Mufasa isn’t the only reigning royal in these Pride Lands.
The internet collectively bowed down when, in November 2017, Disney confirmed that Beyoncé Knowles-Carter had joined the cast of Jon Favreau’s photo-real virtual-production remake of The Lion King (read everything you want to know about it here). The music icon plays Nala, the childhood friend of Simba (Donald Glover) who re-encounters the exiled prince in adulthood, now as a fully-grown, powerful, unquestionably indomitable lioness.
So, how did Favreau convince a queen to get in formation with this King?
“I’ve got the Beyhive in my house,” chuckles the director, who wasn’t specifically aware that the singer was in play for the role until he reached out to her on a casting whim. “I’ve seen her live and she’s a unique talent, to say the least,” he says. “And when I finally spoke to her after reaching out, although her persona onstage is bigger than life, she’s very down to earth and is very much dedicated to her family and having a life that is human-scale.”
That, Favreau reasons, helps to explain why Knowles-Carter (as she’s being officially credited in the film) agreed to play Nala, which marks her first feature film role since 2013’s animated Epic (and prior to that, 2009’s Obsessed). “I think that part of it is that she’s got young kids, part of it is that it’s a story that feels good for this phase of her life and her career — it’s a very positive story, it’s a classic that a lot of people feel very emotionally invested in — and I think she just really likes the original very much,” says Favreau. “At the end of the day, she’s also an actor and it’s a great bunch of people to work with and a project that I think she felt was going to be special. And then of course, there are these wonderful musical numbers that she can be involved with, and my God… she really lives up to her reputation as far as the beauty of her voice and her talent.”
Both Beyoncé and Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) worked with The Lion King’s reunited original music team in refreshing the film’s soundtrack for modern ears. You’ll no doubt hear the two of them passionately belt “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the Oscar-winning ballad Nala shares with Simba when the two rekindle their childhood affections as grown adults; Beyoncé is also rumored (though EW cannot officially confirm this) to be working on a new song in addition to the five classics from the 1994 film which will be featured once more.
Of course, Favreau knew he’d brought a music superstar onto the savanna, but he may not have expected to get such an eager hands-on collaborator when it came to the film’s groundbreaking virtual-reality techniques. “Whenever she came by to work on it, she was incredibly curious about the technology, and as I showed her the techniques and materials, she rolled up her sleeves and got into the VR and started to mess around with all the tools,” the director recalls. “I think like most people who are at the pinnacle of their industry, she has a really good sense of how new things can inform other things she’s working on. Lemonade was happening around the time we were just beginning to work together, and you could see how art and filmmaking and fashion and music were all interweaving for her.” He even attempted to interweave the musician’s meticulous concert performances into the animated Nala. “When I would see her stage shows, it gave me ideas. As I’ve been directing the animation for the past couple of years, ideas have cropped up for me seeing what she was doing as a performer and how that could inform the character that she plays.” (Technically speaking, Nala does impel Simba to put a ring on it.)
And of course, Beyoncé’s influence isn’t just felt by the director. It’s safe to say that Us breakout Shahadi Wright-Joseph, who plays a young version of Nala, just couldn’t wait to be queen. “I don’t think that I can ever live up to [her], but this is as close as I’m ever gonna get,” the actress, 13, tells EW. “I think I screamed when I found out that she was going to be in the movie… and then when I found out that she was going to be playing older Nala, I really had to step my game up and think about what Beyoncé would want.”
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