It’s hard work to have a problem free philosophy while working on the biggest gig of your life.
Destined to make all the money it can and delight audiences from every corner of the globe, this new version of The Lion King is not only a cinematic wonder using photorealistic effects to give us talking lions and hyenas but it plays in the originals space to make for something that everyone can enjoy.
In advance of the films release I got the chance to sit and talk with Billy Eichner who takes on the iconic role of Timon in this film. We asked him about the pressure of stepping into the kind of project that just doesn’t happen to most people every day, filling the shoes of one of his personal icons and the stress of making sure you’re not trying to duplicate something beloved that has come before you and make sure that you’ve got some personal flavor on it all.
Dave Voigt: Can you talk a little about how you ultimately got cast and became involved with The Lion King? I’ve got to imagine that this is probably one of those “once in a lifetime” type of gigs?
Billy Eichner: Yeah it was pretty shocking (smiles). I literally got a cold call from my agent saying that Jon Favreau wanted me to be in The Lion King. I had NO preparation for it, I didn’t audition for it, and I honestly don’t think that anybody auditioned for it? But I know Jon and I knew he was a big fan of Billy On The Street from years back but I have never worked with him before and I was literally shocked. When they called me I had to make sure it wasn’t Disney On Ice! (Laughs) Then they explained it all and I knew that this was going to be a big deal.
How do you go about re-recording such an iconic song like ‘Hakuna Matata’?
It’s pretty unusual, but we were actually all in the room together when we did this one. Seth (Rogan), Donald (Glover) and myself were all there doing the song like a billion times with Jon and Hans (Zimmer) there and we just kept trying different things and doing a lot of riffing which was super fun. But to be honest you really have forget that this song is such a classic and ignore that just so you feel comfortable enough to be able to put your own spin on it all.
Surprisingly a lot of the improv that happened between Seth and I actually ended in the movie which was cool and allows everyone involved some leeway to differentiate from the original.
This feels like one of those projects where you do need to block out and run away from the original and almost go ask for permission or even get someone’s blessing before saying yes to it. We’re you ultimately able to sort of block out the original; at least on an emotional level so you could try and make it as fresh as possible?
Actually you really kind of had to in order to be able to do your job. I ultimately grew up in New York going to Broadway shows and I grew up just worshipping Nathan Lane. Even before he did The Lion King I saw Nathan in a production of Guys & Dolls from I want to say 1992, because him and Ernie Sabella would basically go out of that production and then go do voice work for the original film. So I already had all that in my head and plus I’ve been pretty good friends with Nathan for a couple of years now because he’s a fan of Billy On The Street so I did make sure to e-mail him first and tell him that I’m taking the job and while it’s obviously impossible to do it better then you did it, I just want your blessing before I go forward and his response to me which I’ll keep between us was just HILARIOUS and made me feel a lot better. Of course he did wonder if my next project was going to be The Birdcage with Ryan Gosling? (Laughs)
Once we got in there, Seth, Donald and I just had to look at each other and trust that Jon had his reasons for casting us among all the other choices he had so it’s important for us to really knuckle down and do our thing. And that’s what we did.
Now that everything has wrapped, if you could go back in time to right before you got that call casting you in the film, what would you say to yourself?
Hmmm…that’s a good one. Probably what I said to myself that day I got the call; “Dear god, I’d better not fuck this up” (Laughs) But honestly, I’d say just to try and enjoy the entire experience because it really is one of those once in a life time movies. People just aren’t going to the movie theatres as much anymore and it was funny because while we working together Seth would always say that this is one of those movies that everyone will actually SEE! People just want to see this in the theatre because it looks so spectacular that seeing it at home just won’t be the same experience. Getting to make stuff like this just doesn’t happen all the time.
We’re there any other moments from the original that you we’re looking forward to putting your own spin on?
Well when I was cast I had completely forgotten that Timon and Pumbaa both start AND end ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’. Obviously I knew that ‘Hakuna Matata’ was going to be this big moment but I had totally forgotten about this other number…and then I heard that Beyonce is also singing this number I had this moment of pause. “Am I ACTUALLY on a track with Beyonce?!?” (Laughs). We don’t sing together but just being on the same song is actually pretty cool.
Plus the first that actually got me on the stage was singing and musical theater which was my major in college and that song in particular allows you to sing a little bit to really be able to sing.
Do you get to see what you’re going to look like before you end up going in the booth to record? Comedy can be a very physical thing and I’d imagine you’d need to know what you’re working with before you can really find that voice for the character?
Totally, but yeah about midway through the entire process we got to see what we’d look at but in the early stages we really had no idea what our own end results we’re going to look like. Plus we started recording before they really had the look of the characters down and I think they used what we’re doing to influence how the characters ultimately looked. I mean obviously I can’t look like a meerkat and a meerkat can’t look like me! (Laughs) However when I look at the Timon they made there are things that he does and some facial tics that he has where I weirdly see myself in there. I could just be imagining things but I really do feel like they used what we were doing in the studio to influence how the actual on screen characters looked and behaved.
Is there a character in the film that you’d love to roast on Billy On The Street?
Oh it would have to be Scar…he is the bad guy after all.
The Lion King is in theatres everywhere now.