Having previously been a standby for Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, Tom Xander had been playing the role full-time in the West End up until theatres were closed due to the pandemic, making him the first non-American actor to play the character. During his acting career so far, Tom also has screen experience having filmed an episode of BBC’s Holby City and he will be appearing as Toby Kasparzki in his first feature film Jolt. We caught up with Tom about playing Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, what he’s looking forward to for returning to theatre and his time working on feature film Jolt.
Before theatres closed, you were playing Elder Cunningham in the West End cast of The Book of Mormon, what is the role like to play?
I can truthfully say that being able to play this role has been nothing short of extraordinary. Those that have seen the show will know how starry-eyed and positive the character is, and being able to embody his energy every single day for eight shows a week is a gift I couldn’t thank anyone enough for. Even on the darker days, as soon as I step out onto that stage, it all just disappears and for the next two hours I get to live, first-hand, in pure joy.
You’d previously been Standby Elder Cunningham, do you remember how you felt booking the role and playing him for the first time?
There was a lot of crying… a lot! The whole experience was heightened by being told I was going out to learn the show with the Broadway team for a few weeks prior to joining the London cast. I just couldn’t believe it was actually happening. I was incredibly nervous, excited, anxious etc. But nothing will ever be as magical as the very first time I stepped out on that stage in front of an audience for the first time. They were wild. I couldn’t have asked for a more receptive and encouraging audience for my first show.
We understand you are the first non-American actor to play the role, what is this like?
Simply put, it’s incredibly special. I feel honoured that the teams over in the US and here in the UK have faith in me to do this role justice every night. I have seen a number of previous actors’ work as Elder Cunningham on Broadway and in London, all who are insanely talented. So to be given the chance to join that community of talent is heart-warming.
Was there anything that originally drew you to the production and role?
As soon as the curtain came down for the interval during my first time seeing the show, I turned to my friend and said ‘I HAVE to play that role one day’. The script and score are works of art and you could see how much fun the cast were having on stage. And that was radiating into the audience, as every two minutes we would erupt with laughter. As both an actor and an audience member, everything just seemed perfect.
Do you have any highlights from your time in the show so far that you can tell us about?
There are so many! I’m sure I can talk about this as it was plastered all over social media, but throughout the show, Cunningham keeps getting Nabulungi’s (lead female role) name wrong, and during the height of the Brexit negotiations, when there were initial talks of a no-deal Brexit, I called her ‘No-Deal Brexit’ and the audience just erupted. We couldn’t carry on for a good couple of minutes because everyone was in hysterics. Even the cast onstage!
What do you enjoy most about the character and what are you looking forward to for getting back to live shows?
As I’ve already said, I just feel pure joy when playing this character and I can’t wait to be back doing it again. But the thing I’m looking forward to the most, is the atmosphere in the building when we’re all able to return. Both backstage and when the show starts. After all this time and all we’ve all been through, it will be electrifying!
Last year, you appeared in an episode of Holby City as Ricus De Souza, how was it filming for the show?
It was an absolute whirlwind! We were filming in Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, and the weather was like nothing I’d ever known before! Every two minutes it would change from glorious sunshine to the heaviest rain you’d ever seen – we weren’t even allowed to use umbrellas because they were worried about lightning! But honestly, that made the whole experience more fun. The crew actually made the experience so enjoyable – it was like one big happy family (despite everyone being miserable because of the weather!).
How did you find the experience on set for BBC and working with the cast?
It was a joy! Filming on a different location (despite the weather) was equally enjoyable for me but especially for those used to filming in the studios, because it was a change of scenery. So there was a constant buzz amongst the cast and crew. I also met so many great new people, who I’ve stayed in contact with ever since.
Is there anything you can tell us about the feature film Jolt and your character Toby Kasparzki?
I’m unsure about what I can and can’t say, ha! But getting to play Toby was a treat. He’s so incredibly far away from anything I’ve done before; he’s egotistical, arrogant, mean and quite frankly a disgusting character. Luckily, he gets a taste of his own medicine…
What was it like working on your first feature film?
Mind-blowing! Before I even got into theatre, films had always been a huge passion of mine. I’ve always loved watching them and as soon as I knew I wanted to be an actor, I always dreamt of being in them. But in total honesty, because I hadn’t really had any experience behind a camera, I didn’t believe I had the skill set to be able to do it. So to be given that chance, and prove to myself and the team behind the film that I do have those skills, was and is a huge career highlight for me.
Was there anything that drew you to an acting career and how did you start?
I actually started doing music first (playing the violin, piano and singing) and got asked to join an am-dram company for a show when I was twelve. Since then, there’s never been any question as to what I wanted to do. It’s always been acting and always will be!
What do you enjoy most about performing in theatre?
There’s a freedom in theatre that I’ve never experienced doing anything else. There’s always something exciting happening, whether it’s another actor exploring a different choice or something goes wrong, you’re always kept on your toes, which makes you feel so alive and focussed. But every night is different and there’s always challenges. I’ve always been the kind of person who needs something to work on, and every night I’m given another opportunity to improve, learn and grow from an experience on stage, and that to me is the most satisfying thing of all.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and are there any you’d like to see that you haven’t done so yet?
I’ve always been and will always be a big theatre fan, so I’ve always tried to see as much as I possibly could. The only show I think I haven’t seen in London is & Juliet which, after all the hype, I think is a must! But I always see shows being advertised up and down the country that, if I weren’t working every night in one myself, I would desperately want to see!
How have you been keeping busy during the time theatres have been closed?
Being 100% honest, it wasn’t until the second lockdown that I managed to motivate myself. I really struggled with the first and didn’t achieve anything. But as soon as the first one finished, I managed to get a part time job to keep busy and had a go at writing my own film. It’s probably awful, but who cares!
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