The Lion King: How Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen put a new twist on Timon and Pumbaa
How do you react when someone says you’d make a perfect lazy warthog? What flattery blossoms from being deemed the textbook melodramatic meerkat?
Ask Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, who wear their comparative animal counterparts with pride in Jon Favreau’s upcoming photo-realistic remake of The Lion King. The newly paired comedy team (who previously appeared together in Neighbors 2 and Billy on the Street) will no doubt steal scenes this July as the voices of Timon and Pumbaa, the responsibly irresponsible adult influences guiding the wayward years of maned and malleable lion prince Simba (Donald Glover).
Rogen, who has been friends with director Favreau for almost two decades, accepted his role in The Lion King immediately upon receiving the offer from the filmmaker. “It was announced and then he e-mailed me and I said, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ with no hesitation,” Rogen, 37, tells EW. “Truthfully, I probably would have been a little insulted if he didn’t ask me to.” When the internet subsequently praised his casting as perfect for the piece, it only fueled the comedian’s conviction that this determined warthog was his destiny. “I was very flattered, and to be totally honest, I agreed! As an actor, I 100-percent don’t think I’m right for every role — as someone who makes movies, there are a lot of roles I don’t think I’m right for even in movies I’m making — but Pumbaa was one that I knew I could do well.”
Eichner, on the other hand, recognizes that the role of Timon — originated onscreen by Nathan Lane, a musical theater hero, in one of the most famous performances of his career — was in high demand among a certain slice of A-list Hollywood comics. “People way more famous than me would have killed for this part… I’ve heard about some of them!” Eichner, 40, says with a laugh. But the American Horror Story star was Favreau’s inspired first choice, a rising talent who has skyrocketed into the comedy elite over the past three years with his bright wit, pop culture expertise, and tantamount-to-Timon quippiness. “He’s physically the smallest character, but he has one of the bigger personalities, and I love the combination of those two things,” Eichner says. “I kind of played into Timon, as I’ve done with many characters of mine, [the notion that] he might be small in stature but he has a huge sense of entitlement, which is always funny to play.”
In the performance of Timon’s big songs “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata” (shared with Pumbaa), audiences will also get acquainted with Eichner’s musical theater pedigree, a defining if underused side of his identity as an artist that he can’t wait to reveal. “Nathan Lane has a great singing voice [but] he didn’t lean into it fully in the original version of The Lion King,” he says. “I lean into a little bit more, and I think that’s another way that this version is distinct: Timon’s singing voice in this version is different than the original, and I think that adds a different flavor to it. When Timon speaks and when he’s quote-unquote ‘being funny,’ he’s very loud and boisterous, but the singing allows this vulnerable side, a slightly softer side, especially in ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ and other moments. So I was glad that they encouraged me to do that because for me personally, it was pretty major.”
Favreau’s encouragement to the cast and crew took several forms, from The Lion King’s first days of pre-production to its current post-production animation crunch, and Rogen and Eichner got to experience their version of it on their very first day on set. The director tasked the pair with performing the entire movie together three times in a black-box theater, twice with script in hand and once without. “Jon said, ‘I want you to walk through it,’ like we were doing a play, like we were doing a live version of The Lion King — this was the first thing we did,” says Eichner. By the third run-through, when they’d familiarized themselves with the beats of each scene, Favreau had them abandon their scripts and improvise — and as of Eichner’s most recent viewing of the film, “a shocking amount” of improvised dialogue has remained intact from that session.
“Part of the brilliance of Jon just throwing us in there was that we got to very naturally discover what our rhythms were in terms of dialogue and in terms of what the relationship is,” he points out. “And in terms of that relationship, I think Seth has certain qualities that we associate with Seth Rogen and his comic persona that I think he applies to Pumbaa without it being a replica of what you’ve seen Seth do before, and I think the same goes for me. I think the relationship is basically inspired by what happens when those two personas clash and complement each other, in a certain way.”
Rogen describes the Timon-Pumbaa relationship that he and Eichner forged as “a little bit of a married-couple dynamic. They care deeply for one another. They’re very, very, very close friends, and like any two — I’m gonna say people — who spend a lot of time together, they start to have things that start to bother one another about each other. Like, meerkats are very quick, fast-paced animals, and warthogs are… a little on the slower side. And that dynamic pays off.” Plus, Rogen adds, it takes on a whole new shape once Glover’s Simba enters the picture and is quickly convinced to live a life of languid luxury: “Donald really added a hilarious element to the dynamic, and I really felt like me, him, and Billy made a bizarre yet very functional comedic trio.”
Perhaps more applicable to Timon and Pumbaa than any other characters in the film, Eichner and Rogen knew that a difference in tone would be necessary for the photo-realistic aesthetic style that defines Favreau’s film. As Eichner puts it, Lane and Pumbaa portrayer Ernie Sabella kept in their characters the vaudeville banter of the Broadway production of Guys and Dolls they’d just concluded before recording their roles in the 1994 film. In Disney’s National Geographic-chic reinvention, the theatrics had to be recalibrated, if not toned down. “Seth and I are obviously not coming out of a production of Guys and Dolls, but I think overall our dynamic is a bit more conversational,” says Eichner. “I’m not saying it’s subtle, but it is conversational.” Rogen echoes the evaluation: “To me the funniest parts are how casual and off-handed our rapport is, in that it really does not feel like we’re putting on a show. It just feels like two characters who genuinely know one another very well. And that’s Jon’s sensibility. Jon is so good at is grounding things. I remember that’s why I was obsessed with Swingers when I was young — it’s one of the most grounded comedies I’ve ever seen. And so Jon was always, in a great way, hard on [us] that it shouldn’t feel cartoony.”
However, the gravitas of photo-realism hasn’t changed the fatuous philosophies that define the characters. “They’re obviously very loving and excited to impart their many philosophical gems on all those whom they may encounter because, like, they really think they’ve got life figured out,” says Rogen — but even he agrees that “hakuna matata” is not exactly the most problem-free philosophy for 2019. “Honestly, as you analyze the movie, you do kind of realize that, like, they are wrong,” he says, laughing. “Like, they represent such an incorrect force in Simba’s life where he has been taught connectivity and that we’re all responsible for one another, and Timon and Pumbaa are just like, ‘No worries, man, do your thing.’ Which honestly is probably not the best philosophy for our time. I think we do need to look out for one another. We are all part of the circle of life.” He might want to hakuna matrademark that.
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.