The Lion King's Chiwetel Ejiofor on the diabolical psychology of Scar
There’s a very different game of thrones going down on the African savanna.
Prepare for the coup of the century when the villainous Scar, The Lion King’s biggest source of shade besides Pride Rock itself, comes alive onscreen like you’ve truly never seen him before in Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic remake of the Disney classic. Audiences will have Chiwetel Ejiofor to thank for the 2019 interpretation of the vengeful character, who has spent 25 years reigning as one of Disney Animation’s greatest villains—and will unfurl his plan to unseat Mufasa this summer with an extra layer of high-definition terror.
Ejiofor, 41, recalls being “right in the pocket” of The Lion King’s key age demographic when the original film was released in 1994. “I just remember thinking the whole spectacle was mindblowing,” the Oscar nominee tells EW. “Even as a young person, I was aware that it was matching two things: This really beautiful, intricate story with these huge, grand, classic, almost Shakespearean themes, but presented in a way that was delicate and affectionate and fun and upbeat in places and then deep and mysterious and dark in others. A real rollercoaster of an emotional journey. And Scar was this great villain right there in the heart of the piece.”
If Shakespeare’s villains are among the most famous antagonists ever created, Scar is the next best thing. Inspired by Hamlet baddie Claudius, the formidable lion is fueled by a black-sheep complex of jealousy and ego, making for an extraordinarily deadly rivalry with his older brother and principal obstacle to the throne, the venerated king Mufasa.
After speaking with Favreau about the director’s plans for the character, Ejiofor wasted no time in setting out to understand the mindset of a madman-with-a-mane. “I was interested in understanding the real psychology of Scar, the psychology of a person who always feels as if they have been somehow mysteriously overpassed by the fates, by the gods themselves. That sense of not being in the rightful place and therefore living in a kind of parallel universe to the one that you’re supposed to be in — what sort of psychology would that mean, and what would it go to over a period of time?” muses Ejiofor.
The answer: A relationship with his brother that’s been “completely destroyed and brutalized” by Scar’s obsessive way of thinking, and even worse, an awareness by Scar himself of just how insane he’s become. “He’s unable to get through it, but he has a self-knowledge about it, that he’s so possessed with this disease of his own ego and his own want, and at the same time, not being able to control that and having no parameters for it,” Ejiofor says. “So when that distance between what he wants, which is to be king, becomes even greater by the arrival of Simba, it just sends him onto this whole different track. The psychology of it! I was just so intrigued trying to find and root that.”
On his journey to dive deep into the diabolical, Ejiofor also faced double duty in figuring out how to parse those discoveries and differentiate his Scar from the original incarnation. Voiced by Jeremy Irons, the character’s 1994 debut involved a delicious blend of feigned melodrama and incisive terror, a performance Ejiofor calls “iconic and fascinating and beautiful.” But the actor urges what many in the cast of 2019’s Lion King know to be true: to dwell too long on an iconic character is to shoot yourself in the paw. “You can’t really wear anybody else’s clothes,” he explains. “I completely loved Jeremy Irons’ performance when I was growing up, but you want to find your own way into it through your own psychology, your own choices as an actor, and your own decision-making as a person. You can’t do a version of it because it doesn’t come from you — it comes from Jeremy. So in that sense, you have to go on your own journey and find the character who is absolutely always your own way. You have to find it for yourself.”
Helping matters is Scar’s new look in the 2019 film; his onyx mane and olive skin have been made slightly more naturally occurring (per the film’s efforts to be as authentic to the animal kingdom as possible) but don’t make Scar any less menacing or recognizable as the savanna-renowned sociopath he is. “He’s a character that, inside and out, is really a core reflection of all that is going on, all of that trauma that’s kind of worn in Scar and outside of Scar as well,” says Ejiofor. “He carries all of that with him, which I think is really powerful, and there’s definitely a certain darkness to that and a kind of pain to it as well. A stealth, tortured pain.”
And then there’s “Be Prepared,” a not-so-stealth pronouncement of Scar’s schemes sung by the lion to his audience of loyal hyenas (led by Eric André, Florence Kasumba, and Keegan-Michael Key). After months of speculation, Favreau confirmed to EW that the tune will in fact be featured in the film—but that’s not to say it’s not a surprise worth preparing for in and of itself. “As opposed to going into the specifics, in a broader sense one of the things that I was absolutely thrilled about was Hans Zimmer being on board this,” says Ejiofor. “The music that he brought to the first Lion King was so extraordinary in all of its detail and all of its richness and all of its color, and so the hope, in whatever particular form that [“Be Prepared”] takes in this version, is that we still have a sense of all of that wonder and all of that wonderful orchestration that Hans brings to the first movie.”
For more on The Lion King and other upcoming summer movies, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or buy it here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.