Fresh off of completing his degree at the University of Kansas, Tosin Morohunfola first arrived in the city of Chicago in pursuit of a career as a comic. Almost immediately, the world of show business proved to have other plans for the young actor. Morohunfola soon took Chicago’s theatre scene by storm, booking gigs on wildly popular series like Empire and Chicago Fire along the way. Like thousands of actors before him, Morohunfola had been prepared to struggle in the name of paying his dues. Instead, he was embraced by the stage and screen alike and can now be found alongside Amber Stevens West on Run the World, which just returned for its second season on Starz.
We caught up with Tosin Morohunfola to talk what’s next for Ola in Run the World, his equally impressive career as a producer, and how he uses storytelling as a powerful tool for impacting real change. Read his interview with The Untitled Magazine below.
Tell us about your background. You are the son of Nigerian immigrants – what was life like growing up?
My Nigerian parents raised me and my brothers with strong principles, mostly born out of the church. We were always taught to put school and work first and above chasing girls. That discipline was the most important of the values, especially because we were raised in rural Kansas for the majority of our childhood, and we were just about the only Black family in town. That isolation and uniqueness really required us to know ourselves, who we were, and what we wanted to do with the privilege we had of being here in the states.
Was your family supportive of your creative career?
I’m grateful to have parents who were always supportive of their kids being in the arts. We did band and theatre and church musicals. They loved it all, even if they didn’t expect me to make it my profession. As much as they would’ve preferred we all embrace the “respectable, Nigerian-approved careers” like doctor, lawyer, or engineer, they were gradually accepting of my acting hobby as a legitimate career path. At first, they really wanted me to have a Plan B, but one day I just told them, “Mom, Dad, Plan B is to reinforce Plan A.”
What inspired your love for performing?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing. I think storytelling is innately woven into Nigerian culture. I also think it’s just as woven into evangelical culture, and we were raised heavily on both. So, “performance” and “character study” and “narrative arc” are all I’ve ever known. Also, my older brother, Femi, did high school theatre, and I remember being totally exhilarated watching him sword fight in Romeo and Juliet and bring down the house in Rumors. Eighth-grade Tosin was totally obsessed and seduced. I couldn’t get enough of it after that. Femi also really, really loved movies, and what he loved, we loved. It’s that simple.
You founded the Multicultural Theatre Initiative at the University of Kansas. What inspired you to found the initiative? Can you tell us more about it?
I’m so honored you’re asking about that! What a throwback! That was my pride and joy in college. The MTI was born out of necessity. There just wasn’t any theatre for people of color at my university. We wanted to do shows that appealed to us, told our stories, and expanded the mindsets of our fellow Midwesterners. So we started a theater company, and during my tenure as Artistic Director, we brought dozens of people of color into the art form, performed for underserved audiences in rural Kansas, and produced nine plays over two years. Two of them were my own originals.
Is there anything you learned while completing your degree in Theatre that you’ve carried into your professional career?
I gained a lot from my college experience, but it’s not what you would expect. I learned the most from my fellow students, actually. My peers were my collaborators. Every project that we put together ourselves and produced from the ground up was an education like none other. To this day, I still collaborate with many of those actors, comedians, improvisers, filmmakers, and writers. There’s been nothing more essential to my success as a professional than continuing to work with my peers on the independent level. I’m making another indie movie later this year, actually with a friend I’ve had since freshman year. Any chance I have to make art that doesn’t require asking for permission, I jump on it, and I tell that to everyone I give advice to.
The second season of Run the World is premiering soon. Can you share some highlights from filming season one?
From season one, I have to say that the final episode was my favorite. From a character perspective, it was really emotional to pour out my whole heart after finding out about the betrayal from my character’s fiancé. That catharsis was real, and it was only just the beginning of unpacking the pain. As an actor, it was really challenging to hold all that simmering tension and love all at once. Very rewarding.
Tell us about your character, Ola.
Listen, Ola is a good man. Straight up. He’s loyal, he’s hardworking, high-achieving, and passionately loves his fiancé. But I will confess, Ola also has some wrath to him. We saw some of that at the end of season one, but that anger is outweighed by his capacity to love. He’s flawed, but he’s still aspirational, and what I love about him is that we rarely get depictions of Black men as upstanding in this way in media and on television. So, getting to play a man who excels and has great character is both an honor and a much-needed bit of Black representation.
Do you see any of yourself in him? What resonated with you the most playing Ola?
Yeah, I definitely see myself in Ola. We’re both very strongly principled. I hold myself to a high standard – and those around me. If people let me down, I get really disappointed. We’re definitely similar in that way. You know how some people are unhinged or dangerous when they get mad? That’s not Ola. When he’s betrayed, he gets hyper-verbal and contained and precise. I do that too, like a disappointed dad.
