Paapa Essiedu: 'People will try and make you into a very certain type of thing'
The Lazarus Project star on avoiding typecasting, finding "opposition" within characters and season two of his Sky time travel thriller.
You'd be hard-pressed to think of an actor who has offered a greater diversity of characters on-screen of late than Paapa Essiedu.
In the last 18 months, he's played high-strung politician Isaac Turner in the BBC's technophobic thriller The Capture, a charismatic demon in an episode of Black Mirror and app developer turned time-travelling hitman George in The Lazarus Project, which returns for a second season today (15th November).
Pushing for that breadth and variety of roles has been a top priority for Essiedu and his team, he tells RadioTimes.com.
"That's something that's always been very high on my list, because people will try and typecast you, particularly as a young Black actor, a young Black male actor.
"They'll try and make you into a very certain type of thing. Or they'll try and say, 'Oh, this is what Idris [Elba] did,' or, 'This is what Lennie James did,' or David Gyasi, or David Oyelowo... 'You should do that, as well.'
"The reason why they have gone on to have the careers they have is because they've been individual, and they've been conscientious in not allowing people to tell them what to do, and make them do the same thing again and again.
"That's certainly what I intend to do. I feel like, as actors, we're so lucky to work with so many different collaborators – writers, directors, other creatives. The choice is there, the ability to make choices is there. We've just got to be brave enough to do something that you've not done before and see if that sticks as well."
In and of itself, Essiedu's part in The Lazarus Project allows him to showcase a whole range of different shades as a performer – as an ordinary joe recruited into a paramilitary organisation that uses time travel to prevent extinction-level events, and later abuses said powers in an effort to save the life of his girlfriend Sarah (Charly Clive), he gets to be an action hero, a romantic lead and a calculating antagonist.
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The series, from Giri/Haji's Joe Barton, earned a positive reception from critics and audiences when it debuted last summer. "We were so chuffed with the response that it got, and the amount of people that watched it and the things that people said about it," says Essiedu.
"It was amazing to be able to be given another bite at the apple and have the chance to develop it a bit further."
The climax to the first season surprised by throwing a temporal curveball – while the first eight episodes were concerned with the concept of time-loops (think Groundhog Day, but with more car chases), the follow-up will delve deeper into the premise of "true" time travel, transporting the Lazarus squad back in time in an effort to avert the annihilation of Earth.
Few could've seen this reinvention of the show's format coming, and Essiedu admits he's given up trying to second-guess writer Barton's plot twists. "Joe's mind just operates with such boundless abandon, you know?"
He's not alone – the cast of The Lazarus Project have a WhatsApp group where the complexity of the series's convoluted timelines are often a hot topic. (Questions like "What year is tomorrow?" are not uncommon.)
"You could be, like, a Cambridge don and still not fully understand what's going on!" laughs Essiedu.
"I mean, we don't even shoot in chronological order. We're jumping from timeline to timeline, episode to episode, and at no point do we ever really know who's dead, who's alive and which version of ourselves we are...
"So it's a great challenge, but by the end of it, you feel tired, I can't lie to you! Fair play to Joe for being so ambitious with it – I think he's done a brilliant job in creating something that feels genuinely original and exciting."
The new season will explore the ramifications for George after he broke protocol to save the love of his life, his single-mindedness driving him to kill anyone who got in his way, even his Lazarus teammates.
His justification? If he could turn back time to save Sarah, his victims would miraculously return to life also. But the series makes clear that there are psychological and moral ramifications to George's actions, even if a reset technically 'wipes the slate clean'.
"I don't judge George," says Essiedu. "He's got his reasons for doing what he does, and I think those reasons are legitimate for him. I maybe wouldn't do exactly the same thing, but I try not to judge him.
"The only justification is about making it truthful. I never want him to feel like this pantomime villain... I want it always to be rooted in a place of truth."
The series presents George with a premonition of who he might become in the form of Rebrov (Tom Burke), a former Lazarus agent who was similarly spurred by a personal tragedy into carrying out increasingly indefensible acts.
But, Essiedu argues, "There isn't any bona fide villain in this series, just the same way as there isn't anyone who's fundamentally and consistently good."
I put it to Essiedu that, while he's played a varied assortment of different characters, many have a trait in common – George, The Capture's Isaac and Black Mirror's Gaap are all concealing aspects of their true nature. You'd be foolish to judge any on initial appearances.
"I've never really thought about it like that," he says, after a pause. "But I definitely always try to find opposition within characters – characters that you expect to be one thing, I want to find something that is unexpected, and something that is a nuance within that.
"All of those people are on the surface one thing, and underneath another thing. That's definitely what draws me to characters, but I think that's what draws in audiences to those characters, as well.
"We relate to that, because that's what we're like, and that's what the people we love are like, and that's what the people we hate are like. It's very human to be a multiplicity of different things."
The wild journey – for George, and for the audience – looks set to continue, too, with Barton teasing that we can expect another "big game-changer" to close out the second season of The Lazarus Project.
"Let's just say season two also makes an invitation for the story to continue," echoes Essiedu. "Because the journey that we go on in the second series is just as wild and unexpected and twisty as the first series, if not even more so."
He adds, with a grin: "I can't wait to see how people respond to the end of that eighth episode."
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