J.D. McCrary was just 9 years old when he learned he was cast as the young Simba in Disney’s photorealistic remake of The Lion King. But even at that tender age, he knew it was a big deal.
“I knew that my life is going to be completely different after this comes out,” McCrary, who turns 12 this week, told BuzzFeed News.
His costar, Shahadi Wright Joseph, had a similar reaction when she learned director Jon Favreau had cast her as the young Nala in the film. “I was with my family at breakfast, but we were just jumping and screaming,” she said.
McCrary and Joseph spoke with BuzzFeed News the day after The Lion King’s splashy red carpet premiere in Los Angeles, where they finally got to see the result of the work they did two years earlier with Favreau.
They tried to make the characters their own.
When I asked McCrary and Joseph if they’d seen the original animated version of The Lion King from 1994, McCrary just rolled his eyes.
“Of course!” he said. “Who has not? That’s not even a thing.”
“That was like one of my favorite movies growing up,” Joseph added.
Like the generations of kids before them, McCrary and Joseph had watched the 1994 Lion King multiple times too, but when it came time to record their roles, they tried to keep the original voice performances by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Niketa Calame-Harris out of their heads.
“I think that we both tried to keep it really authentic,” Joseph said. “But also try to add our own personalities to the characters, you know, so that it can be new and that people can diff-re-entiate between the original and the new one.”
McCrary looked at Joseph, his eyes wide.
“You have a very good vocabulary!” he said. “Diffre…diffre…”
“Diff-re-entiate,” she said. “Thank you!”
“That’s crazy,” he said. “You should go to the spelling bee.”
They both laughed, and then McCrary looked back at me. “We kept in mind that we’re going to be redoing The Lion King, but we, you know, try to make it our own and diffre-entiate — whatever she said. Yeah, just make sure that they know the difference between the two.”
The process of making The Lion King was unlike anything they — or any other actor — had ever experienced.
Joseph had an advantage with her performance as Nala, as she played the role in the Broadway version of The Lion King from 2014 to 2015. When casting director Sarah Finn handed Favreau the list of possible actors for each role, in fact, Joseph’s name was the only one listed for young Nala. But performing the role for the film proved to be quite different from the rigid structure of a Broadway production.
“I could add my own personality to it,” Joseph said. “I can add more confidence. So that was a lot of fun. Jon gave us a lot of freedom to just, you know, go off and be Nala and Simba. So that was really great.”
The new version of The Lion King, which is in theaters Friday, was created entirely with bleeding-edge CGI technology, but initially, the actors’ experience was decidedly low-tech, running through the performance in a kind of stripped-down black box theater. Cameras recorded the actors’ physical performances from afar, but none of them wore the cumbersome, skintight motion capture suits that are so common for actors performing CG characters.
McCrary and Joseph also recorded their shared scenes together, rare for vocal performances. Later, they recorded the song “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” (Scene partner John Oliver, as the hornbill Zazu, recorded his lines separately.)
“I definitely want to do another movie where we can have that really freedom with new technology,” said Joseph.
“It’s like a whole new experience,” McCrary added.
What really blew their minds was when they entered the virtual reality “set” Favreau and his team had created for making the film. Kind of like a virtual reality video game, Favreau had the film’s CGI artists create all the locations for the movie inside a computer and coupled them with software that recreated the filmmaking equipment his crew would have used if they were shooting on an actual location in the Serengeti. Once inside the VR environment, Favreau and his crew set up their shots like they would on a real set.
None of that was explained to McCrary and Joseph, however. Instead, they had VR goggles placed on their heads, and the actors suddenly found themselves floating over Pride Rock.
“Everything felt surreal,” McCrary said. “You were in the movie. We didn’t see any of the characters there. That was the only difference. It was basically just like, scoping the place out. You could just look around.”
“You felt a little bit weird because you felt like you were going to, like, fall or something,” Joseph said. “We got to fly to the elephant graveyard and the water hole and just everywhere, you know, around Pride Rock. It was so beautiful.”
They didn’t meet any real lions, and they have very different feelings about that.
McCrary and Joseph didn’t see the full CG versions of their characters until well after they’d recorded their roles. So I asked them if they ever got to observe real lions for the role. It became a Whole Thing.
McCrary shook his head and began emphatically pounding on his chair. “We didn’t see any! animals!” he said. “And I’m super! glad! that! I! didn’t! see! a! lion!”
“I love lions,” Joseph said with a wry smile. “I would have loved to see a lion.”
“What do you mean?!” McCrary said, rising in his chair. “You would love for them to bite your toes off? You’re OK with that?!”
“No! Like from a safe distance,” Joseph replied with a giggle. “I remember before we started doing rehearsals for Lion King on Broadway, we looked at National Geographic stuff so that we can really learn what happens when the lion is just doing whatever in a day. That was pretty cool. I wish that we could have done something like that.”
McCrary thought for a second. “I would like to see a lion,” he said. “But in the movie, not in real life. I don’t get why she wants to see one. That’s scary!”
“They’re so cute!” Joseph said.
“No they’re not!” McCrary replied.
“You saw the movie last night?” she said. “They were adorable!”
“Yeah, maybe the cubs, like, when they’re first born,” he said. “But they grow up and they eat things! They eat living things!”
“So that’s why you have to meet a lion very young,” she said, laughing again.
“Oh so they can grow up and bite you?” he said. “That’s it! If it bites you once, you’re done! It takes one time for the lion to catch you slipping and it’s over! You’re never gonna walk the same.”
For McCrary, it seems, any encounter with a lion is life changing.