Your Secret Is Safe With Paapa Essiedu

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images, Retailers

Paapa Essiedu is signing up for a second season of I May Destroy You — someday. “Maybe when we’re all old and wrinkled,” he tells the Cut in between rehearsals. For the past decade, the British actor has appeared in a play nearly every year, but it’s his Emmy-nominated role as Kwame in Michaela Coel’s auteurist HBO series that shifted the trajectory of his career. “There was something really radical about it coming out when it came out,” he says. “It didn’t feel like it was being dictated to us or overwritten by the algorithm. It felt fully and completely owned and led by us.”

For his latest role, Essiedu stars in The Effect, a revival of Lucy Prebble’s 2012 production, now playing Off Broadway at the Shed in Hudson Yards until March 31. He plays Tristan, a patient voluntarily institutionalized in a closely monitored antidepressant-drug trial in which he falls in love with another participant (played by Taylor Russell). The play, directed by Jamie Lloyd, is staged to be a minimal, electrifying journey with very few props and palpable chemistry between the leads. Essiedu also recently starred in two seasons of the twisty, time-bending sci-fi series The Lazarus Project but won’t stray too far from what he calls “the gladiatorial arena” of theater, where he honed his craft by having his best and worst moments onstage.

Below, the actor shares his preperformance rituals, his reverence for Hamilton, and why he’s the most trustworthy secret-keeper around.

What drew you to playing Tristan in The Effect?
I’m a Lucy Prebble stan. She’s got an incredible brain. Her work speaks for itself. I really wanted to work with her on something. I never really know what draws me to parts. I guess it’s the writing, but I never really know what the thing is or who the man is until we’re doing it — or even until after we’ve done it. There was something about the wit and the depth and the dimension that she puts on the page that caught my eye.

Where do you get your best culture recommendations from?
When I go abroad, I like to roll with people who are from the place. Like if I’m going to an art gallery, I want to go to an art gallery that’s a little bit off the beaten path. I went to Brazil recently, and I went to this amazing little photography exhibition that was around the back of a supermarket with beautiful Brazilian photography from the 1960s. I like to go to people who are the salt of the earth. I’m also surrounded by actors and directors and musicians. So ideally, I get recommendations from within the community, as opposed to from the grid.

Which celebrities, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party?Stevie Wonder, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nina Simone, Diego Maradona, and let’s have Mother Teresa as well. That will give you cross-continental, cross-culture, cross-religion that would go at least until last orders.

What’s the last meal you cooked for dinner?
I’ve just tried to make this Senegalese recipe for spatchcock chicken; I suppose it’s like piri-piri. It’s full of Scotch bonnets. I haven’t actually eaten it yet — it’s marinating in the fridge, but I’m fearful as to what it’s actually going to do to me and to whoever samples it once it actually gets chowed down on. I don’t often get a huge amount of time to cook, so I’m feeling very smug and proud of myself for making time to do this one.

What is your pre-stage ritual?
I make playlists specific to the character or the production I’m working on. The one thing I’m superstitious about is that I don’t get into costume until maybe 90 seconds before the play starts. I don’t like to be in costume as me. So there’s a lot of me walking around in my boxer shorts, if I’m honest.

What’s on your playlist for Tristan?
It’s got Tyler, the Creator; Kanye West; Little Simz; James Blake; Young Fathers; Fela Kuti; Yaya Bey; Yazmin Lacey; Childish Gambino; Nina Simone; Frank Ocean; Dave; Drake; Sault; and Baby Keem.

What’s your comfort rewatch?
I’m not actually great at rewatching things. But I also come late to things. I just watched my first episode of Euphoria two weeks ago, and I was like, Wow, this is actually really good.

If only someone had told you!
If only someone had been talking about any of these actors. [Laughs.] It’s actually really weird watching it. We have all these people who are now megastars. It’s very odd watching them just being teens. But they’re fantastic, so it does make sense.

What is something you’ll never, ever watch, no matter what?
Golf. It takes days to arrive to completion, and so much of it is just watching someone walk from one field to another. It’s a level of patience that, unfortunately, I’m not blessed with.

What’s the best piece of gossip you’ve ever heard?
I couldn’t tell you. I’ve got that thing where people genuinely trust me with their secrets. I’m quite good at not giving it away. It leads me to spending a whole lot of time awkwardly silent in social situations.

Favorite game to play?
I love playing games. I was an only child, so I never really got to play board games as a kid. I’m coming very late in the game to Monopoly and The Settlers of Catan. I didn’t play Monopoly until I was 19, and I was like, This shit is crazy! You see people really start to boss up on people, and they don’t give a fuck, man: “I’ll take all your property”; “I’ll take all your money”; “I’ll bankrupt you.” I really saw people’s true colors.

What music do you listen to when you’re alone?
Maybe a more vocally soulful type like James Blake if I’m, like, really in my feelings. If I’m alone in the house and I just want to turn the dial up, then I’ll put on Tyler, the Creator; Gambino; very early-career, pre-disaster Kanye. Sometimes I’ll listen to Adele or Leona Lewis. Whitney Houston, damn. I love a big voice.

What’s the best and worst advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know if this is good or bad advice, but I was once at an awards ceremony and lining up in the bit where you’re meant to do the photographs. I was behind an incredibly, ridiculously famous actor. Just before they went to do the photos, they revealed to me that they had been microdosing on a mild psilocybin-LSD hybrid all day and that’s how they dealt with all awards ceremonies and the stress of whether you won or not and the speeches. They said it was a fail-safe way to deal with that situation, and they did end up winning a lot of awards that year. I’ve yet to take that advice.

What’s a piece of theater that you recommend for someone who needs a little convincing in that department?
It’s basic to say, but I do think Hamilton ticks all the boxes. I saw it in London five years ago and loved it. But I saw it again recently in Manchester, and I just thought, Wow, this is such an accessible, impactful, funny, and moving piece of art. I don’t even really like musicals, and I’m a really bad singer myself. But Hamilton could go down in history on par with some of the great works of our time.

What show is your partner not allowed to watch without you?
This is a point of great contention. I don’t really know how you get around this. I’m sure people in all sorts of relationships struggle with it. During lockdown, we watched the entirety of The Sopranos, which was a good thing to come to as a grown person. That was one thing that got us through that bit of a pandemic. It kind of felt like having a child.

Worst thing to do at a dinner party?
If it’s out at a restaurant, the worst thing is to get the bill and make everyone go through item by item to pay exactly what they ordered. I fucking hate people that do that. It kills the vibe immediately — that thing about having dinner and sharing in the energy of it gets completely dismantled when it’s like, “I didn’t have the breadsticks, and I’m pretty sure you had the green beans.” I think that’s a cardinal sin; you’re not invited next week.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your Secret Is Safe With Paapa Essiedu