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Entertainment Weekly


Get to know the actors behind young Simba and Nala in Disney's live-action Lion King

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The Lion King (2019)

release date07/19/19
Movie Details
release date07/19/19

Ever since Disney announced the voice cast for the live-action remake of The Lion King, fans haven’t stopped roaring with excitement over Donald Glover and Beyoncé taking on the roles of Simba and Nala.

And of course, both performers absolutely kill it as the iconic characters (did you expect anything less?!). But after watching The Lion King in theaters, you’ll actually find yourself wondering who played the lions when they were cubs. Because young Simba and Nala absolutely steal the show for the first half of the movie.


Meet JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, the young actors bringing Simba and Nala to life before Glover and Beyoncé take over. As soon as they start talking, you’ll fall in love with them. Their energy and personality shine through, making any fears that live-action lions won’t have the same humanity as animated ones completely disappear. But it’s when McCrary and Joseph’s version of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” begins that you’ll truly appreciate how perfect these two are in the roles.

So who are these actors? You’ve actually seen/heard both of them before.

12-year-old McCrary most recently appeared in Issa Rae’s Little as Isaac, one of the confident but outcast kids that Marsai Martin’s character befriends at school. Before that, he wowed the audience at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards last year onstage with Glover (performing as Childish Gambino) singing “Terrified,” the song on which he’s featured.

Watch the two future Simbas duet together in a riff sure to give you chills (starting at the 3:00 mark):

McCrary got his acting career started on the Disney Channel series K.C. Undercover and starred on OWN’s The Paynes. Check out a clip of him on the series below.

He also played a young Michael Jackson on the BET series American Soul along with appearances on I’m Dying Up Here and Teachers. But it’s his singing career that helped catapult McCrary into instant fame, as he’s the youngest artist ever to sign with Disney Music Group’s Hollywood Records, releasing his debut EP Shine.

Check out his first single, “Inviting All of You,” below:

As for Joseph, she’s best known for terrifying horror fans with her starring role in Jordan Peele’s Us, playing Zora/Umbrae. It was a full-circle moment for the actor, as she had once performed her Us onscreen mom Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar acceptance speech for a school play audition.

But if horror isn’t your thing, you’ve definitely see Joseph before in another onscreen musical as she played Little Inez in 2016’s Hairspray Live! She was also an original cast member in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock musical. Check out a recording of her big ballad below:

But playing young Nala in The Lion King actually brings Joseph back to her first major acting role when she played Nala on Broadway at only 9 years old. Talk about the circle of life.

The Lion King is now playing in theaters.

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