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The Lion King’s Nicholas Afoa on Rugby vs Dancing

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Rugby or dancing, which is tougher?

A lot has changed in my regime since I first started. Before, I could only go with what I knew – just lifting heavy weights and focusing on muscle mass. But while I might have looked the part, functionally it didn’t really work well for me. I quickly learnt that I needed to incorporate a lot more stretching, especially because I wasn’t flexible. So I started with things like yoga, and made sure I had enough rest and hydration. Then I incorporated a lot of high intensity training, because essentially that’s what I’ve been doing in the Simba role.

What’s your most impressive personal best?

I’m about 14st 9 now, but I was up to about 18st 2, and that was quite big – even for most rugby players – so I’m really proud of the transformation that I underwent in terms of getting this role. I had to lose about 2st in around six months. At one point, I got a call-back and they said, “We want to see you again, but you need to lose about 11lb.” I only had a few weeks to do this, so I got up every morning at five, before my eight-to-four job, and I did HIIT sessions. But I’d do them twice – one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and sometimes even a boot camp at night as well. I just dedicated myself to that until I got down to my goal weight. So I’d say in the space of a week I’d have sometimes done up to 10 one-hour boot camp classes. I wouldn’t say it was that healthy, but in terms of determination and what I got out of it, it was amazing.

Have you ever pulled a muscle in less-than-heroic circumstances?

I’m always pulling muscles and injuring myself. Sometimes even when I’m warming up I’ll feel a little twinge – especially as I’ve got older and my body can’t do the things it used to. I’ll try to do stuff I could do before, but the legs won’t go there and I’m like, “Oh, OK.” Once on stage, I tore my hamstring – a grade two tear – and I decided to stay on and hobble around the stage. I probably made it worse, I should have just come off…

Do you use any fitness apps?

I used to have a Fitbit, and I used it to find out how many calories I burned on stage. My heart rate would go through the roof, then quickly drop down, then back up again – I was quite surprised at how quickly it would come up.

Do you have a fitness idol?

Not in terms of an individual, but when I started the role, I really admired what the dancers have to put their bodies through. I’d only acted a little bit and never danced before, and the first week they taught me choreography, I felt like I’d done a rugby training camp for a week – I couldn’t get out of bed the next day, and no one even tackled me! I took their craft as a goal to aspire to.

What is the best way to spice up a boring jog?

I recently bought – the best invention since sliced bread – some Bluetooth earphones. They’re amazing. I can just run and put my music on without wires getting in the way. I also like running where there’s scenery, I can’t just run around a track…

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What’s the best workout soundtrack?

I listen to a lot of music from New Zealand; I’m all the way here in London so music is a good way I can reconnect with home. I play a lot of music of my culture and it takes me back there, so while my body is dying, my mind can be somewhere else: my happy place.

Do you ever lose control calorie-wise after a heavy gym session?

I’ve honestly got a seriously bad sweet tooth, and I find it really hard to stop. I just go, “You know what? I burned all these calories, so now I can have some ice cream, I can have extra mayo on my burger.” It’s the whole block of chocolate too, I’ve got to eat it all. I blame my parents – “You can’t leave the table until you’ve finished your plate.” It’s all their fault.

Nicholas Afoa is currently starring as Simba in The Lion King (opens in new tab) at the Lyceum Theatre, London (opens in new tab)