TUNJI KASIM: “I Would Go Mad Just Doing Shakespeare…”
As a Child, Tunji Kasim wanted to be a boxer or a dish washer – as in someone who washes dishes, not the machine. However, the dish washing ambition did not last long, acting came calling. Today, he is living the dream of many actors as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ensemble for the last two years with versatile roles in The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar and King Lear. As Kasim takes on the more contemporaneous role of Pharus in American Trade by the award-winning, African-American playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney, he tells me why he feels a big sense of responsibility for all his characters.
Belinda: You have worked with the RSC as part of the ensemble for two years, how would you describe the experience/journey so far?
Tunji Kasim: One hell of a ride that isn’t even over yet. I suppose comparing it to a rollercoaster wouldn’t be too far off the mark. The nerves going into it and all the twists and turns along the way as well as the straighter easier bits then coming out the other end and feeling a stronger maybe better person having done it. But as I said it ain’t over yet.
Belinda: When it all started, did you feel you were getting in way over your head?
Tunji Kasim: Not really, because I don’t think I realised what I was getting into to be honest. And I’m kinda glad because if I did…maybe it would have been too much for me. But that’s the way I operate, I tend to look at the big picture in hindsight. That has its plus’s and minus’s but it allows me to take things as they come one at a time rather than getting bogged down with it all.
Belinda: With the first ensemble that did the History Plays, at some point, it was described and compared to being a social experiment due to the idea of working with the same group of people for two years. Has this ensemble felt that way to you or has it been a personal journey of some sort in your career as an actor to work with the same group of people for a long stretchy of timer?
Tunji Kasim: I think it’s been very much both. I’m a different actor coming out of this 2 and a bit year journey and I’m also a different person. I’ve learnt huge amounts as an actor, it’d be almost impossible not to. I’d only been acting for 3 years or so before this so was still fresh young blood, but working with all these other actors who have been doing it for years and getting to know them intimately has been priceless. But of course if you’re seeing the same people every day and rehearsing from 10am till 6pm (sometimes till 10pm) then things can sometimes get a bit tense, many a falling out has occurred but it has to be resolved so you can all get on stage and work. There is a strong sense of family in the ensemble, and all the positives and negatives that, that comes with.
Belinda: What’s the experience of living and breathing the words of Shakespeare on the live stage as well as being in new plays by the RSC?
Tunji Kasim: They’ve definitely complimented each other. I would go mad just doing Shakespeare for 2 years (as great as he is) so the new writing has been great. And it lets me exercise all my acting muscles: doing classical text, taking that as it comes and also working with new text that I’m very much involved in shaping. And I’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to play meaty characters in both types of writing so I’m living a lot of actor’s dreams.
Belinda: You have received some rave reviews so far for your roles in the same plays mentioned above. The Fourthwall magazine said: “Tunji Kasim is rather sweetly attractive as Mardian” for your part in Antony & Cleoptara and “Tunji Kasim may lack the gravitas for a true Machiavellian villain but his Edmund has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand,” for King Lear. Hence, are you nervous about your interpretation of Pharus, lead role in American Trade, who is described as ‘very naughty’?
Tunji Kasim: He’s very naughty? Who told you that? I didn’t know that. I’m gonna have to rerehearse the whole thing. Joking. I try to avoid reviews but the great thing about new writing is it’s never been done before. It’s great to get an audience in that has no idea what’s about to happen or what the characters are about. One of the negative things for me that comes with performing Shakespeare is people come having seen 23 other versions of the play you’re doing and have in their head how a part should or should not be played. And the great thing about Pharus is he’s brand new. So there isn’t that same pressure of people questioning your choices.
Belinda: What’s your take on his character as this person, who embodies unique idiosyncrasies, from being charismatic to setting up an escort agency but disguises it as a model agency?
Tunji Kasim: He’s an opportunist through and through. And he doesn’t question himself ever, he gets an idea and does it, no hesitation. He goes through life dealing with situations and people as a series of transactions (I’ve got something you want, or vice versa, so let’s trade). On the surface he’s what everyone else wants to be, smart, stylish, confident, and charming but we meet him at the top of his game at the start of the play, and there’s only one way to go when you reach the top.
