The light is crowning over the horizon as Jon Favreau’s highly anticipated adaptation of The Lion King begins to rollout into theaters this week. Following last week’s press screening, we were honored to sit with the star-studded cast and pick their minds regarding the process of reimagining the Disney classic. Seeing the cast all together was truly a sight to behold, gracing the stage for the evening we had:
- Jon Favreau / Director
- Donald Glover (“Simba”)
- Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Scar”)
- Alfre Woodard (“Sarabi”)
- Seth Rogen (“Pumbaa”)
- Billy Eichner (“Timon”)
- JD McCrary (“Young Simba”)
- Shahadi Wright Joseph (“Young Nala”)
- Dr. John Kani (“Rafiki”)
- Keegan-Michael Key (“Kamari”)
- Florence Kasumba (“Shenzi”)
- Eric Andre (“Azizi”)
- Hans Zimmer / Composer
- Lebo M / Performer, African music & choir arranger, writer, producer
Jon Favreau kicked off the insightful night by remarking on how his time spent working on his other reimagining of a Disney masterpiece, The Jungle Book, influenced The Lion King.
JON FAVREAU: The Jungle Book, I’ve been working on both these movies back to back for about six years. And all the new technology that was available, I had finally learned how to use it by the end of Jungle Book. And at that point, with the team that we had assembled for it, all the artists, because a lot of attention is paid to the technology. But really, these are handmade films. There are animators working on every shot, every environment that you see in the film other than actually, there’s one shot that’s a real photographic shot but everything else is built from scratch by artists. And we had a great team assembled. And then the idea of using what we learned on that and the new technologies that were available to make a story like The Lion King with its great music, great characters, and a great story, it seemed like a wonderful, logical conclusion. And so that was something we set out to do.
Donald Glover spoke on what attracted him to the role of Simba, and his faith in Favreau’s visions, followed by a quip concerning his household’s perception of the film.
DONALD GLOVER: I guess Jon was really good about the circle of life having a major hand in it. I really feel that it’s good to make movies that are global and metropolitan in the sense of the citizens of the world. Like making sure that we talk about like how connected we are right now. Because it’s the first time we’ve really been able to talk to everybody at the same time. So I felt yeah. It was just like a necessary thing. I felt like he was really good about talking about that very, very upfront at the beginning of it. And he’s like, this is what… because he kind of did it in The Jungle Book, too. The Jungle Book story is the same, but the idea of like yeah, humans, their tricks are their power, and they can help everybody. Switching that and making the story the same, I think the same thing happens in this in such a great way. Like my son saw it last night and was like freaking out. He did an amazing job.
MODERATOR: Yeah. I heard your son was very excited to just be able to see it. What did you tell him going into it? You’re like, just so you know, daddy is Simba.
DONALD GLOVER: I didn’t tell him anything. I really didn’t. 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.
MODERATOR: Even your son, you’re upstaged by Beyonce. That’s fitting.
DONALD GLOVER: Fair.
Chiwitel describes the importance of diving into the soul of Scar, and emerging with an empathetic understanding which helped humanize the villain.
CHIWITEL EJIOFOR: 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. I’m a huge fan of what was done before obviously like everybody else. 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.
Seth and Billy discuss their keys to success in nailing down the iconic and beloved duo of Timon and Pumba.
SETH ROGEN: Yeah. Okay. I’ll start. It was a lot of improvisation with Billy. Yeah. And we were actually together every time that we recorded, which is a 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. 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.
BILLY EICHNER: Yeah. I wish I was as cute in real life as I am in the movie. 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.
SETH ROGEN: A little harder to have a great rapport. Yeah.
BILLY EICHNER: But yeah. Being able to riff off each other and really discover our chemistry together at the same moment. You can feel it when you’re watching the movie. I had not seen the finished movie until last night and I was shocked by how much of the riffing actually ended up in the movie. 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.
SETH ROGEN: 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. 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.
Dr. John Kani expressed why his character is so near to his heart and touches on what this film means to his home.
DR. JOHN KANI: Thank you. Well, first thought when Jon said about to play Rafiki. And I thought to myself, it happens in Africa. It’s an African story. And he 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 footpaths and intertwines with the little rabbits and the animals go through. And we’ve seen experience live. But watching it last night, I kept praying, please God, not another Scar in Africa. We’ve gone through terrible times. Let other people have Scar. Not us now. It’s enough for us. So that for me was the kind of resonance and relevance in everything I do. I always try to find myself within what I do. And I felt last night like a kid for a very long time ago, to see then just be taken by the story and look at these animals.
And I’m very grateful to you Jon, it doesn’t look like me. [LAUGHS]. But he is like me which is fantastic. And it’s a story that I’m looking forward to our premiere 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. Everything we see on the play on the screen, we read, we take seriously. We take that it speaks to me. And 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.
To wrap things up, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre brought in a touch of comedy, much like we’d expect from our hyenas.
ERIC ANDRE: We were pretty drunk the entire time. It was pretty. We didn’t want to, but…
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Right. And then all the real pure animosity came out.
ERIC ANDRE: He’s incredibly talented and really, really easy to work off of. And he is a selfless altruistic talent, which is rare. So I was in good hands. I was in great hands with Jon. So I don’t know. 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.
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Yeah. 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. 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. And as you said, we were all mixed. 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. So I think I had two with you and then two by myself. And 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.
ERIC ANDRE: With a sprinkle of Beavis and Butthead. Just a soupçon.
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: A soupçon. Just a soupçon.
ERIC ANDRE: Of Beavis and Butthead.
Disney’s The Lion King hits theaters on July 19th!