Adetunji Kasim is posed to be one of the brightest and promising stars of the following year, and it is his discipline and his craft that’ll take him to the top.
Currently starring on CW’s hit teen drama Nancy Drew, the Nigerian and Scottish actor proves that he is a force to be reckoned with. With roots beginning in theatre, Tunji—as he is so affectionately called—is a man dedicated to the betterment of his craft and preserving the human experience, whatever that they may look like to him, through his emotion-laced performances. Tunji has managed to leave his mark on the theatre starring in productions of The Brothers Size, nominated for an Ian Charleston Award for his role in Julius Caesar—produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
On the CW’s Nancy Drew, Tunji plays Nick, a former convict facing his tumultuous past as he attempts to move forward with his new life helping his ex-girlfriend, Nancy Drew, solve murders around Maine. With season three in full swing, Tunji hopes to continue this journey with his ND family as he learns more about his craft and challenges himself with future roles.
Tunji sat down with Marc Griffin of 1883 Magazine to discuss his role on Nancy Drew, the importance of honing one’s craft, his roots in theatre, and the beauty of telling stories through acting.
Let’s go ahead and jump right into it; I heard you got a bit of a busy schedule today.
I do, a wee bit. And please bear with me; I was up till about 4 AM last night filming, so I’m slowly coming to the land of the living.
Well, jumping from there, what were you filming? Are you able to let us into this world or not yet?
Oh, unfortunately, I can’t share this with you [Laughs]. It was a very exciting sequence, shall we say, but it’s one of those things that I can’t divulge too much, but a lot of fun involving the whole Drew crew. Big crowd scenes and it was a lot of fun, but I can not say anything about that yet.
That’s fair. So with you being on Nancy Drew, season three just premiered October 8th…how did this opportunity come about? Walk me through the journey of how Tunji became a recurring character on Nancy Drew.
Yeah, so I was in LA in 2019; I was there for pilot season, which is a time of the year where a lot of casting gets done for new pilots—which is the first episodes of seasons trying to get made. So you make a pilot, and hopefully, you get picked up for a season and life, and the show goes on from there. So I was there in LA in February 2019, it was my first pilot season, and I had American representation for a few years but predominantly worked in theatre in the UK. Nancy Drew was one of the second auditions that I got when I got to town; I was familiar with the franchise and the book; the literature was around me when I was growing up, so I was quite excited to get it.
We’re clearly doing a modern iteration of the material, so it’s not the Nancy Drew your mum and dad grew up with, to say the least. And with Nick, it was kind of unusual and a surprise for me to get an audition for Nick, who is Ned—he goes by Nick in the books, but he goes by Ned in our version—because he’s a character written in the 1920s, a white middle-class dude and they’re bringing him into a more modern interpretation and definitely pushing for a bit more diversity in the casting of it. So, I did the audition, and they liked what I did, I liked them, and we vibe with the writers. I met with one of the directors, Larry Teng; he was the one who directed the pilot and has been with us since, and we all got along very well, and the job came my way. I came up to Vancouver, filmed the pilot, and it’s kind of gone from there; it’s really crazy how it all sort of happened, and of course, we had a pandemic and other crazy world events, but we were very fortunate to keep it rolling all the way through. It’s been a very great opportunity for me because I love this show, I love this cast, I love this crew, the writers, and every day is genuinely a lot of fun—I really appreciate where I’m at right now.
What would you say were some of the challenges that a show like Nancy Drew presented to you actin-wise? Do you feel your skills were tested in steel sharpens steel sort of way? And if so, could you sort of explain how that made you a better actor or maybe something you learned about yourself when acting alongside your Nancy Drew castmates?
I think for me, the biggest shift was doing predominantly theatre and then doing predominantly camera work now; I haven’t done any theatre because of the pandemic in large part, so that for me professionally has been quite a significant shift and presents all sorts of challenges in itself. To be blunt about the difference, I would say that theatre is very big, and tv is very small. So, it’s a challenge between the two where you had to project and be quite large in your performance on stage in the theatre, project those emotions in a large room to a thousand and then switches to then it just being you and one another person and a camera lens is a completely different energy.
One of the great things about my job is that I am presented with new situations almost every day I go into work, and it’s a joy to be able to learn something new and stretch myself in slightly different ways every single day I go into work. I make sure that I am learning and I am evolving, trying to get better at my craft constantly and not getting complacent. And I think that was a challenge for me, making that switch from a large-scaled sort of voice then trusting that you can emit that same emotion on a smaller scale. The craft of that is to make sure that even though it is on a small scale, it is still very much alive, present and in the moment, and hopefully, you are still able to capture something authentic and magically.
