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Interview: Actor Billy Eichner Talks ‘The Lion King’

July 16, 2019Ben MK

Best known for his offbeat antics on the TV show Billy on the Street, Billy Eichner may not be the obvious choice for a starring role in a family film. However, in director Jon Favreau's CGI remake of The Lion King, the actor and comedian proves to be just at home on the African savanna as he is wandering the concrete jungle that is New York City.

As one half of the movie's comic relief duo, Timon and Pumbaa, Eichner teams up with the equally hilarious Seth Rogen to provide guidance to the young Simba (Donald Glover), a runaway lion who blames himself for the untimely death of his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). But if Simba is to reclaim his rightful title as heir to the throne, he must find the courage within himself to challenge his power-hungry uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has enlisted the help of a clan of bloodthirsty hyenas to rule over all the creatures that call the Pride Lands home.

I sat down for a roundtable interview with Billy Eichner to chat about his role as Timon in The Lion King, and to find out how he put his own unique spin on the character. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What was your reaction when you found out you were cast in the film?

Eichner: It was pretty shocking. I literally got a cold call from my agent saying, "Jon Favreau wants you to be in The Lion King." I had no preparation for it. I didn't audition for it. I don't think he auditioned people. But I knew Jon. I knew he was a big Billy on the Street fan from years back, but I'd never worked with him before, and I was literally shocked. When they called me, I was like, "Disney on Ice? In what version?!" Then they explained it and I was like, "Oh, that sounds like a big deal." So it was pretty cool.

What was it like recording "Hakuna Matata?"

Eichner: It's pretty unusual for these types of movies, but we were all in the room together. All the actors were together. So me and Seth [Rogen] and Donald [Glover] did "Hakuna Matata" together, and we recorded [it] a billion times. Hans Zimmer was there, Jon was there. We just kept trying things and riffing, and it was super fun. You kind of have to forget that it's a classic; you have to ignore that a little bit so that you can put your own spin on it. There was a lot of improvising — a lot of the improv between me and Seth ended up in the movie, surprisingly. But I think that's pretty cool, and it helps differentiate it from the original.

Speaking of differentiating it from the original, how did you go about putting your own spin on the character of Timon? And what was it like working with Seth Rogen as Pumbaa?

Eichner: I grew up in New York going to Broadway shows and loving Nathan Lane — like worshipping Nathan Lane. Even before The Lion King I saw Nathan in a production of Guys and Dolls in 1992, which is [what] he and Ernie Sabella were doing [before] they went and did The Lion King together. And now I've been friends with Nathan for a couple of years and he's a Billy on the Street fan. So I emailed him first thing. That's the first thing I did. I was like, "I'm gonna do this; it's impossible to do this better than you did it, but I just want your blessing." And he was hilarious and great about it, and he said, "What are you gonna do next? The Bird Cage with Ryan Gosling?" So he was lovely. And then once we got in there, Seth Rogen and I just looked at each other and we're basically like, "Look, Jon cast us for a reason. And so we're just gonna do our thing." And that's what we did.

If I had to start from scratch with someone I didn't know, that would have been more intimidating. Cuz we really hit the ground running. I mean the first day we worked on the movie, we read the whole script, they recorded it, Jon threw us up on this makeshift stage and had us literally walk through the movie as if it were a play, and had us throw our scripts down and improvise every scene. So if I had to do that with a complete stranger, that would have been hard. Seth is so chill, but also really ambitious and really wanted to do a good job. It was lovely. We actually had a really good time at the end of the day.

How else did you go about finding your character's vocal performance?

Eichner: I kind of fell back on the fact that Jon Favreau cast us all for a reason. And Seth and I had this conversation early on. This was not a voiceover role where you're cast to come up with some new voice that's unrecognizable from who you are. [Jon] wants everyone to sound the way they sound. He wants me to sound like, if not me, then my comedic persona. He wants Seth to sound like Seth; he has a very unique, Seth Rogen voice. He wants Donald to sound like Donald, Beyoncé to sound like Beyoncé, etc. etc. So I didn't want to deviate too much from that, cuz I felt like that's why I was there — to be me.

Other than that, I wanted to find a way to nod to the sensibility of the original — because I think people would be disappointed if you didn't, in certain moments — but also find a way to make it my own. That just came from, in a way, ignoring what had already happened in the original and seeing what we could come up with. And the improv helped with that too.

Aside from recording "Hakuna Matata," what other moments stand out for you?

Eichner: I didn't realize when I first got cast I had forgotten that Timon and Pumbaa start and end "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." And then when I heard Beyoncé was singing that song too, I put it together. I was like, "Am I on a track with Beyoncé?!" We don't sing together, but we're on the same song. That was pretty cool. I was a musical theatre major in college; and that song in particular allows you to sing a little bit, to really sing. So I was looking forward to that.

Lastly, why do you think the original The Lion King still resonates with moviegoers to this day?

Eichner: I think the themes of the movie are timeless. I think The Lion King is very different from some of the other Disney movies from that era. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast are all great movies, but [The Lion King] leans less on comedy and more on emotion — an emotional story about parents, the circle of life, etc. etc. And I think that will always resonate. Also, honestly, the score. It's a great score. Elton John, Tim Rice, those songs have stayed around. Hakuna Matata was not something people said before The Lion King. It's become part of our lexicon. And so I think it connects with people, and I think that's why you can keep reinventing it.

The Lion King is in theatres July 18th, 2019.

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