INTERVIEW: ‘The Lion King’ with Shahadi Wright Joseph and JD McCrary

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It may seem like The Lion King’s JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph are rising stars in Hollywood, but they’ve been in the acting game for a while. With the spotlight on legends like Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Donald Glover, it’s hard not to ask McCrary (Young Simba) and Joseph (Young Nala) about their collaboration with these icons. It’s an all-star cast but most of them did not record together when they were working on the film, something common among voice acting.

“I didn’t know until after I recorded [Hakuna Matata] that I was performing with Donald Glover,” said McCrary, who was sitting at the head of a conference table next to Wright Joseph in a Boston Harbor Hotel conference room Thursday morning as part of a press tour for The Lion King. In fact, both young actors didn’t officially see their costars, Donald Glover and Beyoncé, until the filming process was over and at the red-carpet premiere. McCrary was quick to point out that he met Beyoncé before Joseph did.

But these young actors are not standing in the shadows of greats – they are too busy in their own limelight and making success work for them. Their performances of Young Simba and Young Nala had a nod to the original animated The Lion King while offering their own interpretations of these characters in the remake.

Shahadi Wright Joseph
Young Simba and Young Nala in The Lion King.

They helped set up the protagonists of the film before Simba and Nala became adults. Joseph and McCrary had the important task of delivering a great first impression of the characters to the audience and setting the tone of the live action remake. With all of that pressure on their shoulders, they delivered an incredible performance. Both deserve their own spotlight for the accomplishment of this film and well before it. This is something worth paying attention to.

Joseph played Young Nala in the Broadway show of The Lion King for almost a year before director Jon Favreau, director of The Lion King, took her on in the live action remake. She also portrayed Little Inez in the Hairspray Live production that aired in 2016. But, Joseph doesn’t only have the Broadway chops, her talent landed her the role of Zora Wilson and her “tethered” doppelgänger, Umbrae, in Jordan Peele’s critical and commercial hit horror film, Us which came out earlier this year.

For Joseph, making that transition from the horror genre to a Disney film was a difficult balance. “With Disney, I don’t have to change that much of my personality,” laughed Shahadi, “and for Us, I mean, that was the hardest thing that I’ve had to do.”

Shahadi Wright Joseph
Shahadi Wright Joseph as Umbrae, the “tethered” doppelgänger in Us.

Even with the difficulties of acting in a thriller, Joseph’s performance was a success. Us grossed $254 million worldwide, the second highest grossing original horror movie, only topped by Peele’s first horror feature Get Out. It also earned Joseph a nomination in the upcoming 45th Saturn Awards for Best Performance by a Younger Actor.

“With these two movies, I’m really glad I got to showcase myself as a serious actor,” said Joseph. She hopes she can get a chance to act in other genres as well. As for JD, he’s good with the idea of not acting in scary movies in the future.

McCrary is also no rookie to the stage and screen. He currently plays Nyla’s son, Kenny Payne, in Tyler Perry’s The Paynes on the Oprah Winfrey Network. He’s also an accomplished singer and even did background vocals for Childish Gambino (Donald Glover’s musical persona). When he stepped into the role of Young Simba in the new The Lion King film, he was already prepared for his part. This is proven by the fact that both actors said they performed “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” in only four takes.

Young Simba in The Lion King.

“I grew up watching Disney movies,” said JD. His familiarity with The Lion King helped him prepare for both Simba’s character and how Disney structures their films. While working on the live action remake, JD says that his experience with the virtual reality headsets was his favorite.

“We saw Pride Rock, we saw the Savanna, the Elephant Graveyard,” said JD on his involvement with virtual reality, “we saw everything. It felt real.” So real that JD had a hard time looking down when he was on the virtual Pride Rock.

JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph have more than proved their talent before Favreau’s The Lion King and during the film. Their performance of Young Simba and Young Nala truly make the film a joy to watch (you can read my review here). Both of these actors carried the huge weight of introducing our heroes to the audience with a fresh take while also paying tribute to the original characters that inspired the remake and they did it with ease.

“We’ve been waiting for this movie for a really long time,” said Shahadi, “so we are excited for it to finally be out.”

Disney’s The Lion King is out now in theaters worldwide.

The Lion King images belong to Walt Disney Pictures

Us image belongs to Universal Pictures