It’s good to be busy, but Paapa Essiedu is starting to reach his limits.
“I haven’t slept much, which is why the beauty sleep is very much needed now,” the 33-year-old London-born actor tells Inverse.
Essiedu is calling in from Milan, where it’s already late in the evening. (He’s there working on something, but he won’t tell me what.) Maybe a couple hours of shut-eye will help with his current problem. Then again, maybe not. “It probably will take more than beauty sleep to rescue me from the brink.”
But the thing about Essiedu, a consummate performer perhaps best known for his role in HBO’s I May Destroy You (the introspective Kwame, a young Londonite navigating his sexuality), is that he is the kind of artist who deserves to be busy. For all the work he’s been putting in, Essiedu is finally bursting onto the scene in a big way. In 2022, he broke out in a trio of genre-infused projects: Alex Garland’s folk-horror movie Men, British mystery thriller The Capture, and sci-fi series The Lazarus Project.
Finally, in 2023, the world is about to fall in love with Paapa Essiedu through a somewhat unlikely vehicle: Black Mirror. He stars in the final episode of Netflix’s latest batch of stories, a departure of form from showrunner Charlie Brooker and co-writer Bisha K. Ali (Ms. Marvel) called “Demon 79.” In it, Essiedu plays a demon named Gaap, who on his first assignment on Earth takes the more comforting form of 1970s disco star Bobby Farrell while convincing a young woman to murder three people or the world will end.
The fact that the bizarre sentence above translates to a thrilling hour of television is largely thanks to Essiedu, who sells the role with a mix of devilish charm and disarming insecurity that make you believe he really is a demon disguised as a disco dancer (and confirms Essiedu is a unique artist worth keeping an eye on). However, Gaap’s defining characteristic was almost very different.
According to Essiedu, his witty disco demon was almost a skinhead punk, the kind whom he described as his co-star Anjana Vasan’s character Nida’s “worst nightmare.” But Essiedu, Brooker, and episode director Toby Haynes had a better idea.
“We thought maybe that it was better for it to come from a more positive slant or from something that was more titillating, more exciting, more intoxicating for her,” the actor says. “So that’s when we started talking about these men that were commonly top of the pops at the time, these hyper-masculine but also hyper-femme men who existed in the half spaces in between our expectations of gender particularly. There was something about these men that we’d never seen before and wanted to see more of, but we didn’t know why and we didn’t understand. But we loved it.”
Watch “Demon 79” and there’s no denying the actor is fully on his A-game. He’s having a blast, and, frankly, it’s always fun to watch a performer have the time of their life with a part this compelling. Essiedu, a longtime fan of Brooker’s hit series, says he was innately drawn to the “originality” of Black Mirror, and with his episode in particular. He sees the piece as a departure for the tech-phobic series, one that proves “there is more to be mined in that world and there’s a different perspective on it.”
To delve too deep into what “Demon 79” has to offer would be doing the film-length installment a disservice — no surprise for a show built on mind-bending twists — but there’s something to be said for Essiedu’s place within the science-fiction genre where Black Mirror firmly resides. The Netflix anthology show is just the latest experimental turn he’s taken, and before it came a story that feels like it could’ve been a one-episode Black Mirror plot itself: The Lazarus Project, a twisty sci-fi series from the United Kingdom currently airing on TNT.
The show tells the story of Essiedu’s George, a man who wakes up one day to realize that time has rewound six months without anyone but him noticing it (not even his girlfriend, Sarah). Through this discovery, he comes to know about the secretive Lazarus Project and quickly gets roped into its world-shifting work. While George and Black Mirror’s Gaap couldn’t be more different as characters, the actor’s penchant for sci-fi and horror speaks to a sense of curiosity and desire to connect with what makes us human.
In fact, it’s clear he looks at George and his journey through the same sort of lens, particularly how the love in his life shapes his choices within the show’s sci-fi structure.
“He’s so principled, and he’s such a… I don’t want to say… hopeless romantic,” Essiedu says. “But if he falls in love, he really falls in love, and that is a very powerful motivating factor. He really will go to the ends of the Earth to protect the people that he loves.”
Ultimately, the two roles mark a major moment for Essiedu. His work in these projects prove the performer’s greatest strength is mining what makes humans human, a truth he cultivates in different ways with each role. That said, Essiedu is no stranger to success. His turn in the acclaimed HBO series I May Destroy You opposite his longtime friend and collaborator Michaela Coel garnered him an Emmy nomination, and he continues to dominate the English theater circuit.
When I ask him advice he would give to his younger self now following his Black Mirror, Lazarus Project, and I May Destroy You accomplishments, he thinks for a moment, but his beautiful convictions surface quickly.
“Remember that life is big,” he says. “You can be so focused, so caught up in the stresses, the microcosms of the job that you do. Be it success, be it money, be it fame, whatever it is. You get so worried by that and consumed by the anxiety that comes with that. You forget it’s just a job. Life is big and beautiful. There’s so much out there. There are people; there are relationships; there’s Milan.” Essiedu smirks at me, and we laugh. “And there’s new experiences. That’s the thing we should be dedicating our lives to pursuing, leaning into as much as possible. It’s funny that you say I should tell my younger self that. I need to remind my today self that as well.”
And with that, Essiedu says goodbye and logs off Zoom, hopefully, to get some rest. Although, he doesn’t actually need any beauty sleep, just for the record.