But that has been one of the biggest challenges for me; trusting that feeling, and even though what I may be doing is minute and subtle and it still can have a lot of weight with it. I also think its fantastic working with the other actors of Nancy Drew; we all come from very different acting backgrounds, and we have been able to learn from each other, and they all definitely bring something unique to the show with their characters, so it’s really a big learning experience for me. I’m constantly learning from them and picking up from what they’re doing, staying alert to the tips and tricks. But first and foremost, it is an absolute pleasure working with this cast; they’re just fantastic.
To your point about the theatre world and being rather large in emotion when projecting that, I wanted to dive into that. Your roots in acting are in the theatre, so what sort of skills did you bring from that world in live performance—the large projection of emotion and nuance—to the silver screen, and what did you have to leave behind?
I think there’s a lot of similarities in the craft. I think there are basic things like if you’re on a stage, you tend to have the audience on one’s side and so all of your actions…you got to turn out towards the audience or else they won’t be able to see what you’re doing, right? So there’s something in our craft called “turning out to the audience,” and that is a skill that you could transfer onto a set because you have to turn outwards to the camera, which is basically your audience. So there are practical things that are similar between the two but what’s also important to remember is that I’m playing a person, a human being, and my job is to explore the life and the emotional landscape of this human being as thoroughly as possible. And so carrying forward that empathy that you want audiences watching you playing this person is something that is shared between these two arts, and at the end of the day, its emotions and human beings, and that carry over no matter what medium I’m working in. The emotion is what’s at the heart and the roots of it all and what ties it all together. But inevitably, you have to leave things behind, right? [Laughs] I can’t be on the Nancy Drew set projecting at the top of my voice.
I mean, that would make for a pretty funny Tik-Tok [both laugh].
Right, but definitely not for good tv [laughs]. But yeah, stuff like that you just got to leave that projecting of the voice behind because it just doesn’t translate well to the small screen; it almost becomes kind of clownish, larger than it needs to be on a tv screen, and it gets amplified to a hundred simply because you’re in people’s living rooms. So, yeah, there’s a lot you could carry forward and a lot you could use between the two, but there’s a lot you have to leave behind and just trust, and that is hard for me anyway because having done theatre for such a long time and having to make sure that what I’m doing is reading very clearly on stage. Then, to switch to tv, less is more, and you have to be more subtle and trust in that subtlety, making sure that audiences can see that performance and understand what it is that I’m doing.
That sort of brings up an interesting point, we’ve been talking about theatre this whole time, so I’m curious if you’ve been set on being in theatre your whole life? Or did you have dreams/goals of doing theatre, tv, and the big screen?
Well, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be a boxer [Laughs]. The acting wasn’t something that I ever really considered seriously till I was coming out of high school. So it wasn’t really something that I was itching to do, and it just wasn’t a reality for me; I don’t really come from a dramatic family. If anything, my family is more based in academia; my dad is currently a lecturer at university, and my mum was a primary school teacher, so that was more of what I grew up watching. The arts weren’t really an option for me until I met a drama teacher in high school, and she kind of opened that world to me and made it known to me that I could be an actor and create in this world, which was pretty cool and I kind of rode that from there.
So, it wasn’t necessarily a clear idea of wanting to be a movie star or theatre star, but I think in the UK, there is a more traditional route to becoming an actor; you go to drama school for three years and then the theatre is a huge part of the art world in the UK and so it feels more natural en route to becoming an actor. You go to drama school, and you start working in theatre, and then there’s TV and film amongst all of that. But I think for a very long time—and I still think this—I think there is something very special and unique in theatre; theatre demands a honing of your craft simply because of the live aspect to it that you spoke to earlier. You don’t get another take when you perform the material live, you get one opportunity every night to tell your story, and you have to make sure that you are prepared and rehearsed and ready to present that.
For me, it was that structure of that, and the skill required to do that was a real challenge and something I felt was at the heart of my craft as an actor, and that’s probably why I did it for so long. I did tv as well early on in my career, but I felt like that wasn’t what was going to give me what I needed to be the best actor that I could be, and I felt that in regards to the theatre. So, I did theatre for a long time, and then I felt like I was good in that section, and I began looking at other ways I could grow, and I felt that it drew me into the world of the TV again back in 2019. You hope to have a successful career, and you hope to jump through all of the mediums, so if I could do some theatre, some tv, then hopefully the world of the film begins to open for me when I get opportunities to explore that as well.
And that’s just crazy to me, right, that you didn’t plan to become a huge theatre star in the UK or a big movie star in the US and yet by the age of 17, you managed to get accepted into the Royal Conservatory of Scotland in Glasgow, and I’m also aware of the BIG names that have come out of this institution. One that comes to mind is Tom Ellis, the homeboy who plays Lucifer, which is super dope. That’s such a change in life trajectory for someone who wanted to be a boxer or a football star — I do have to clarify you do mean soccer football, right?
[Laughs] Yes, “soccer”: the thing you kick around as opposed to throwing around.
