Tunji Kasim can currently be seen treading the Old Vic boards in the gory classic The Duchess Of Malfi. While he may only be in his 20s, this young actor is no stranger to legendary venues and renowned directors. Having left drama school a term early for the chance to work with Michael Attenborough, Kasim’s career has since seen him directed by Michael Boyd, Lucy Bailey and David Farr as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s innovative long ensemble.
Charlotte Marshall talks to the actor about what he’s learnt from working with such theatrical greats, how previews are going with one actor nursing a broken collarbone and why he’s really just a secret geek.
CV in brief
2007 Makes London stage debut in Michael Attenborough’s production of Big White Fog at the Almeida theatre
2007 Stars in E4 series Nearly Famous
2007 Stars in the Young Vic theatre’s critically acclaimed The Brothers Size
2009-2011 Part of the Royal Shakespeare Company long ensemble, appearing in David Farr’s King Lear and The Winter’s Tale, Michael Boyd’s Anthony And Cleopatra and The Grain Store, Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar and Jamie Lloyd’s American Trade.
2012 Appearing in The Duchess Of Malfi at the Old Vic theatre, directed by Jamie Lloyd.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Aberdeen but moved to Nigeria soon after being born. I was there until I was 12 and then moved back to Aberdeen in ’99 and spent my teenage years there.
What first got you interested in acting?
I’ve always enjoyed it; I think there was always a kind of performer-esque type thing in me, if that’s a word! I’d done Jesus Christ Superstar and things like that at Secondary School but I’d never actually considered it properly until she [his drama teacher] suggested that I should seriously consider it. And I did and it went from there.
Did you go to drama school?
Yes I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, which is now called Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
How are previews for Duchess Of Malfi going?
We’ve had about a week and a half of previews, which we’ve actually kind of needed because Finbar Lynch, who’s playing the cardinal, broke his collarbone. So he missed the first few shows, but he’s back now.
Will he be able to do the whole run with a broken collarbone?
Yes, we’ll see how that turns out. He’s alright, he’s got a little sling on so the cardinal’s looking like Richard III!
Tell me about your character.
He’s called Delio and he is best friends with Antonio who gets himself in all sorts of bother starting a family with the Duchess. He’s very much there to help Antonio through his troubled time and give the best advice that he can. Unfortunately Antonio doesn’t necessarily listen to him all the time which ends up badly for Antonio. He is the rock, he’s got the sensible head, whereas Antonio is a bit more spontaneous about things and gets in trouble for it, but Delio’s definitely the last man standing in the play.
Are you enjoying playing him or would you prefer it if he was a bit more reckless?
No, it’s a challenge because what I’ve found is the less you do with Delio the better he works. So in that sense it’s a challenge to keep the discipline and not want to put too much on top of Delio because there’s so much going on in the play – the Duchess and all the killing and betrayal and sex and all that sort of stuff – there’s so much going on that Delio can’t be sucked into that because he’s not necessarily a part of that world. He’s an observer but he’s not necessarily involved in the heart of it. The discipline of not wanting to emote grandly on the Old Vic stage, it’s a good lesson for me to learn.
This is the second time you’ve worked with Jamie Lloyd. Did he ask you to play this role?
Yes he did, I think it’s my first straight offer without having to audition or anything. He called me up and luckily the dates worked out and I wanted to work with Jamie again because the first time I worked with him I very much enjoyed it. He’s a very enabling director, he hardly ever says no, which is great in the rehearsal room. He’ll let you try anything at least once.
You’ve worked with some amazing directors already. Have you learnt a lot from working with them?
Definitely, yes absolutely. I’m a bit wiser as to how to work with other directors… you get different things from different directors; Jamie’s quite enabling and quite open, whereas you work with other directors who have a clearer idea of what they want and they’re quite specific. It’s just figuring out how you work best under different directors and which mould you need to switch into. About six months ago I came out of a long contract at the RSC where I got to work with the same directors two or three times. Coming back and working with someone again, it’s a healthier room because you know how each other works and you know how to get the best out of each other.
How was the experience of being a part of the RSC long ensemble?
Erm [laughs], I want to say good times all the way and everyone was skipping around and it was such fun, but it was two and a half years with the same group of people in Stratford-upon-Avon so there’s bound to be ups and downs. There were great times, I definitely feel coming out of the RSC I’m a lot more experienced. I’ve learnt a lot more about the craft and that’s just from more or less living and working with older actors like Greg Hicks and Geoffrey Freshwater, people like that who’ve been doing it for years and years and years. Being around people like that was very informative as a young actor.
What was it like working with the same people for that length of time?
Same – ups and downs! You’re in Stratford-upon-Avon for a start, so you’re working with these people day in and day out, you’re rehearsing and then you’re doing night shows and also they’re the only people to socialise with so you got to know people quite well, sometimes a bit too well [laughs]. It was quite close quarters and that worked to advantages because when we were on stage together we were quite comfortable and you could, not necessarily know what the other person was going to do, but you could slightly anticipate the way the other actor was going with a certain scene and bounce off that more easily. But then at the same time you can get to know people a bit too well and tensions, or you fall out with people now and then, but then two weeks down the line you’re mates again. Good and bad.
Would you like to get into acting on screen?
For a long time I was saying theatre’s where my hearts at and it’s the only thing I really want to do, but I think after doing five, six years of more or less straight theatre and one TV job soon after I came out of drama school, it’s kind of like, alright, realistically it’s a huge part of the profession, TV and films, and as far as advancing your career profile wise so you get offered more work and more people see you, TV and film is definitely the way to go so it’s not something I can ignore forever.
What’s the most memorable moment of your career so far?
Probably doing The Brothers Size, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play. We did it at the Young Vic and we did a slight European tour and a bit of a British tour as well, and that was just a magical play. It’s a three-hander, it’s over in about an hour and a half, it’s nice and short and sweet and simple, there was no set, it was very basic costume and it was just telling a story… It was just good hard work that you were completely willing to do just because it was so rewarding.
Any low points?
[Laughs] I have struggled with some parts for a myriad of reasons and I think Edmund in King Lear was probably the lowest point for me professionally, where I’ve felt I wasn’t at my best, I felt frustrated. It would be interesting to possibly come back to that part when I’m older and a bit wiser…. I definitely know when I’m under the skin of a character and I feel completely comfortable exploring the emotions and the scope of that character and I know when my head is on top of that character. I felt with Edmund, if I’m honest with myself, that a lot of the time it was a mental, intellectual performance rather than an emotional, guttural performance.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
When it came to going to drama school it was either between that or computing science. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to technology and computers, you know, I build computers and all that sort of stuff. I like my technology and so definitely something to do with computers, gadgets and technology.
What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?
I don’t know if I take advice very well [laughs]. The head of the drama department at the [drama] school I went to once said to me ‘Have fun’ and I think that that is definitely pretty solid. If you’re having fun at least you’re mentally happy and that’s what counts more than anything else.