For the upcoming release of the new re-imagining of THE LION KING, I had the chance to sit in on the global press conference which took place last week. The film is a stunning achievement in visual effects and gives viewers a terrifying glimpse into the villainous characters of Scar and the hyenas. If you haven’t seen THE LION KING in quite some time, here’s a quick refresher of the synopsis:
“Set in the African savanna, we come to learn that a new king is born. Simba idolizes his father, King Mufasa, and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new club’s arrival. Scar, Mufasa’s brother – and former heir to the throne – has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.”
If you’re wondering what would draw an actor to take on one of the most recognizable villains in Disney history, you won’t have to look too far. Taking on the role of Scar, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor talked about what drew him to the villainous lion who is more than meets the eye.
Chiwetel 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 [with] Jeremy Irons. So it was really going back in and exploring the character again from a slightly different perspective and seeing what was there. And having empathy, not sympathy, but empathizing with the character and trying to understand them and trying to get underneath that. [Scar] is such a rich, villainous character to play so it was a wonderful experience for me.
One of the aspects that made Scar, in the 1994 version, so memorable was, as Chiwetel Ejiofor mentioned, the voice performance of Jeremy Irons. Ejiofor went on to further explain how he was able to make the character his own while respecting that of the original film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: In so many ways, the original is just this extraordinary event, it’s so iconic. It’s exciting to even get the opportunity to begin a journey like this and to go into any of these characters. The part of Scar is obviously an extraordinary part to play and in a way, you just approach it the same way you approach any other part. 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. And so, in a way, as much as I, [along] with everyone else, loved the original, you kind of make it your own and you create the sort of individuality to it in that way.
Scar, however, is not the only villain stalking the great plains. Nestled away in the shadowy recesses of the Elephant Graveyard are a pack of hyenas. On hand during the press conference were Florence Kasumba (who voices Shenzi), Keegan-Michael Key (who voices Kamari) and Eric Andre (who voices Azizi). When we first meet Kamari and Azizi, we learn rather quickly that they have an interesting dynamic, something which Keegan-Michael Key elaborated on.
Keegan-Michael Key: We’re in a very toxic relationship that we try to hide from our leader [Shenzi]. It’s like she’s the boss and also our therapist. I’m not going to tell her the truth in this session.
When further discussing how they both were able to have such a unique dynamic with one another, Eric Andre quickly joked that they “were pretty drunk the entire time.” This was followed by Key quickly responding with, “And then all the pure animosity came out.” But in all seriousness, it was much more than a little bit (okay maybe a lot) of alcohol and pretend animosity that allowed them to play off of one another so well, a gift they credit to one another as well as director Jon Favreau.
Eric Andre: [Key] is 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 [also] in great hands with Jon [Favreau], so I don’t know, it was just a very nurturing environment which made it very easy because I’m very, very sensitive. The slightest wind of any kind will make me tear up. (This was followed by a laugh from both Andre and Key).
Keegan-Michael Key: I think Jon [Favreau] is a great student and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all different types of comedy. One of those pieces of knowledge is about comedic duos and the dynamic that exists between them. I know that when we had a very similar experience to Billy [Eichner] and Seth [Rogen] where we were allowed to walk around the room. It was as if we were being directed in a scene in the play. We were all mic’d up and everything was captured. Then it was the subsequent rounds that I thought were interesting that would get a little more technical when I would be actually by myself. The refinement is also very fun because we would sit there and I would have the headphones on and I would say to Jon, “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 a little Apatowian for me.”
As much as I loved the ridiculous interaction between Kamari and Azizi, the real leader, and downright Queen of the hyenas, was that of Shenzi. When it came time to talk about her character, Florence Kasumba, who played Shenzi in not only this adaptation but also in the live-action play, talked in length about bringing this character to life and the difference between those performances.
Florence Kasumba: I got to play the part…in Germany for more than a year and we played like eight shows a week. So when you tell me, who is Shenzi, it’s like muscle memory because I got to play her every day. But this Shenzi is so different. I remember in the musical, we had shows sometimes where I found myself embarrassed because the hyenas are so dumb and funny and entertaining. But this is so different, this experience, because when I listen to the dialogue or when I read them, I realized that this was way more dangerous and more serious. I was lucky that my first day was in a black box and I was working with Eric [Andre] and JD [McCrary] and we were very physical. Because the guys were so strong it was easy for me to just be big. Everybody is very confident and we could 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. Having that freedom allowed me to do whatever I wanted.
See the hyenas and Scar come to life this weekend when THE LION KING is released in theaters July 19, 2019. For more on the film, check out my review here.