Ato Essandoh has been a fantastic addition to ‘Chicago Med’ even as his character Dr. Isidore Latham remains a mystery. Get to know both of them in our interview.
Dr. Isidore Latham is a hard man to figure out. Since debuting in the Chicago Med season premiere he’s made things difficult for Connor Rhodes and more complex for the audience. Ato Essandoh is easy to figure out: he loves playing such a complicated character and enjoys the dynamic he’s built with his co-stars, plus he’s probably smarter than the rest of us.
One Chicago Center recently connected with Ato to talk about how he sees Latham, if Rhodes (Colin Donnell) has a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever winning his new boss’s approval, and a few things that might surprise you about this talented actor who’s been a marvelous addition to Season 2.
It was that uniqueness of Latham that made him want to jump on board in the first place. “He’s an Orthodox Jewish surgeon with Asperger’s Syndrome,” he told us. “I said when will anyone ever get to play that?”
Latham is Chicago Med‘s most enigmatic character. In one episode he can be a complete jerk; in another he’s surprisingly sympathetic. Sometimes it seems like he and Rhodes might get along, and other times it feels like they might throw down in the parking lot. And apparently he’s friendly with Dr. Natalie Manning (Torrey DeVitto), too. So who is this guy? How does Ato describe him?
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“I think the issue with Latham is his social graces are compromised, because he doesn’t get the emotional cues he’s getting from people,” he told us, “so he doesn’t actually know or realize how he’s putting people off.”
“The thing I like about Latham is he’s an incredibly talented surgeon and he really believes in what he’s doing. He’s a person who is about exactitude, it’s about precision, it’s about the number. It’s about fixing this patient and getting onto the next one. But what’s lost is some of the compassion and empathy that I think somebody who is not on the spectrum would be able to grasp a little better.”
At the core of the character is his contentious relationship with Dr. Rhodes. Latham introduced himself to Connor in the season premiere by explicitly stating that Connor wasn’t his first choice and wasn’t fond of him at all. As episodes have gone on, though, we’ve seen more little moments of mutual respect. So what’s Latham’s actual opinion on Connor Rhodes?
“If you would ask him now, he’d say I think he’s a fine surgeon [and] I think he has a lot to learn,” Ato theorized. “I don’t think he has an opinion on Connor Rhodes. I think he thinks he’s a good guy but I think that doesn’t matter [to Latham]. It’s like can he fix this patient or not? And if he can’t do it somebody else has to. It’s not personal; it’s just we have to save this person’s life and that’s our job.”
One of their fundamental differences again goes back to Latham seeing patients as cases and numbers versus Connor’s more compassionate and emotional approach, which allows Med to explore a fundamental talking point about the human element of medicine – something that was introduced between Latham and Charles in last week’s “Heart Matters.”
“That’s what we start to see in later episodes,” Ato explained, “because then we start to say is it just about fixing the patient like you’re talking about a car or is there an empathy part to it. And if you’re dealing with somebody who because of their condition can’t sort of understand empathy, then we get to see out a lot of the stuff that is interesting in dealing with medicine and patients and healthcare issues. I think it’s a wonderful way to see it out.”
As acrimonious as the relationship between Latham and Rhodes is, the off-screen relationship between Ato Essandoh and Colin Donnell couldn’t be better. He has a bit of a bromance going with his scene partner, which only makes the fact that their characters don’t get along even more entertaining.
“Marlyne Barrett, who plays Maggie on the show, I’ve known her for years and one time we had a scene together,” he recalled. “In between takes, Colin and I are just joking around and dancing around and being goofy. She’s like, I didn’t know you guys were already best friends and we’re like yeah, what’s the problem? And then action and, you know, it all goes cold and I start treating him like dirt and he gives me all these looks.
“The thing about Colin Donnell is he’s got these eyes that are amazing so there’s times where I can’t hold it together,” he admitted. “because he’ll give me a look as the character and I can see all the ennui and all the sort of world-weariness in one little look, and it’s so well executed that sometimes it makes me break character. I’m glad that sometimes we’re doing all those scenes where we’re wearing those masks, so you can’t hear me actually laughing or giggling under my serious eyes!”
Hopefully we’ll get to see more of that chemistry in future episodes of Chicago Med, because the back and forth between Latham and Rhodes is one of the reasons that Season 2 has been so good. And speaking of chemistry, you probably don’t know that Ato Essandoh actually went to school for Chemical Engineering. How exactly did he then make the leap to becoming an actor? Well, it was on a dare.
“My girlfriend at Cornell dared me to do a play,” he explained. “Randomly called me and asked me to be in this play…She was like no, you’re going to to it. You’re absolutely going to do it and I won’t talk to you if you don’t. And I was like oh, okay, and I did it and it kind of changed my world. I’d never been exposed to acting or theater or anything like that.
