As I May Destroy You’s Kwame, Paapa Essiedu has undergone one of the show’s most jarring transitions. When the show began, he was a confident but quiet dude, scrolling Grindr to find anonymous hookups in between punishing sessions as a fitness instructor. In the show’s fourth episode, “That Was Fun,” though, Kwame initiates a round of consensual sex with a hookup, only to be ambushed and assaulted by the same man on his way out the door. He spends subsequent episodes tumbling into his own doubt, questioning whether what he experienced was rape, and working up the courage to talk to both his friends and the police, to various degrees of sympathy and empathy.
The A.V. Club talked to Essiedu about that journey, which came to a bit of a head on Monday night’s episode, “Happy Animals.” Excerpts of that chat are in the video above, with the full transcript below.
The A.V. Club: The past seems like a good place to start. You went to drama school with [IMDY creator] Michaela Coel, and even starred together in a project she wrote together in your final year. How has she changed and did she make you audition for this part?
Paapa Essiedu: She’s changed, and she hasn’t changed. I think she’s grown into herself in a way that you always hope for someone who’s gone from 20 to 30, or whatever it is. To me, she’s always been a very special charismatic, intelligent, insightful, challenging, brave woman, so it’s great for that she’s been platformed and seen by the masses, because I think she’s incredibly special human being.
And yet she did make me audition for the part. She didn’t even think about me for the auditions, you know. We were chatting about the project in a way that friends chat about what they’re doing.
It never even came her mind that I would be right. Sometimes I think that it still doesn’t, even though I’m an actor, because we don’t talk about that kind of stuff, as friends. It was the casting director, Julie Harkin. She suggested me to Michaela and she was “really?” and the casting director was like, “yeah, please.” And so, I actually auditioned a couple of times. Such was the journey to see me in the role.
Michaela and I have got kinship mentally, psychologically and emotionally, so we’ve always had really productive conversations creatively. So it worked out in the end.
AVC: Maybe, because she was your friend, she didn’t want to see you go through some of the stuff Kwame goes through. He really has been through some awful times, and even when he does try to speak out, it’s not necessarily satisfying or reassuring. Where did you connect with the role when you read it, and what have you learned about what male assault victims go through?
PE: I connect to Kwame because he’s a really imperfect Black man in the same way that I am. He’s got delusions of grandeur. He is just trying to live his life and do it with happiness and peace, which is working for him in a very good way until about 28 minutes into the fourth episode.
After that, it was about his response to his trauma and how some of his responses aren’t what’s “expected” in terms of sexual trauma. I just found him incredibly real and truthful, so that was a great challenge for me.
As far as victims… well, specifically Black male gay victims. Of course, in the past I’ve encouraged people to speak up, but the issue is not about people speaking out. The issue is how his truth is received and that’s where the scrutiny should be at. Because if you’re in that position of power or that position of potential intervention and aren’t able to or don’t have the mental equipment or the emotional operators to be able to engage with [the info], then it means that people are underserved. In this instance, Kwame is almost fatally underserved, like it’s something that pushes him into a real spiral that could have ended up in any, terrible way. And there are people who have had way, way worse experiences, you know?
AVC: It’s interesting juxtaposition, too. He’s been watching Arabella go through the process with her sensitive and thoughtful investigators, and then when Kwame decides to report, he’s faced with a confused investigator who has more questions than he has answers. It puts into perspective how we as a society are supposed to imagine rape victims.
PE: I think so, but I think that’s what we’re taught to think. When we watch television or films, we read books, we read articles, magazines, music, whatever, we’re taught to think that the only people that are assaulted are women and the only people that commit those assaults are men. And that doesn’t make an allowance or have any respect for the gamut of experiences or the different iterations through which that dynamic can be played out.
So I think [on IMDY], you’re seeing an intersection of all sorts of different prejudices being played out at the time where the thing that’s most needed is empathy.
AVC: Before the assault happens, Kwame is so confident and so sure of himself. Afterwards, he’s really shaken to the core, and his character starts to change. As an actor, how did you try and reflect that transition on screen?
PE: I wanted to make sure that there was a difference in the veracity of the performance or maybe the size bit before and after. I feel it’s a real turning point in him and it’s a lot about what he doesn’t say and a lot about what he suppresses after that. So that informed my physicality and informs my psychology as to what he couldn’t say, and that actually gives you as an actor a real big obstacle to play against. You can’t play trauma, you can’t play sadness, but you can’t play a desire to want to have connection or a desire to want to tell something or a desire to be better or a desire to cover up.
I think it’s about what we can’t say and what we don’t say as humans. That is really interesting.
AVC: How much were you told or how much did you imagine about his backstory? Like about where this confidence came from, what his life was like growing up, and how he came out? Did you think about any of that stuff?
PE: Of course I thought about it and spoke about it in great detail with Michaela. I spent a lot of time building that backstory, and some of it makes it into the show. We hear a little bit about his dad coming from Ghana. We hear about like previous relationships that he’s had. And through his efforts to guide Damon through these first steps of his journey toward confronting his sexuality and identity, we see a bit of his journey.
It’s really important to me that I do all of that work imaginatively and collaboratively with Michaela in a way that hopefully allows it to inform the character by giving it depth and body and making sure that I’m not making stuff up on the spot that has no consistency. It’s about how what we’re seeing is a moment in a whole lifetime, so it’s important that we recognize where that comes contextually.
AVC: Without revealing too much, because in the all of the episodes haven’t aired, do you think Kwame finds a degree of closure at the end of the season, or that maybe there’s some light at the end of the tunnel?
PE: I think closure is a difficult word because there’s something definitive about that. It gives the impression that he’s kind of moving on or he can leave what’s happened to him behind. And I don’t think that’s necessarily how anyone processes trauma. I think often it’s—at least from my own experience—something that you carry with you and, like other sensitive things, starts to mean different things to you. It’s not necessarily about eviscerating something.
By the end of the series, he’s made some decisions and he’s made some changes that give the impression that he’s moving towards a certain direction. He’s becoming a different version of himself. He’s taking everything he’s learned in his life and and taking that next step to whatever.