The Lion King had a very clear road map of what to be in that it was a remake of a beloved animated film from 1994. With an impressive voice cast and a stunningly talented visual effects team, one man was burdened with steering the entire ship to port: Jon Favreau. The actor/director has an a fairly extensive resumé behind the camera, including THe Jungle Book and 2008's Iron Man. If the cast's sentiments about the director of 2019's The Lion King are any indication, Favreau's talent and big heart are what ultimately drove the film and its cast.
"He's very versatile," Keegan-Michael Key tells ComicBook.com. "Jon's very versatile and is very adept at being a actor's director. So, even though I'm aware of the fact that he's dealing with all the technical stuff, he comes into a recording session with a type of exuberant nurturance. He really wants you to feel what you're feeling, but he keeps you on a thread though, which is good. He goes, 'I need A from you, and I need G from you. You can do anything you want with B, C, D, E, and F, but just get me to G. I trust you.'"
The freedom Favreau provided the actors might come as a surprise considering their voices had to match up with a highly-animated creation of their character no the screen. However, the actors admit, there were several story boards and images shown to them, but the animators catered more to their voice efforts rather than the other way around.
"I had the luxury of working with Eric [Andre]," Key said. "But we did something I've never done before, and I've done quite a bit of voice over and we got to be in a big room, a big, black room, we were kind of double-miced. We had a mic here and a mic here. And we had the opportunity to act out the scene with each other. We weren't in a static booth."
Ultimately, the acting was similar to acting on a stage, which Shenzi actress Florence Kasumba is more than familiar with. "It was as if John were directing us in a play," Key said. "Then you were capturing everything on the audio."
Key's co-star Andre echoed a similar sentiment. "Jon Favreau is so nurturing and articulate, and he's just a really good director and I felt safe in his hands," Andre said, having voiced the comedy relief supplying hyena Azizi in the movie. "I also felt safe with my co-stars. They were really talented and smart and polite and we were all trying to crack this nut together. And it's voiceover, which I feel comfortable doing." He notes that he and Key performed a lot of improv.
South African actor John Kani, also known to the ComicBook.com audience for his role as T'Chaka in Black Panther, admits that performing the role of Rafiki is "daunting" given the animated spectacle that The Lion King is. "It's a bit frightening 'cause we know we've got the experience. We know we created good work," Kani explains. "We are Oscar Award winners, Tony Award winners. But the problem? All of those things only prepare you just to get past casting. Once the room is empty, and on the other side is the director you just like virgin. You're a little kid who wants to learn, who wants to understand, who knows the value of listening, and hearing, and interpreting."
This is where Favreau comes in with the leadership his cast is praising. "Jon is so good just in staying with you, and treating you like you've never been on Hollywood before like simply story teller," Kani said. "And when it works, when it doesn't respect who you are or treat you as a diva or somebody with all these awards, but simply an artist that helps him to tell the story he wants to tell, and the reason why he wanted you to play Rafiki is very important and critical to me."
Kasumba, who previously played Shenzi in a Lion King stage play in Germany, was admittedly a bit nervous to get acquainted with her co-stars in this film -- along with the daunting task of performing the role with only her voice. "[Jon Favreau] introduced us to each other and that's nice when you come.. I don't live here, you know?" Kasumba explained. "I hear about colleagues. I know what they've done. But that's different whether we speak with somebody or whether you read about someone so it is nice when your director comes and tells you, 'Okay, these are your colleagues.'"
"It was very safe because although you know that you are being recorded, that there are cameras everywhere, I didn't feel pressured," Kasumba said. "I was given a lot of freedom and if things wouldn't work or... suggestions, like he would say, 'Okay, 'Try this,' or, 'Try that.' For me, that's already a big help because what I do and how it comes across, these are two different things."
The Lion King hits theaters on July 18.