Netflix’s Away shines a spotlight on Ato Essandoh’s versatile talent

Away features Chicago Med’s Ato Essandoh in an incredible role.

Fans of Chicago Med know how wonderfully talented Ato Essandoh is, but Away is his best work yet. The Netflix drama stars Ato as Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban, a British citizen from Ghana who’s part of an ambitious international mission to Mars—which has the potential to make history.

The series mixes the high drama of sending men and women into the unknown of space with their family lives and loves back on Earth, and it has an incredible and diverse cast led by Oscar winner Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) and Golden Globe nominee Josh Charles (The Good Wife). It will become your new obsession.

All episodes of Away season 1 are streaming on Netflix now, so don’t wait to jump on board this captivating show with a remarkable performance by one of our favorite Chicago Med alums.

One Chicago Center: What was it about Away that drew you into the series?

Ato Essandoh: At first it was Hilary Swank and Ed Zwick being part of it. I’m a huge admirer of her work, and I’ve worked with Ed before and he’s a legend, so I was like, that’s cool

Also, I’m a sci-fi nerd, so I was hoping for space with some lasers and stuff like that. But I wasn’t disappointed, because when I read the script, I was like oh, they’re actually trying to do real space. Like, we’re actually going to be doing real gravity and all that kind of stuff. I thought that would be fun just to see if we could pull it off because I’m a huge nerd.

OCC: Kwesi hails from Ghana, which is also where your family is from. How was it to have that personal commonality with your character?

AE: What’s nice about Netflix is before they met me and they wrote the character, they read him as a Nigerian British citizen. But when they met me and they knew of my background, they actually switched it so I could be more represented by the actual character, which was really nice.

That meant I got to recruit my family into helping flesh out what the writers may not know about Ghana, which was really cool. They were really excited to give their insights. When we had to rename him to Kwesi Weisberg-Abban, we had to find a name that made sense in our culture. And so that was really, really cool. It was really great to include my family back home with that.

OCC: Away has remarkable diversity, not just because the characters are supposed to be from all over the world, but in that the actors all bring different talents to the show, too. What was it like to work with this ensemble?

AE: it was a fantastic group of people to work with. I have to single out Hilary Swank because, in my experience of working on anything, the number one on the call sheet, if that person is not a good person, you’re not going to have a good time no matter how great the work is. But Hilary is like the perfect leader because she is open, and she is honest and she’s supportive. I’ve seen her stop scenes to make sure that my light is right, or somebody else’s light is right. What I love about her is she’s such a great storyteller and that’s what she is concentrating on.

For me, having such a diverse cast also shows how the world should be working, in that humanity cannot overcome anything without having at its disposal a huge diversity of ideas and disciplines and motivation. That’s what we can sort of filter through to come up with the best answer for any of the endeavors that we are trying to overcome—whether it’s going to Mars, or whether it’s trying to figure out global warming or the virus.

We need a diversity of ideas, and great leaders like Hilary Swank to sort of help us move forward past these things. I think, inadvertently, this show is a common [example of] what humanity needs right now to overcome the roads that we’re going through at this moment.

OCC: Away is fascinating from a technical standpoint because for you as actors, you’re confined to working with the same group of people in the same space for most of the season. How does that affect you in terms of process?

AE: It’s really interesting. I mean, being a guy my size as well, it’s a little bit daunting. I’m not a claustrophobic person, but I also am very aware of my huge body in space…It really helped us sort of understand what it’s like to just be alone in space, especially when the crew was mostly out of the spaceship and it was just us actors.

But I also realized that it’s no wonder you have to be a certain size to be an astronaut because it’s just so small here. And I thought, well, gosh, I shouldn’t be cast in this show because I’m such a tall guy; I’m six-foot-four. Luckily, we got to talk to Mike Massimino, who’s a rockstar astronaut who’s been to space a bunch of times. He’s like six foot three. So I looked at him [and] I said oh, my character is now fully justified because you are as tall as I am.

OCC: What was the most memorable or exciting for you as you were shooting Away? Anything you want viewers to be watching out for?

AE: The zero gravity stuff. They told us that when we got the part, that you got to really get your abs and your butts in gear, because you’re going to be hanging and dangling from wires so that we could sort of illustrate zero gravity. Any time you see us up in the Atlas spaceship, we’re sort of floating around and delivering our lines as if we’re in zero gravity. That was the most fun, but the hardest part of the shoot.

When I see it on the show, I’m like oh my God, we pulled it off. So much that I’m surprised when somebody floats by as we’re having a conversation, I’m like oh, that looks so cool. So that’s what I’m really, really proud of. And there’s a couple of space walks in the show that I think that people will be thrilled by.

OCC: Your career has always been great, but particularly recently you’ve played these figures of authority and really represented. You’re a doctor on Chicago Med, a Marine on The Code and now an astronaut in Away. Did any of your past roles help with this one and what’s it like to be so many strong, unique characters?

AE: It’s really fun, this career of mine. I have never been typecast with anything. And it’s funny, but this is the second time I’m playing a Jewish character. So, hats off to Chicago Med for prepping me for what it would be like to be a Jewish character, and giving me that background.

It’s something that I keep knocking on wood that I get the really sort of rich, diverse roles, and it shows that I can do all of these things. There’s nothing better than in the last few years, being a heart surgeon, and then being a Marine, and then now I’m an astronaut. There’s so many great things that I’ve been able to put together, and hopefully that will continue. It feels amazing.

OCC: You’re no slouch yourself either. You graduated with a Chemical Engineering degree from Cornell. That didn’t help on Med, but did it apply at all to the space and science-heavy world of Away?

AE: Chemical engineering is a hard degree to sort of work into acting, but yes, this is the closest I’ve ever come. I’m playing a doctor; some of that stuff can kind of come in, but now we’re actually getting close to what I actually studied in college. We’re getting there, but not quite yet. (laughs)

Next: Chicago PD actress joins Dancing with the Stars

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