Cub Actors Roar to Life as Simba and Nala in New ‘The Lion King’


Front Row Features

(Top to Bottom) Simba and JD McCrary and Nala and Shahadi Wright Joseph in THE LION KING. ©Disney Enterprises. CR:Kwaku Alston.

HOLLYWOOD—Child actor JD McCrary provides the voice of Young Simba and teenager Shahadi Wright Joseph plays his lioness bestie Young Nala in the all-new animated feature “The Lion King.” At a press conference to promote the release of the remake of the Disney classic film, the twosome clearly appeared well-selected for their roles. McCrary had all the energy and enthusiasm of a young lion cub, jumping up at times and waving his arms around as he eagerly responded to questions. Joseph was a little more reserved as she politely yet confidently answered questions directed toward her.

Like the 1994 original, the new “The Lion King” tells the tale of a young lion cub who aspires to be the king of the pride. The new version adopts virtual reality tools and photorealistic digital imagery that make the animals and scenery look as though it were live action. It is set to arrive in theaters this Friday.

Directed by Jon Favreau, who helmed 2016’s live-action remake of “The Jungle Book,” the film also features the voices of Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, Florence Kasumba, Seth Rogen, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, and Billy Eichner, who steals every scene he’s in as meerkat Timon.

Nala and Simba become friends as young cubs growing up in Africa’s scenic Pride Lands. Playful, competitive and equally matched, they duo are considered a pair by those around them long before the idea ever occurs to them. Nala is a strong and self-assured cub, who grows into a powerful lioness concerned about the future of their home. But dark forces are conspiring to threaten the peace and tranquility of the Pride Lands. When she and Simba find themselves together again, hope returns to the ailing pride, and Nala—bold and determined— encourages Simba to be who he’s meant to be. The film’s memorable songs, written by Elton John and Tim Rice, for the original are re-recorded by the new cast. New songs include “Spirit” by Beyonce John/Rice’s collaboration “Never Too Late.”

McCrary, 11, sings “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata,” two of the beloved songs from the original animated musical, which subsequently became a successful Broadway musical. Audiences may remember McCrary from OWN’s “Tyler Perry’s The Paynes” and Apple’s “Vital Signs.”

Co-star Joseph, 14, was recently seen the acclaimed Jordan Peele-directed horror movie “Us.” She first played Young Nala onstage in the 2009 Broadway production of “The Lion King.” She also appeared in NBC’s production of “Hairspray Live!” She duets with McCrary on “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” Favreau says casting Joseph was the easiest casting choice he’s ever made. There was one person on the list for Young Nala,” he says. “All of the performers who sing in the movie actually sing. They’re really good singers who prepare.”

 Joseph says she was amazed to have the opportunity to be in both the stage and now the big screen versions of “The Lion King.”

 “One thing where I really saw the difference was that on Broadway everything’s a little bit more structured,” the young actress says. “You have to just have to follow directions, which is cool too. In the new ‘The Lion King,’ I loved the way Jon (Favreau) gave JD and I a bunch of freedom. We had a lot of freedom in the booth. He was like ‘You can do whatever. Just make it fun.’ It was awesome and I wasn’t used to that. It was amazing, so I love that.”

To help his cast get into the virtual world of the Pride Lands, director Favreau created a virtual reality game for everyone to play around with. None was more excited than McCreary than to put on the device and immerse himself in the world of the young lion cub he was voicing onscreen.

“It was awesome,” enthuses the young actor. “It’s so cool. It’s like watching your favorite movie but you’re in it. You’re in the movie. That’s exactly what it was. He did an amazing job so me and Shahadi and Mr. Favreau would put on the headsets. We had these little controller things on our heads, and we would just fly. We could fly. It’s like we were Zazu (the red-billed Hornbill bird character). We were birds. We were whatever we wanted to be. We saw everything. We saw the Pride Lands. We saw Pride Rock. We saw the watering hole. We saw the elephant graveyard. We saw it all, man and it was so cool.”