Gotchu, the actual football! So, how was that experience for you? And was this change in your life a shock to your mom and dad? Or were they immediately onboard?
I think it was a struggle for my dad, but my mom is more artistically minded anyway, so she was more supportive from the start. My dad is academically-centred, so it was more of a struggle for him, but to his credit, he was also supportive of me as he was the one who drove me three/four hours down the road to my auditions to get into drama school. Now, he’s one of my biggest fans as he’s telling me stuff that happens online about the job that I’m doing before I know what’s going on. It definitely took him a while to get 100% on board with his son being an artist because you know it’s not an easy hustle to be an actor. And unfortunately, statistically, you’re more likely to fail than to succeed as more actors are out of work than there are in work. So, as a parent, it must be terrifying that your kid is committing his life to a life of struggle as he attempts to make ends meet because there’s no promise or logical trajectory for your career. As an actor, you make your own luck, to a certain degree, and it’s all about what opportunities come your way, and you make the most of them. Fortunately, we can look back and say so far it’s worked out. But it was definitely a struggle for him for a while.
I would say even for me; it was a struggle to a large degree because it was such a seemingly mystical thing that we do: we tell stories. Some people could look at that and go, “okay, you tell stories, what’s that all about?” But it’s clearly for something that is in the human psyche to have that need of stories, to tell stories. It seems to be a very fundamental part of what it means to be human, so telling these stories and learning from them, and because of this, it can be mystifying as to how this could be a real job as opposed to something like what an engineer does and I think “wow, I’m literally just telling stories to people.” So sometimes I struggle with the particularly meaningfulness of my job, and then I’m reminded that these stories that we tell can actually touch people in very meaningful ways. Not to be too dramatic about it, but it can literally save lives; people have been in really dark places and have gone to watch a particular thing, and it has brought them out of whatever dark place they were in. I think it is easy to underestimate what art can do for people, but sometimes it feels like it is hard to overestimate the significance of what this can do for people, and I feel like that is a beautiful thing about what we do. I’m very privileged to be a part of it all.
There’s also the beauty of stories coming from your real-life right, and that could help to bring people out of the darkness too. Stories that are inspired by everyday things like culture and going back to you speaking about your father, he’s Nigerian, and your mother is Scottish, you grew up in a rather culturally rich environment. To your point about stories, what did you feel when you arrived in London and LA, and you absorbed so many stories that may have been different from yours, and how did that inform your craft?
Yeah, so as you said, I grew up in Nigeria and Scotland, and it was quite a privileged position to be in-from my point of view anyway. Because some people grow up in just one place, and that comes with its own challenges, of course, but I think I’m quite lucky to have gotten the opportunity to do that. Moving to London was one of the first places where I felt that being mixed—an identity that I carried around in my life that has been very shaping for me because you know in Nigeria I’m light-skinned and in Scotland I’m dark-skinned. So, it’s like that thing, and in London, it was the first time where I was just seen as a Londoner because there is such a mix in London, and there’s not really those kinds of binary choices that don’t exist as much. And that was a very relieving kind of feeling to be in an environment where I didn’t stand out as much, and as human beings, we all want to fit in, so London was one of those places that made me feel like I did belong.
Of course, I bring my life experiences to my art, you can’t help but do that, but it is a struggle. It’s a struggle sometimes because—talking about binary choices—we can be very simplistic in our storytelling, and sometimes as artists, we are put in situations that make us as artists feel like we have to make a binary choice. It’s either this or that but the projects that I am often most attracted to include characters that have diversity within them and are complex, complicated characters as opposed to just one thing or another. I think this industry, especially when we get to the business side of things, selling yourself as a product, selling yourself as simply as possible can definitely be a tactic, and it has been something that people have relied on and leaned on.
But I find that my life is far more complicated than just one thing; I don’t represent coming from just one group, I am an amalgamation of many different cultures and identities within myself, and so far, I have found opportunities to express all those things and not feel boxed into just one particular identity and hopefully I’ll be able to continue to do that. But it’s 2021, and the world is only going to get more and more diverse and more complicated, for the lack of a better word, and these binary choices where the world wants to put you in a box to be this one thing so they can get a better understanding of who you are…I think that is coming to a point where it’s going to be put behind us. Now, obviously, there are far more complicated conversations to be had in amongst all of this, but I; ’m trying to summarize it as simply as I can but I think that the diversity I have in my personal life is something that I try to bring to my professional artistic life and that is definitely bound in with the choices I make as an actor and the people I choose to play, lives I choose to inhabit.
I loved this answer, all of these, really.
No, man, thank you, you had some really good questions!
For sure, man. Hey, good luck with everything that you have coming up, and I can’t wait to speak with you in the future.
Interview Marc Griffin
Photography Noah Asanias
Catch Tunji Kasim in Nancy Drew airing weekly on The CW.