Kaci Walfall discusses her Broadway debut in “The Lion King,” starring in Ava DuVernay’s “Naomi” on The CW, and studying at Terry Knickerbocker Studio as she continues refining her craft.
Kaci Walfall began pursuing acting at age seven, had an agent at age eight, made her Broadway debut at age nine as Young Nala in “The Lion King,” and at age 11 originated the role of Lavender in the first American national tour of “Matilda the Musical.”
At age 17, she won the leading role of superhero Naomi McDuffie in the television series “Naomi,” developed by Ava DuVernay and Jill Blankenship and based on the comic book series published by DC Comics. In 2022, at the age of 18, she enrolled at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio to continue refining her craft.
We spoke with her about her journey.
TKS: How did you become involved in acting so early?
Kaci: I was always putting on performances. My parents tried to get me to play soccer when I was young, but I would stand by the goal singing a song instead of playing the game. So, they put me in an acting showcase when I was seven, and I got eight casting calls. I was in the 4th grade at PS 193 in Brooklyn when I auditioned for and booked the part of Young Nala on Broadway.
TKS: What was it like to make your Broadway debut at age nine in the legendary musical “The Lion King,” which celebrated its 25 th Anniversary on Broadway in October?
Kaci: It was magical and fun. I didn’t have stage fright. I was in the first act and could then relax before returning for the curtain call. There were always two actors cast as Young Nala, so we alternated performances. The same was true of Young Simba. Because “The Lion King” has been on Broadway for 25 years, there’s a special bond among cast members – both those with whom you performed and other alumni – and there are regular reunions. I stay in contact with a lot of the “Young Cubs” in particular. One of the boys who played Young Simba opposite me on Broadway was Caleb McLaughlin, who now stars as Lucas Sinclair in the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”
TKS: How different was it to then be on national tour with “Matilda the Musical”?
Kaci: I had a very demanding part in “Matilda the Musical.” I was on stage a lot, and the role involved rigorous dancing. It was also a national tour, which I did with my grandmother accompanying me, so the theaters changed constantly. The cast was always adjusting to new conditions, equipment, and props.
TKS: What was it like to be the lead in a television series – “Naomi” – created by Ava DuVernay and Jill Blankenship?
Kaci: Before I booked the part, I had lunch with Ava DuVernay – as well as my mother, as I was just 16. “Miss Ava,” as I call her, asked me how it would feel to be “#1 on the call sheet.” I told her that, as a child actor, I had always watched the leads in my productions: how they carried themselves, how they related to other cast members and the crew, how they established the tone on the set. I had done two guest appearances on CBS’s “The Equalizer” and had been privileged to work with Queen Latifah, who had a very welcoming presence. Queen Latifah spoke with everyone, and she made everyone feel safe and valued. When I met her for the first time, she went out of her way to ask me my name and, by doing so, made clear that I mattered to the show. I saw that that simple gesture had great meaning for the production: everyone was part of its success, and everyone mattered. By watching Queen Latifah and other leads, I had seen how kindness, energy, and professionalism could set a standard for the show.
It was a special privilege to be the lead on “Naomi” in part because there were so many people of color on the show, and so many women. Everyone on the set accepted me in my role, and I am very grateful for the support I received. From the beginning, “Miss Ava” was always available to me, whenever I needed advice or guidance. She’s one of the most generous people I know.
After the final episode of the series, she texted me on my birthday and said she had something waiting for me: a guest appearance on her television series “Queen Sugar.” “Naomi” had ended, and she was already thinking of me for something else. I was thrilled to make that appearance on “Queen Sugar” for many reasons, but I was especially pleased to be part of a production, even for one episode, whose every single episode over seven seasons was directed by a woman.
TKS: How did you decide to enroll at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio after being in so many productions already?
Kaci: “Naomi” premiered in January of 2022 and was cancelled after one season, so I had time then to reflect. I had gone to middle school and high school at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan and had studied musical theater, but I was craving further training as an actor and an opportunity to refine my craft. I began watching HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and realized that two of its stars – both actors I admire – had studied with Terry Knickerbocker. I then watched videos of each of them talking with Terry, and something about those videos struck me. They were talking about how to be the best actor you can be. They were talking about the craft, the work, and Terry didn’t offer false praise. I could tell that the actors really trusted him.
When I met Terry for the first time, I couldn’t bullshit him, and I’m good at it. Terry asked me what my goal is as an actor. I told him the kinds of shows I’d like to be in. He said, “That’s not what I asked you.” He didn’t let me get by. He restated the question and guided me toward my truest answer: to be the best actor I can be. It was just a conversation but was very illuminating. There’s a lot that you can’t control about an acting career, but the one thing that you can control is being the best actor that you can be.
TKS: You’re now in the Two-Year Conservatory at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. Are you concerned about taking time away from your career to do this training?
Kaci: My career will depend on how good an actor I am, so my training is an investment in my future. When you’re young, you can get away with being cute; I want to be the best I can be as an actor, and that requires more training.
What I especially like is that in class there’s no favoritism at all. The Terry Knickerbocker Studio expects the same thing from all of us. There is space to take risks and mess up, and there’s beauty in that. There’s beauty in the vulnerability.
Terry loves to make everyone laugh. He cares deeply about the craft and about the actors’ wellbeing. When we’re in class, Terry isn’t focusing on the business of acting – on how to book a part; he’s focusing on our training – on the work. He’s interested in how we can become the best actors we can be, and, from that, we’ll book the parts on a whole different level.