What can we expect in season two?
Ola has to reconcile with his resentment towards Whitney. He needs to figure out what’s really important and if he’s really willing to let this relationship die just because she made a mistake. He’s going to need some reflection and perspective. But in the meantime, he’s going to have to learn how to date again because the man doesn’t know how to be single anymore, and it’s going to be a hilarious watching him try [laughs].
You’re also set to appear on the upcoming Bass Reeves series, which is based on the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River in American history. Can you tell us about your character in Bass Reeves?
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to talk about this, but I can definitely tell you I’ve been riding a lot of horses. They’ve really trained me to be a cowboy! It’s definitely been a new and exciting skill set, and I play a really crucial part in the story. In the series, the main character, Bass Reeves, is dedicated to the law. That’s the only way he views justice, and my character comes along to challenge all of that. Let me just say this: Not all criminals are created equal, and this is one cowboy you don’t want to mess with.
How does your approach to a historical role differ from playing fictional characters?
I just want to tell the truth, and most importantly, I want to honor the dead. I try to get into the history, do a lot of research, study dialect, and get to know the world and the culture. I definitely take it very seriously, and that means learning the language of a different time period. I kind of have to build the character from the ground up, rather than rely solely on modernity – creating a new man. But because I’m the actor, I’m still putting “me” into the character too. Like, how would I, Tosin, personally react if I were there, in that time period, under those circumstances? Sometimes it’s painfully immersive, but that’s part of it. You really have to exercise your imagination beyond what’s in the script, so it’s a layered approach.
Can you share any highlights from your previous acting roles that aided you with performing in your current productions?
Well, I have to give a big shout-out to theatre, in general. Being on camera is an exercise in short bursts of acting craft, and it’s only because of the years of doing long endurance marathons of two-hour plays that I think I feel so comfortable honing all that craft into the few brief moments of on-screen time that I get. It’s a challenge to not have a whole rehearsal process like we get in theatre, but it’s also kind of like all those years of theatre gave me a shorthand to tap into in my process and craft.
In terms of my previous film work, I’ve got to say, the more practice you get, the more comfortable it becomes. Even just being starstruck is an obstacle you have to get over to really do your best work. Ultimately, these stars are just your teammates on set. Now that I’ve worked with David Oyelowo, Phylicia Rashad, Ray Liotta, Terrence J, Mykelti Williamson, David Hyde Pierce, Meagan Good, and even Oprah over the years, it’s gotten easier and easier to just show up as peers. I’m still in awe of each of them, though [laughs].
You won Best Supporting Actor from the Black Theatre Alliance for your performance in the Victory Gardens Theatre’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness. Can you tell us more about that role and the award?
Before I got to LA, I first moved to Chicago to pursue improv comedy with my college friends, not expecting that I’d break into that theatre scene easily. But I was very fortunate to get plugged into Chicago theatre and start co-starring on TV shows like Empire and Chicago Fire that first year. That play, The Gospel of Lovingkindness, was kind of like a crowning achievement in Chicago. Doing theatre, film and comedy all at once, it felt like I was really being affirmed and welcomed by Chicago. Then, to receive an award on top of that was a major compliment, one I couldn’t have predicted. I still cherish that.
Beyond acting, you’ve also produced various projects. What attracted you to producing? Can you tell us about some of your productions?
I started producing short films, first in protest. I felt strongly motivated by the social justice movement of 2014. In the wake of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin’s murders, I felt overwhelmingly compelled to start to tell stories that affirmed our Blackness, the value of our lives, and criticized systemic racism, especially from law enforcement. That is how my first short, On Sight, was born. You can watch that film online for free now, too.
What themes resonate with you the most with your writing and filmmaking, and why?
In addition to the social justice themes, my writing centers on stories of empathy, awareness, and seeing the human as a hero. I made a short called Endowed that was a parable about fatherhood and our collective potential when we’re born into this world. I love to make really traumatic, unflinching stories that still end in hope. We need that.
Do you have any other exciting projects on the horizon you can tell us about?
I’m currently in development and funding for my first feature film, The Pulpit. We made a short film that’s currently making its rounds in the festival circuit, and we did a hugely successful Kickstarter and built a little fanbase. The film kind of combines all my favorite themes because it’s about a heroic pastor from Kansas who starts getting death threats for her inclusive preaching, so she has to fight for her life and challenge the broken systems that sometimes enforce prejudice – like the church and law enforcement – that helped cause the threats in the first place. We’ve still got a ways to go, but when that film is finished, it’s going to be my proudest project ever. Stay tuned for that one.