When it came to casting his photorealistic take on Disney’s beloved animated classic The Lion King, director Jon Favreau knew he needed to find just the right balance between talent who felt very contemporary and who evoked the spirit of the original.
Fortunately, as an actor himself, his instincts have proven pretty reliable: he was, after all, the filmmaker who put Robert Downey, Jr. in the Iron Man armor and Will Ferrell in Buddy the Elf’s green tights. His Lion King cast promises to be similarly memorable, featuring Hollywood heavy-hitters including Donald Glover as Simba, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Billy Eichner as Timon, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, John Kani as Rafiki, John Oliver as Zazu, Beyonce as Nala and – reprising his role from the original – James Earl Jones as Mufasa.
“One of the things I think I’ve been very lucky with and have done well is casting throughout my career,” Favreau revealed during a set visit to his forthcoming film. “I’m equally grateful on this one – they are just wonderful, and to find people who can sing and perform and can remind you of an echo of the performances that you remember, but also bring something new and fresh and feeling like it’s very current.”
“Casting is important: you’re sending messages to the fans,” he continued. “Our first announcement was Donald Glover and James Earl Jones, and I think it was kind of a shorthand for how we were doing this. And then everything else is sort of built out from that.”
“Donald is very of this moment, and creative and new and fresh, and then James Earl Jones really carries the tradition,” Favreau explained. “His voice has so much character to it, and it’s so closely associated with Mufasa. And having them together is one foot in the future, and one foot in the past. And that’s what the story is.”
Glover hit Favreau’s radar through his son, who was an admirer of Glover’s wildly successful musical alter ego Childish Gambino, and the more the filmmaker learned about him, the more impressive he found him to be.
“I was very impressed by the fact that he had worked his way through a writers room on 30 Rock, and that he was on Community,” he recalled. “And he comes from the improv tradition, which is my background too, so I was hoping to have a common language with him. Because you take scenes apart differently, and you use different terms than you would if you came out of Julliard.
“Your experience is you’re getting together and you’re usually get on stage in the back room of a bar and putting on an improv show for people – half of which probably didn’t know there was going to be a comedy show – and you’ve gotta make them laugh,” he said. “You bring in a different set of experiences to when you work on a film set. And I like that feeling, that immediacy that comes from improv and also the freedom to reinterpret material, and giving some freedom for the actor to collaborate, not just in the performance but in the material and the lines.”
“And then of course, his singing is astounding,” Favreau added, who also watched Glover in his critically hailed series Atlanta and learned he’d be playing Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story – a film Favreau also had a voice role in. By the time the two finally met in person at a roundtable interview hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, “I was hoping that he’d still be available for this, because I had my eye on him.”
On the spot, without consulting Disney, he floated the notion of playing Simba to Glover. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I would be interested in it!’” says the director. “And then from that point on I talked to Disney and they were into it – by that point, he was already part of the Star Wars universe. And then he started winning all these awards, and that’s always helpful trying to convince. But they were into him right from the beginning, and he has a wonderful timbre to his voice, both as a singer and in performing. He’s just one of those special creative forces.”
Another casting coup was nabbing Beyonce to play Simba’s paramour Nala. “She’s a busy person: she has babies, she has albums, she goes on tour, her husband goes on tour, so she’s logistically trickier than some of the other cast members,” he said, but well worth it. “Half of that role is singing, too, so that definitely made us feel that we had the right choice there.”
“She had really prepared – she’s a very hard worker,” he added. “It’s no surprise that she has had success in so many areas, and if you look at Lemonade, you see really understands filmmaking, too, and is very curious and innovative. Once it finally became human scale, and it was just us in the studio, she was great, and she had even prepared a lot of the stuff ahead of time.”
“She doesn’t have to sit in a trailer waiting for a camera to be ready – when it’s her, it’s all about her, and I get to focus on her performance and getting to know her,” Favreau revealed. “I try to get to know my cast members and have what ultimately ends up in the animation and visuals reflect who they are, and even if it’s obvious on the surface, it definitely inspires me in the way I conceive it.”
And then there’s Jones, whose presence was, according to Favreau, both invaluable and stirring. ”Hearing James Earl Jones, say the lines, it’s moving,” he admitted. “It still gets me.”
The Lion King is scheduled to release in theaters on July 19th.