Once again, the Top of the Standard and New York’s “pop-culture extravaganza”, the Vulture Festival, teamed up to present an Heineken filled night with DJ Questlove of the band “The Roots” gracing the decks between the hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. In attendance at the 3rd annual festival were actors Frank Grillo and Jonathan Tucker, publisher Larry Burstein, Emma Myles of Orange is the New Black, and model Anna Christina Schwartz. The vibe was all smiles as the festival was gearing up for an event filled weekend featuring intimate interviews and talks. Guests enjoyed a slew of wonderful d’oeuvres, while sipping on cheeky drinks aptly named “Mint to Be” after the show You Me Her and “Kulina Kiss” after Frank Grillo’s character in Kingdom.
We caught up with Ato Essandoh the star of HBO’s Vinyl at the bash. He also stars in upcoming film Jason Bourne with Matt Damon and Alica Vikander.
Today we’re celebrating the Vulture Festival. Speak about being at the event.
Ato Essandoh: I’m at the top of the Standard Hotel. I’m looking at a 360° view, pretty much, of New York City. I’ve been here before; it’s one of my favorite spots to go on a date. Actually, date night, when you come to the top of the hotel – especially like first or second dates – she’s like, “ohh!” It’s impressive, so I like it. I love it.
So, you’re on this amazing show called Vinyl on HBO. So speak about how you first got involved.
Essandoh: I auditioned. I never thought I would get the role because I’m not Gary Clark Jr. I guess Gary Clark Jr. didn’t pick up the phone, so I got the part and I am honored and amazed that I’m still doing it. So, it’s wonderful.
And speak a little bit about what you loved about this particular character Lester Grimes.
Essandoh: You know, I grew up listening to all the music that this character would have been playing or listening to. So, it was like, “oh!” and plus, I started learning the guitar years ago just as my own meditative practice and then suddenly, I’m playing a Blues player on HBO. It’s a dream come true. So, it’s wonderful.
And speak a little bit about your immersion into the music. Obviously, you’re a music fan but how did you take it a step further to immerse yourself.
Essandoh: Man, when Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese call you to do a part, you start to practice the guitar in a way that you never thought. So, I was practicing, practicing, teaching myself how to sing. The voice – the beautiful voice – singing behind me is Ty Taylor from Vintage Trouble. If you don’t know that band, you should listen to that band. But I also took music lessons, so I know how to sing; I can hold a tune. I also kept practicing the guitar so I could play the actual music that they wanted me to play, so it was an accomplishment for me as an amateur musician to be able to pull off all that guitar stuff. Again, a dream come true. I did it in front of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger so it’s like I’m in the group, I’m in the gang now.
You certainly are! Speaking of those two legends, what was that like for you to be in the room with them?
Essandoh: It was incredible! I remember one of the first rehearsals I had with Bobby Cannavale and Martin Scorsese, and I’m sitting in the room with them and we’re talking about the scenes and then Martin would start talking about his past projects, like – oh, I don’t know – Goodfellas. And I’m going, every one of those movies, I have seen a hundred million times and he’s one of my favorite directors of all time. His movies are some of the movies that I watched to become an actor and here’s this man sitting in front of me, going, “Oh yeah, I think Goodfellas and Joe Pesci…” and he’s talking about these people and I’m like, “I already know! I already know, dude!” I’m a fan but I’m also trying to be professional and act like I’ve been there before so I’m like, “Yeah, Marti. Oh, you’re the dude who did Goodfellas, right? Yeah, yeah, that’s a good movie.” You have to try to play it cool.
Yeah, you can’t freak out! You have to be chill.
Essandoh: You cannot freak out. But when I finally met Mick Jagger, I was cool but then I went to the bathroom to freak out, where I was alone, because he was one of the first concerts I’d ever seen as an adult. I went to see The Rolling Stones with Living Colour opening. I’ve been a Rolling Stones fan since I was 16 years old, so it’s a dream come true.
Speak about working with Bobby [Cannavale]. He’s such a great actor.
Essandoh: Bobby’s a great actor and he’s an actor’s actor. You love working with him because he shows up and he’s got 150% and he’s ready to go, so he makes you better all the time as an actor. It was a pleasure. The first time I ever acted professionally on television was in Third Watch. I had a really small part as a bike messenger who got hit by a car and Bobby Cannavale was one of the series regulars. He was the guy who was the ambulance guy who picked me up and I reminded him of it and he never remembered the scene but I was like, “Yo! The first time I was on TV was with you, Bobby!” He was like, “Really?” I was like, “Dude!” And so, it was a full-circle kind of thing.
So, speak a little bit about the journey your character has taken this season and reflect on it.
Essandoh: Well, there’s something amazing about playing somebody who is at the top of his game as a singer and a talent, and then falling, and then becoming a broken shell of himself. And, as an actor, not being the centerpiece of the show but getting that kind of meat to work with is unprecedented. Because, it’s like, I have a character that has a full arc. I mean, from the pilot episode, first episode, I go from being like a hopeful Sam Cooke to being completely broken in one episode. And then it takes off from there. It’s an incredible honor and a privilege to play a character like him. Amazing.
And you’re diving into music. What do you want to share with your fans about the new music you’re doing?
Essandoh: Well, I started a group called Tall Boy Walking. We’re two tall guys and we’re playing like Electro-Blues. We’re just starting, so I’ll make an announcement later when we start to like play outside or whatever, but it’s a wonderful thing to be on this journey and all of a sudden playing music and like exploring that thing. It’s all good vibes; it’s all good vibes.
And lastly, you’re joining the Bourne franchise. Speak a little bit about what that means to you to be joining this franchise.
Essandoh: Man, I look at Matt Damon and see here’s the thing. My dad doesn’t really know anything about the entertainment business. He loves that his son is in the entertainment business but knows nothing. And so, one time I’m driving with my Dad and he’s like, “Oh, so, what’s the new project?” Right? So, I’m doing this show with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger; my dad doesn’t know who that is. So, I’m like, “OK, there’s this new movie, it’s the Bourne movie.” He goes, “What?” I said, “Bourne movie,” expecting him not to know, and he’s like, “The Bourne movie! You’re in the Bourne movie?” My dad knows who Jason Bourne is, that’s how big this is!
This is big!
Essandoh: All my boys know who Jason Bourne is, so when I’m like, “Yo, I’m doing a Bourne movie,” they’re like, “Yo! You’re doing the Bourne movie!” It’s awesome and they all want Matt Damon to be back in it so they’re like, “Yo, is Matty D in it?” and I’m like, “Matty D is in it.” So I have street cred for days now. I made a Bourne movie with Matty D. So, I’m good!
Anything final you want to add?
Essandoh: No, no, just check Vinyl out when you can! Check the Bourne movie when you can. It’s July 29, my birthday, it’s coming out. It’s all crazy.
Notable events throughout the weekend include a live taping of “Hollywood Handbook”, a talk with Peter Gould and Bob Odenkirk about their spinoff Better Call Saul, and a special concert featuring Gary Clark Jr. and Albert Hammond Jr. courtesy of Governors Ball.
Sponsors for New York Magazine’s Vulture Festival include DIRECTV, TNT, Hulu, Casper, Citi, NBC4NY, Screenvision Media, OUTFRONT Media, NYC Company, Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment, Carolines on Broadway, Earwolf, Governors Ball, The Standard, Heineken, Baron von Fancy, Taylor Creative, Bridge Lane Wines & Tekserve.