Translations star Adetomiwa Edun: ‘People tell me I look like that guy off the video game’
As Alex Hunter in FIFA 18, the Nigerian-born actor is a familiar face to millions of gamers, but his career has also encompassed high-profile stage and screen roles. As he returns to the NT in Translations, he tells Nick Clark why theatre’s immediacy makes it such a vital form
Despite starring in one of the world’s most successful entertainment franchises, no heads turn towards Adetomiwa Edun as he walks into the Kitchen cafe at the National Theatre. There are no giddy requests for selfies or suppressed giggles of recognition.
This may be because his most popular role to date has not been on film, television or the stage, but in a computer game, and even many of its most ardent fans may not have realised there is an actor behind the pixels.
More than 30 million gamers played FIFA 17’s story mode as Edun’s character Alex Hunter on their Xboxes and Playstations, the game’s creative director Matt Prior said last year. The equivalent numbers are not yet in for the bestselling follow-up FIFA 18, in which Hunter’s journey continues.
The actor is rehearsing for a revival of Brian Friel’s Translations at the NT and laughs about the reactions he gets on the street from fans who recognise him – Hunter’s features are spookily photorealistic and unmistakably Edun’s – but can’t quite believe what they are seeing.
“I walked past a girl in Stratford the other day and she did a double take. You see the dissonance in her head of: ‘Can this be real?’ ” Regularly, people come up to him and say: “You look like that guy off the computer game.”
No one at the NT makes the connection the day we meet, though maybe it is the wrong crowd for football video games. Still, National regulars may recognise him for his stage work.
Translations marks his third appearance at the venue. In 2009, he played Macbeth in Carl Heap’s NT education touring production and was hailed as “a fine verse speaker” and “charismatic” in The Stage’s review. Seven years later, he was at the Lyttelton in the acclaimed production of Deep Blue Sea, starring Helen McCrory.
Friel’s modern classic is Edun’s first time on the daunting Olivier stage and the production’s director, Ian Rickson, could not resist a football reference of his own at the start of rehearsals. “He was saying that the Olivier is our Wembley. There is a sense that this is where you want to play.”
Translations is set in an Irish-speaking community in rural Donegal and explores the turbulent relationship between England and Ireland. Two British army officers arrive to map the area and translate the Gaelic place names; it is, according to the publicity material, “an administrative act with radical consequences”.
Edun says: “It’s about culture. It asks how we stay present and current and progressive without losing the things that give us a sense of who we are. It’s also about not holding on to a sense of utopia.”
The themes feel remarkably current. “It’s incredible, the timing, especially as it’s an Irish play. Some very old wounds are being reopened by the potential of the Brexit effect on the border,” he says. “It’s a good moment to say: ‘Look, the only thing that tears us down is an unwillingness to converse. We can achieve such shifts, but they only happen if we feel safe and willing to engage.’ ”
The play, he says, is “like a Greek tragedy” – and he’s more qualified than most to make the claim. Edun read Classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, wrote his dissertation on the Odyssey and learnt to speak Ancient Greek. He has also visited the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, the blueprint for the Olivier.
Q&A: Adetomiwa Edun
What was your first non-theatrical job?
On reception in an office in Lagos. Great for banter, woeful for my ability to assist distraught customers.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Tiata Delights at the Almeida.
What is your next job?
The diary’s currently wide open.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
What a call sheet is and how to read it.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not universal ones, but some ritual invariably develops on each show. I think my last one was having to warm up in a wolf onesie.
In his final year at university, Edun played a gender-swapped Jocasta in an original-language version of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. The production would change his life.
The actors were all students, but it used a professional production team, including director Annie Castledine. “She was a force of nature,” he says of the director, who died in 2016.
“After rehearsal one day, she asked what I was doing with my life. I thought I had some good plans; she disagreed. She said: ‘You will apply to drama school.’ ” He was accepted at RADA.
His father had been “perplexed” that he went to acting school rather than becoming a banker, but it paid off as he immediately landed a role at London’s Almeida Theatre in a season of West African plays.
Coming to England from Nigeria wasn’t a culture shock; it was an adventure
It spoke to his Nigerian and Ghanaian heritage. Edun moved to the UK from Lagos at the age of 11, attending a preparatory school in Dorset and then going on to Eton. “It wasn’t a culture shock; it was an adventure. There was a lot going on,” he says. “Though I was disappointed at how cold England was.”
He was involved in drama at Eton from the start – he was a few years below “the guys to look up to”, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne – though largely worked in lighting when he wasn’t cast in plays. That changed when he auditioned for a school production of TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and vowed it would be his last attempt if it failed. The teacher tried a different process and he was cast as one of the leads. “That was it. I did a play a year for the next 10 years.”
One of his standout performances was as Romeo in the 2009 production of the tale of star-crossed lovers at Shakespeare’s Globe. Telegraph critic Charles Spencer described his performance as “fresh, cheeky, light on his feet”.
Almost a decade on, he still looks back on it fondly. “There are moments when you just have an awesome experience,” he says. “The most exciting experience is to engage and respond in the moment.”
That can have its downsides too, he concedes, such as the time Juliet forgot to show up for the balcony scene, or when the crowd became a bit too interactive. “I found people wanted to grab me. Once I looked up to Juliet on the balcony and stepped back; someone grabbed my ankle and pulled. I went down on one knee. I styled it out with a big flourish but still… that was a bit too engaged.”
As well as his stage work, Edun has appeared on radio and television, with eye-catching turns in Merlin, The Hour, Bates Motel and Doctor Who. “Each medium brings something different and so much variety. Some stuff I get to do on radio that I’d never get to do on stage or TV,” he says. “I do love the immediacy of theatre – it’s the most basic form of human interaction. It’s people talking to people about people,” he says.
After acting opposite stars from McCrory to Cristiano Ronaldo, his ideal next projects would draw on his heritage again. “I’d love to do a complex gangster story about a West African Michael Corleone,” he says. And on stage he wants to play Elesin Oba, the lead character in Death and the King’s Horseman by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. “I want to do things that change the unhealthy narratives of Africa I see daily.”
CV: Adetomiwa Edun
Born: 1984, Nigeria
• Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s Globe (2009)
• The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre (2016)
• Merlin, BBC (2010-12)
• Bates Motel, A&E (2015)
• Lucifer, Fox (2015)
• Doctor Who, BBC (2016)
• FIFA 18, EA Sports
Agent: 42 Management and Production
Translations runs at the National Theatre from May 30 to August 11