‘Chicago Med’ interview: Ato Essandoh on Dr. Latham’s journey, his faith, and his future

This season, “Chicago Med” has presented us with many interesting new faces, but perhaps one of the most interesting is Dr. Isidore Latham, a physician like no one else both in terms of beliefs and what he tackles on a daily basis. He’s an incredibly fascinating and caring guy, but we got a sense on this past episode “Graveyard Shift” of how much he struggles with having Asperger’s and being able to relate properly to the emotions of other people. It’s something that he is ready to work on with Dr. Charles, and it’s a story arc that will continue into the coming episodes.

In setting up the return of the show to NBC on Thursday night we were thrilled to speak with Ato Essandoh for a fun interview discussing the challenges of taking on such a character, the work that goes into making sure his different attributes come off as authentic, and also some of what will lie ahead for him.

CarterMatt – One of the things that I’ve really come to enjoy the most about watching you is that whether it’s this show or ‘Blue Bloods’ or ‘Vinyl,’ is that you always seem to be doing something very different. Is that something in particular you look for when you’re considering what roles to play?

Ato Essandoh – It’s funny. I’m not at the level where I feel like I can make choices; I get what is given to me at this point. I think what’s happened is what you just mentioned. People watch me do one thing, and then a director or an executive producer is like ‘hey, you should look at Ato for something else.’ That’s how a lot of the stuff I’ve gotten has come along. I think somehow, I’ve gotten into people’s heads that I can do a lot of different things, and I say that with a lot of humility and humbleness. That’s what it’s been so far.

‘Chicago Med’ was an offer, sight unseen, but I think they’d seen me enough in other things to know that I could pull off a black, Jewish, orthodox guy with Asperger’s. Let’s see.

Just with that role alone, I’ve never seen a character quite like Dr. Latham out there. When you first decided to take this on, how much did [executive producers] Andrew [Schneider] and Diane [Frolov] tell you about Latham and things that were going to happen to him?

I did not. When I got the offer and my agent said he was a black Jewish doctor with Asperger’s, I was like ‘that’s awesome. I don’t know if I can even pull that off, I don’t know what that means.’ But ‘Chicago Med’ was really helpful, especially Michael Waxman, one of the executive producers. As soon as I got to Chicago, he had me meet with an orthodox black Jewish Rabbi [Capers C. Funnye], who I believe is a cousin of Michelle Obama and one of the leaders of many Jewish orthodox people of color. He actually goes around the world for those people. He was a really great resource, and he also made it clear that this does exist. I mean, other than Sammy Davis Jr. and Drake, I don’t know many black Jewish people, especially orthodox. He made it really clear that this does exist, and that was really important for me when playing the character. You never want to look like a sight gag or something like that; it has to be based on some sort of feedback. The Rabbi gave me some really great insight into what that’s like. His story is really amazing as well — a great guy.

With the Asperger’s, Michael also introduced me to people on the autism spectrum. I talked to them and I got a lot of ideas as to what that was like. It was quite eye-opening, and once I got the permission in my head, I was justified in what I was doing.

Probably one of the strongest episodes for Dr. Latham in the first half of the season came in the episode where we saw him with the elevator after coming into work on the Shabbat. Did you receive any feedback from the Jewish community after that one aired?

I grew up in Scarsdale, New York and I have a lot of Jewish friends. I was familiar with some of the customs — I didn’t have orthodox Jewish friends, but I had Jewish friends who had been to Hebrew school so I was pretty comfortable with what I was doing. I wasn’t as aware as how, dare I say, stringent many people are when it comes to orthodoxy. It was surprising to me that people can’t use electricity or fire or anything like that, and seeing how they get around.

The greatest thing about being an actor in my estimation is to be able to live in other people’s shoes and see other realities that exist that you had no insight to. Jewish orthodoxy is quite elaborate and quite involved. What they have to do is fascinating, and having a little taste of it — that was interesting to me. It’s about having real, real discipline in the face of modern society. Does he stand there all day until someone pushes that button? It’s fascinating.

The main feedback that I’ve gotten from Jewish people is ‘that happens,’ and that just grounded me in a reality.

Dr. Reese had to inform Latham during ‘Graveyard Shift’ that there were hesitations on the part of the nurses to have him deliver bad news. As a character who is not used to relating emotions, how did you choose to play that response? What was so great is that over the course of the episode you learn more about the treatment and you start to see him open up about it, and become excited to the point that he wants to take it on at 3 in the morning.

I guess what I learned in my research on Asperger’s especially is that I thought it was that a person on the Asperger’s spectrum does not have emotions, and that is a misconception. It’s more about them not being able to negotiate other people’s emotions or social situations. They have a vibrant emotional life; they just don’t know how to negotiate and what the transactions mean. The thing that I thought was great with Dr. Latham is he’s so intense because he knows how to listen and watch and look for signs without having an intrinsic emotional idea of what they mean. You have sort of a checklist of what a smile could mean and what different things are, but you don’t have a full list because you don’t know how to apply it to every single situation.

His frustration is not being able to see the pattern, and it’s something that would be clear to you. As he starts to open up and understand what people see, there’s this great line that I say — it’s like I’ve been blind. I think that brings a genuine emotion out of him without saying ‘oh, he’s suddenly cured of his Asperger’s,’ which is ridiculous. There’s that fine line that you always have to tow — how do I process the emotional information that I’m getting, even though I don’t understand 98% of it, and that 2% is where I can act.

I know later this month there’s an episode coming up [on February 9] where Dr. Latham and Rhodes are heading out of town for a medical trip. Is there anything that you can speak to there?

I think one of the things with people with Asperger’s on the spectrum is that they need a pattern. Once you break that pattern, all sorts of hijinks, dare I say, ensue. Can he function outside of this pattern? It’s one thing to be in surgery and everything that happens is supposed to happen. It’s another thing to go out on the road somewhere in a different hospital — what happens when there’s these things that he’s patterned himself to do and they don’t come? I’m really excited to see what people see in this episode, because they gave me as an actor a lot of different things to explore for Dr. Latham really outside of his element. It really works with Connor Rhodes, as Colin Donnell brilliantly plays him, because Dr. Rhodes is really emotional and very aware. The way these two interact is going to be really interesting down the road.

In general, did you enjoy getting to be able to go out of the hospital and stretch your wings? I was at the set last fall and it is a really small space.

I know you’re supposed to say these things, but I really only like to say them when I’m genuine. The people at ‘Chicago Med’ are extraordinary. It’s an extraordinary cast and crew of people, and they’re willing to let me try a lot of things. When you’re a guest star on the show, as I’ve been many, many times at this point, you’re a guest in somebody’s house. You’re there to help promote their story. Especially with Colin Donnell and Oliver Platt, who I really [worked with considerably], they were really willing to let me explore the character in a way that I think enhanced the stories better instead of getting me to say me lines and getting me out of the way.

So getting a chance to take this character outside, I felt really safe to be able to explore that stuff, and I think this episode will be really special, at least for my character.

What else do you have coming up?

I’m working on a new Netflix series called ‘Altered Carbon.’ It’s a sci-fi show based on a Richard K. Morgan book. It’s cyberpunk, I play an ex-Marine, it’s 500 years in the future –it’s very different from ‘Chicago Med,’ so I keep getting a chance to continue playing these interesting characters.

We want to thank Ato Essandoh for his time and encourage everyone out there that’s not watching “Chicago Med” to check it out. As mentioned, the next new episode of “Chicago Med” airs on NBC Thursday night.

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