Disney’s The Lion King (2019) may be a near reflection of the animated original, but director Jon Favreau’s use of groundbreaking and innovative Photo Real technology allows audiences to experience a familiar story in a whole new way. But not only did Favreau use these sets of tools for the reimagining, but he also brought in a cast that would help carry the film. Comprised of mostly black actors, this new take on The Lion King is a celebration of African culture and an opportunity for young black children to feel that they matter.
Geeks Of Doom joined their fellow journalists at the global press conference of The Lion King where Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, John Kani, JD McCrary, and Shahadi Wright Joseph shared their own experience making the film, being able to improv and riff, the legacy of the animated original, identity, and so much more. Check out what they had to say here below.
For Glover, it was Favreau’s take on the animated original’s theme of the Circle Of Life that drew him to voice the role of the older Simba, and how those themes can resonate with a global audience. “I really feel that it’s good to make movies that are global and metropolitan in the sense of the citizens of the world,” Glover said. “Like making sure that we talk about like how connected we are right now.”
Of course, being a father, you would think that your child would be ecstatic that you are in such an iconic film. But that really didn’t phase Glover’s son, who was far more interested in Beyonce being in the film. “I didn’t tell him anything. I really didn’t,” Glover said. “It’s his favorite movie. I was like oh, I’ll just wait until he gets there. But somehow he found out about it, but still didn’t know I was in it. He was just like oh, the one with Beyonce. And then during the movie, he’s like oh, dad’s in it, too. This is great. Bonus. You know.”
Taking over the role of Scar is Ejiofor, who brings in a softer somewhat menacing vocal nuance to the role that was voiced by Jeremy Irons. “I felt that it was just really interesting to go into that psychology, to really sort of try and uncover that and to look at it,” Ejiofor said. “Jeremy Irons and just sort of really going back in and exploring that character again from a slightly different perspective and seeing what was there. And it’s such an incredible part to play. And so complex and all of that. And having empathy, not sympathy, but empathizing with the character and trying to understand them and trying to get underneath that. And such a rich, villainous character to play. So a wonderful experience for me.”
And like most approaches, he looked into understanding the character in order to get into his mindset. “You sort of identify with the character, you look at the psychology of the character, you place yourself into those circumstances, and that creates its own individual slant,” Ejiofor said. “And so in a way as much as I, absolutely with everybody else, loved the original, you kind of make it your own and you create the sort of individuality to it in that way.”
But he never saw or though of Scar as Iago. “I don’t know if I thought of any of the Shakespearean characters kind of directly,” Ejiofor said. “Obviously, it’s an amalgam of so many. And in some ways, the pieces. But maybe, you’re making me think now. Maybe I should have played like Iago. I didn’t specifically think about Iago. Because Iago is so much more connected in a way to the corruption of love very specifically. Whereas Scar is so much more invested in power, which is totally different.”
Much of the animals that are seen in The Lion King are native to Africa. Furthermore, its setting lends itself to be an African story. “Well, I first thought when Jon said about to play Rafiki, and I thought to myself, it happens in Africa, it’s somewhere along the trek of the wildebeest millions moving from Kenya to Serengeti to Kruger National Park. Therefore, it is an African story,” Kani said. “Favreau was generous enough to allow me to be an African primate called Rafiki. And the wonderful thing about it is that we are almost the same age. We are both over 75. So we both lived. We both walked through that forest. We both created those foot paths and intertwines with the little rabbits and the animals go through. And we’ve seen experience live.”
Kani says he takes in a similar approach to getting to the character’s psychology like Ejiofor. “Like I always try to find myself within what I do and I felt like a kid for a very long time ago, to see then just be taken by the story and look at these animals,” Kani said, “It’s a story that I’m looking forward to our premier in Johannesburg where it will be full of all African people who are looking for something that is about them. We are sort of not at the level of entertainment that the western world is.”
But being a part of this and being able to tell the story in this way means so much more to Kani. It goes far deeper than that. It is a true celebration of the African culture, and one that can be told through a beloved movie from a major movie studio like Disney. “Everything we see on the play in the screen, we read, we take serious We take that it speaks to me,” Kani said. “It is so wonderful to see how the Johannesburg South African audiences will say what does it say to me? What does it make me feel? Why am I celebrating it? Is it humanity? Is it us? Is it our dignity? Is it our future? And is it what we want to tell our children? Because we’re only 25 years in our democracy. I went to the American embassy in South Africa and understood you guys were celebrating 243 years of democracy and they ain’t got it right yet.”
