By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 30, 2018 at 08:25 PM EST
Jesse Grant/Getty Images; Inset: Everett Collection

John Kani can’t believe his luck — the Tony-winning actor is portraying Rafiki in the live-action adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King on the heels of his role as King T’Chaka in Marvel’s Black Panther films.

Kani is part of a star-studded cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Beyoncé, and James Earl Jones in the role he originated in the 1994 animated film. “It’s an incredible opportunity. The cast – it’s almost like unbelievable. When you look at them, it’s almost like ‘who are you?'” Kani told EW at the Black Panther world premiere Monday night.

Though they’re still in early days of filming, Kani revealed they’ve been doing extensive tests to perfect the combination of live action and digital animation required to bring the beloved pride lands characters to life. “We’ve done a couple of test runs with hand-drawn animation where we work on the character of the animal you are going to voice,” he said.

But for Kani, who is South African, the greatest aspect of working on the film is the opportunity to tell what he describes as “an African story.”

“It’s happening in Africa — that’s where you find giraffes, lions, hyenas,” he said. “Africans always told these animal stories, which are the fiber of the learning process of young children. We [would] sit around at night around the fire and my grandmother would say ‘once upon a time.'”

For Kani, the role of Rafiki, a baboon who officiates important life events for the royal lion family, is a chance to play an elder and participate in a centuries-old storytelling tradition. “My job now is ‘once upon a time’ — to tell the younger generation to hand over our history to the next generation.”

The Lion King will come to theaters in 2019, while Black Panther opens in just a few weeks — Feb. 16.

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