Belinda: What’s the experience of working with Tarell Alvin McCraney on this play, who by all account is a talented playwright like?
Tunji Kasim: Tarell is a freaking genius. We work on a scene and for whatever reason it isn’t quite right so he goes away for 5 mins and comes back with a whole new scene that’s perfect. He just produces this amazing stuff almost effortlessly. I worked on one of his other plays “The brother’s size” and that was one of the best plays I’ve done. So I was very happy to work with him on this. He’s very talented and awe inspiring, it’s always good to work with those kinds of people.
Belinda: How challenging is it, to do the mental shift as one actor taking on various characters in plays like Antony & Cleopatra and King Lear and then come back to a contemporaneous play like American Trade?
Tunji Kasim: It does take a little bit of readjusting but really it’s not that hard if you’ve got good writing to work with. Good writing is good writing whether it was written 400 years ago or 20 mins ago. So the writer kinda does half your work for you shifting between worlds. By the same token people are people, if they live in 30BC Egypt or 21st century New York. The costumes and the way they speak might change but under it all it’s the same emotions and feelings.
Belinda: Do you have a sense of responsibility to all your characters as part of this ensemble and in the plays where you have had lead or supporting characters, especially, to the new role you are going to take on at the Hampstead Theatre?
Tunji Kassim: Absolutely. I love each and every part I’m playing in all these plays. And I’m solely responsible to make sure the people I’m playing have a voice in whatever play I’m doing, no one else is gonna do it for me. From Lucius in Julius Caesar to Pharus in American Trade they all have a voice and I’m gonna make sure they’re heard. And with Pharus, it’s the first time he’s speaking, he’s a new voice in the world, and it’s on me to carry that voice to the audience. So absolutely I feel a big responsibility for all my characters.
Belinda: In the two years you have been with the RSC, what’s your favourite of the different roles you have taken on and why?
Tunji Kasim: I love ’em all. Depending on what mood I’m in…I sometimes enjoy one over the others. Florizel in Winter’s Tale is always a breath of fresh air with his love conquers all attitudes. Edmund is the opposite, a dirty little bastard who hates everything and everyone. Mardian is a eunuch who gets to hang out with girls a lot. I enjoy playing them all in very different ways. I know that was a very diplomatically cheesy answer but it’s the truth.
Belinda: What part of this whole project has been the most demanding on you as an actor and most likely spilled over into other areas of normal life as it was before the project started?
Tunji Kasim: Working at the RSC is a whole different ball game to anywhere I’ve worked before. It’s such a bigger ball game in just about all respects. So you’ve got to step up and make sure you’re playing your part in the team the best you can. And that also requires and level of confidence that I maybe didn’t have coming into this job. Also a better sense of self, what my strengths and weaknesses are.
Belinda: And what has been your favourite part of this experience of being a member of the ensemble and working with the RSC?
Tunji Kasim: Working with the same actors for so long has been definitely my favourite bit. Getting to know people not just as professionals but also forming strong bonds personally. As for the RSC, the support I’ve got while here has been amazing. It could be very easy to disappear in the big machine but they’re very aware of this and make every effort to make sure everyone is heard and catered to best they can. The RSC have given me many opportunities and I can’t thank them enough. Right from Michael Boyd to Dave in front of house staff, they’ve all been great to me.
Belinda: If you had a chance to do it all over, would you and Why?
Tunji Kasim: Don’t think I’d change a thing. It’s all happened the way it has, good and bad, and I’ve learnt and grown from it all. That’s not to say I’d necessarily rush into doing it again soon, it has been very hard work. But nothing worth having is easy to come by. I don’t regret any of it.
Belinda: What lessons have you learnt and will be taking with you into the next project that comes your way?
Tunji Kasim: Can’t really say because every project is different and needs different skills but definitely I’ll be going into my next job with a lot more confidence in myself and what I do.
Belinda: What do you want people to take away from American Trade?
Tunji Kasim: I want people to have fun. There are plenty of things to lament over and think about. But I want people leaving the theatre with a smile on their face and on the way home saying “remember that bit where so and so happened, it was great”. If we can make some people happy that’d be great.
Belinda: What should we expect from you next?
Tunji Kasim: Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve still got almost 3 months of this job left.
Images by the RSC