Rogen and Eichner bring in a lot of the humor with their voice work as Timon and Pumbaa. Again, while this new rendition is a near mirror image of is animated counter part, Rogen says he was able to riff with Eichner. “We were actually together every time that we recorded, which is very rare gift to have as someone who is trying to be funny in an animated film, of which I’ve done a lot, and you’re often just alone in there,” Rogen said. “And I think you can really tell that we’re playing off of each other. It’s an incredibly naturalistic feeling. And they really captured Billy. That is what is amazing. I would say, he essentially played himself on a TV show for years. And this character is more Billy than that character somehow. It’s like endlessly, it’s remarkable to me how his character specifically makes me laugh so hard.”
Eichner jokingly agreed. “Yeah. I wish I was as cute in real life as I am in the movie,” he said. “The Timon they designed is so adorable. And I think the juxtaposition of my personality in that little Timon body really works. And yeah. I agree with everything that Seth was saying. I can’t imagine now looking back not being in the room together.”
But the ability to do that improvisation and exchanged riffs helped the two discover their character’s chemistry. “I was shocked by how much of the riffing actually ended up in the movie,” Eichner said. “And I think it works. And I think it feels very unique to other movies in this genre, which can often feel a bit canned.”
Rogen agreed. “The fact that it has like a looseness applied to probably the most technologically incredible movie ever made is like what is an amazing contrast,” he said. “It feels like people in a room just talking. And then it’s refined to a degree that is like inconceivable in a lot of ways. That mixture is what I think is so incredible and that’s what Jon really captured in an amazing way.”
The hyenas in The Lion King are just some of the changes that Favreau makes in his film to have it stand out from the animated original and the Broadway musical. Kamari (Key) and Azizi (Andre) are the humorous and very hungry henchman to the cold and savage Shenzi (Kasumba). However, this Shenzi is a bit different.
Playing the character eight shows a week for almost a year in Germany, Kasumba said playing Shenzi was like muscle memory. However, she says Favreau wanted to change it up a bit. “I remember in the musical, we had sometimes shows where I was embarrassed because the hyenas are so dumb and funny, and they are entertaining,” Kasumba said. “But this is so different, this experience. Because when I listen to the dialogue, when I read them, I realized that this is way more dangerous and more serious. I was lucky that my first day that I was in a black box and I was working with Andre, Eric Andre, and with JD.”
Andre joked that they were drunk the entire time they were rehearsing in the black box. Key added that that’s when “real pure animosity came out.” But just as Rogen and Eichner were able to riff off of each other, Andre and Key were able to as well, and Favreau helped establish that atmosphere. “I was in great hands with Jon,” Andre said. “It was just a very nurturing environment and made it very easy, because I’m very, very sensitive. So the slightest wind of any kind will make me tear up.”
Key agreed. “I think Jon is a great student, has an encyclopedic knowledge of all different types of comedy, and one of those pieces of knowledge is about comedic duos and the dynamic that exists between them,” Key said. “And I know that when we had a very similar experience to Billy and Seth where we were allowed to walk around the room. It was as if we were being directed in a scene in the play.”
These rehearsals and playthroughs would help the actors find new ways to approach and refine the performance. This in turn would help build a better scene and a more authentic relationship between the characters. “And as you said, we were all mike’d,” Key said. “And so everything was captured. And then it was the subsequent rounds that I thought was interesting, right, Jon, that would get a little more technical when I would be actually by myself, and the refinement is also very fun. Because we would sit there and I would have the headphones on. I would say to Jon, we’re looking for Fibber McGee and Molly here or Abbott and Costello. What are you looking for? He goes I’m actually looking for a little bit of Laurel and Hardy with an explosion at the end, but then back it up into little Apatowian for me.”
“With a sprinkle of Beavis and Butthead,” Andre said.
“We were very physical because the guys were so strong, it was easy for me to just be big,” Kasumba said. “Because everybody is very confident, we could just really try out things. We could walk around each other. We could scare each other. We could scream, be loud, be big, be small. It’s like working in the theater, which I love. So having that freedom just made me, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to.”
And Kasumba wasn’t the only one who had stage play experience from The Lion King. Joseph also played Young Nala in the Broadway production of the same name. “It was amazing doing both,” Joseph said. “It was such an honor doing the stage play on Broadway and also doing it in the all-new Lion King. And one thing that I really saw the difference was that on Broadway, everything is a little bit more structured.”
Joseph agreed with Kasumba’s take about this production when compared to the stage production. “You kind of just have to like follow direction, which is cool, too,” she said. “But also, in the all new Lion King, I loved how Jon gave JD and I just a bunch of freedom and especially Farrell and Hans, we also had a lot of freedom in the booth. He was like you can riff or do whatever. Just make it fun. And it was awesome. And I wasn’t used to that, but it was still amazing, so I loved that.”
The Lion King opened in theaters on July 19, 2019. And be sure to check out our other coverage on the film as well as our review of The Lion King.