“It wasn’t like I dropped everything and went into acting,” he continued. “I graduated and so forth but then a couple years in, I just kept thinking about acting. So I started taking classes at The Acting Studio under James Price. That changed my world. Then I had to call my parents and say hey guys, you know that chemical engineering degree I had? Yeah, I’m going to see if I can be an actor.”
How well did that conversation go?
“Relatively speaking, amazingly well for being West African parents who came over here and made a nice life for themselves,” he told us. “For their first born son to turn to them and say yeah, I’m not going to be a chemical engineer or go into medicine or anything like that, they were amazingly supportive. Years later my mom came and told me how scared they were, but they just saw how much I was working and how much I wanted it, and they said okay we have a couch you can sleep on if everything goes to crap.”
It’s been exactly the opposite. If you’re a regular TV viewer chances are you’ve seen Ato Essandoh in at least two different places. In addition to his work on Med, he also still has a recurring role on CBS’s Blue Bloods as Reverend Darnell Porter, a regular antagonist for the Reagan family. He also co-starred in HBO’s Vinyl as Lester Grimes and BBC America’s Copper playing Matthew Freeman. The man is in many shows, and that’s perfectly okay because he kicks ass in all of them.
What has made Isidore Latham such a potent addition to the Med ensemble is the way that Ato Essandoh plays him. Anybody could show up and be an antagonist (just look at Dr. Stohl, the new character introduced two weeks ago). But Latham is much more three-dimensional than that.
Ato is able to bring in all those different facets of his character, from his generally thorny personality to his condition to his religious beliefs, in a show that doesn’t always have the time to dwell on character. But even when he’s rushing to save a patient Ato is approaching Latham differently.
Add in the fact that he’s constantly challenging and being challenged by Colin Donnell, who’s a phenomenal actor in his own right with the same kind of ability to enhance a character, and it’s a recipe for greatness. He’s a thoughtful, versatile actor who can take a unique character like Isidore Latham and then make him stand out even further. No wonder he’s racked up a long resume.
In fact, even though he’s still appearing on Chicago Med, he’s got another series on deck. You’ll see him as Vernon Elliot in Netflix’s Altered Carbon, which has yet to confirm a premiere date but is expected sometime this year. And it’s a totally different role from Isidore Latham.
“The concept behind this show is pretty cool, because I’m a science fiction geek as well,” he told us. “Basically it’s like five hundred years into the future. Humankind have figured out how to essentially store your essence, or consciousness, in a chip that’s in the back of your neck. So if you were to kill me bodily, as long as that chip survived, you can insert it into another body – which they call a sleeve – and then I could be you. I could be in your body or anyone’s body.”
Whether he’s exploring a far-out future or walking the halls of Gaffney Chicago Medical Center, Ato Essandoh is somebody that you don’t miss. He has a certain poise and gravity that he brings to each character, his range is ridiculous, and there’s something about him that makes him a little bulletproof. He can be a complete jerk to your favorite character and yet somehow you still like him. It’s hard to find something he couldn’t do.
Okay, maybe there’s one thing Ato Essandoh can’t do. Even after getting a Chemical Engineering degree, playing a doctor on TV and then playing in a science fiction show, he admitted that he still has trouble pronouncing all the large words that come his way.
“It’s the worst,” he laughed. “People say Shakespeare is hard. Shakespeare is not as hard as some of the stuff I’ve had to say, medically speaking. Sometimes I look at the scripts [on Chicago Med] and go no, nobody on the planet says that. They just made that up to laugh while we try to pronounce these words.
“None of it makes any kind of sense,” he continued, “and I go, why make it that hard to communicate these parts of the body? Why are we still working with Latin here? Because it’s hard. This is an emergency, people are dying, and you’re trying to figure out how to pronounce a word so you can say it to a person. I don’t know how doctors do it.”
“If you’re standing next to me right now, you’d be standing in my apartment which is littered with guitars and musical stuff, because it’s been my hobby for ten years,” he reflected, “but I never thought I’d be a rock star and I never thought I’d be working for Martin Scorcese and Mick Jagger. I cannot believe that I’ve been listening to blues since I was twelve and now I’m playing a blues player in front of Martin Scorsese and one of the most iconic rock stars on the planet.
“And the next job is me going to pretend to be a surgeon with Asperger’s and he’s Orthodox Jewish, like again, there’s no way to get used to that,” he concluded. “Oh, and by the way, the next thing I’m going to do is play a human that has a chip in the back of his neck that has his entire consciousness to be downloaded like a computer and put into someone else’s body. It doesn’t make sense.”
But maybe it does if you’re Ato Essandoh. With everything he’s already accomplished on Chicago Med, we can’t wait to see where he’s going to take Isidore Latham next.
Don’t miss Ato Essandoh as Dr. Isidore Latham in tonight’s episode of Chicago Med. For more with Ato, you can also follow him on Twitter at @AtoEssandoh, and check out Altered Carbon when it premieres on Netflix.
Chicago Med airs Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC.