Ahead of Disney’s The Lion King opening in theaters this weekend, we attended a Lion King press event and heard from the cast on what we should expect.
Disney gathered director Jon Favreau, actors 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,” and Eric Andre “Azizi” along with composer Hans Zimmer and original performer and African music & choir arranger Lebo M to give Hypable and other media an idea of just how much love and care went into The Lion King.
Here are five things we learned from The Lion King cast and crew.
Jon Favreau helped create new tech just to make ‘The Lion King’
“…we started experimenting with… game engine technology and this new VR technology… We would design the entire environments. We took all the recordings that we had from the actors. We would animate within the game engine.
For Favreau, it was important to marry the new tech with traditional filmmaking.
“Oftentimes when new technology comes online, it disrupts an industry. But with just a little bit of effort, we were able to build around the way filmmakers and film crews work…we kept the same film culture and planted it using this technology into the VR realm.”
Actor JD McCrary, whose boundless energy is just as real on stage as it is when he plays young Simba explained it in such a perfect way, it made more than one person wish they’d make this VR game for the public.
“It was so cool. It’s like watching your favorite movie, but everything, like you’re in it. You’re in the movie. That’s exactly what it was. You did an amazing job with this. So it was me and Shahadi and Mr. Favreau. We put on the headsets, we had these little controller things in our hands, and we could fly. It was like we were Zazu. We were birds. We were whatever we wanted to be. And we saw everything. We saw the Pridelands. We saw Pride Rock. We saw the watering hole. We saw the elephant graveyard. We saw it all, man. And it was so cool, dude. It was so cool.”
The heroes big and small
Donald Glover spoke about how honored he was to play the role of Simba, but his son’s reaction to his dad being Simba was a little…overshadowed by Beyonce. Not that anyone could blame him. It is, after all, Beyonce.
“My son saw it last night…It’s his favorite movie…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.'”
Alfre Woodard, who plays Sarabi, spoke to the changes in the new film that saw her character expanded from the original film.
“It is called The Lion King. But everyone knows that the lionesses are actually the rulers, the protectors, the nurturers, the hunters of the pride. And so Jon was able to give us the space to be that…I think that is the mother thing in most women and in some men is that at the same time, you suckle, but you also, you will eliminate anything that comes close to endangering those cubs.”
Both Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner talked about how being able to record together made Timon and Pumbaa so much more fun to play — and gave us an idea of how much of their dialogue was improvised.
Rogen said, “It was a lot of improvisation with Billy… 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…And I think you can really tell that we’re playing off of each other… they really captured Billy. That is what is amazing…it’s remarkable to me how his character specifically makes me laugh so hard.
“Yeah. I wish I was as cute in real life as I am in the movie.”, Eichner went on to say. “The Timon they designed is so adorable…Being able to riff off each other and really discover our chemistry together in the same moment…I had not seen the finished movie until last night and I was shocked by how much…actually ended up in the movie.”
The music is the heart of ‘The Lion King’
Hans Zimmer, who also scored the animated version of The Lion King, returned for this new version along with Lebo M who not only provided the beautiful African choir arrangements but is the voice you hear at the very beginning of both films. Both men shared what made creating the music for this new version different and exciting while also sharing a very cool piece of trivia.
Zimmer took everyone to Coachella.
“We ended up dragging an orchestra and a choir out to Coachella and doing Lion King live. And there was an energy about doing it as a performance and doing it live in that way that moved Jon… So I said to Jon, ‘Why don’t we do it like this? Why don’t we… get the greatest players in the world, make a new orchestra here in Los Angeles, rehearse them for two days, and then really make it as if it was a concept’.
Everybody who played in the orchestra, and it was a very special orchestra, knew the movie. So every note was played with intention. Every note was played with commitment. And I think that ultimately helps everybody.”
Lebo M says he doesn’t feel like he’s coming back to The Lion King because he’s never left. He’s been part of this journey from the beginning and has been part of the stage production and is back for this film.
One amazing bit of trivia he revealed was about the opening notes of both films.
“What you hear is actually one take. There’s been one take 25 years later…That one take we did because it was so natural, now it’s going to outlive previous 25 years. It’s unbelievable.”
The journey from screen to stage and back again
Florence Kasumba, who played the role on stage in Germany for more than a year, explained how Shenzi’s different in the new film but how Favreau’s choice to have everyone work together felt very much like a play.
“This Shenzi is so different…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 [Keegan-Michael Key], Eric Andre, and with JD. And we were very physical because the guys were so strong, it was easy for me to just be big. 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.”
Shahadi Joseph Wright, who played young Nala in the stage play, enjoyed the freedom she was given working with Favreau.
“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 was that on Broadway, everything is a little bit more structured…I loved how Jon gave JD and I just a bunch of freedom…And I wasn’t used to that, but it was still amazing, so I loved that.”
Bad guys so good you can’t help but like them
One of the things about great villains is that they don’t see themselves as the villain at all. In their minds, they’re just doing what they have to do. As Scar, Chiwetel Ejiofor was able to dive into a side of the character we haven’t seen before.
“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…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… such a rich, villainous character to play. So a wonderful experience for me.”
For Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre as hyenas Kamari and Azizi, both found Jon Favreau to be incredible to work with and shared not just an encyclopedic knowledge of comedy but a love of cooking.
Eric Andre discussed working with Key and how easy Favreau made the process.
“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.”
Key went on to explain. “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 miced…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.”
Andre added, “With a sprinkle of Beavis and Butthead. Just a soupçon.”
Just a soupçon. Now we’re hungry!
The Lion King opens July 18.
All photos by Alberto E. Rodriguez courtesy of Getty Images for Disney