA operatives hunting for Matt Damon’s titular rogue agent in this summer’s installment of the Jason Bourne franchise. 

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“Ato is a hugely exciting talent; I love his energy, his poise and his accuracy,” says Bourne director Paul Greengrass. “No matter how intense the pressure, he’ll come in and nail his scene and help you get to where you need to be.” To hear Essandoh tell it, there was plenty of anxiety at play as well. “I had never done an action movie before,” he says. “As an actor, I had to turn off some of my usual instincts and turn on new ones—like survival and desperation, they were my autopilot.” 

Despite the nerves and the high professional stakes, Essandoh says his overwhelming feeling about making the film wasn’t all that different from the one his father expressed. “I still can’t believe,” he says, flashing his megawatt smile, “that I went from being a chemical engineer to being in a movie with Matt Damon.” 

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