Original-Cin Q&A: The Lion King's new Timon, Billy Eichner, talks Nathan Lane, leaving a legacy and the great Meryl Streep 'street' dream

One of them most anticipated films of the summer roars into theatres on July 19th. Director Jon Favreau has updated and re-imagined the classic Oscar winning film, The Lion KIng for the big screen.  

The new computer-generated “realist” version features the much-loved characters voiced by an all-star voice cast, which includes Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villainous Scar, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Billy Eichner as Timon and John Oliver as Zasu, joining a returning James Earl Jones as Mufasa.

Our Bonnie Laufer sat down with the new Timon, Billy Eichner, to talk about the Lion King remake.

ORIGINAL-CIN: When Jon Favreau calls and says, ‘I'd like to have you in my movie,’  is lit a no-brainer? 

BILLY EICHNER: (laughs) “Yeah, pretty much. I knew Jon a little and he was a big fan of the (comedy/pop-culture game show) that I do, Billy on the Street. But I had no idea that he was even considering me for this. I got a cold call from my agent saying Jon Favreau wants you to voice the character of Timon in The Lion King. And I was like, ‘Where, Disney on Ice?’ 

Zasu, Timon and Pumbaa meet their human counterparts, John Oliver, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner

Zasu, Timon and Pumbaa meet their human counterparts, John Oliver, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner

“And then they explained how epic all of this actually was. They were bringing Seth Rogen in who would play Pumbaa and Donald Glover and James Earl Jones were coming back and I was just blown away.”

OC: How much pressure comes along with something like this because when you look at the original animated film you have Nathan Lane who voiced Timon, and it's become a classic. I don't know anybody in the world who has not seen it. So, what were you thinking when you started working on this film?  

BE:  “I'm just hoping not as many people saw that one as they say they saw it!! (laughs)

“I saw the animated movie for the first time when I was a teenager. I grew up loving Nathan Lane. I'm a huge Broadway fan so I was seeing Nathan Lane on stage in New York even before Lion King came out. 

“I worship the man, and we have  become friends over the years. And so again I just thought, ‘Okay this movie's huge, but once we get in there you know you have to forget that and you  just have to kind of put it out of your head.’

“Seth Rogen and I would say to each other, ‘Jon Favreau chose us for a reason and someone's gotta do it!’  So we're gonna do the best we can and find our own version of it that also hopefully nods to elements of the original that people love.”

OC: You and Seth got to work together which is kind of rare in animation and voice-over work.  A lot of actors stand in a booth by themselves and they don't interact. How much improvisation was allowed and how did you guys make these characters your own? 

BE: “One of the most surprising parts of the process for me was how much improv Jon Favreau was encouraging us to do. I thought, ‘Well this is The Lion King, we have a script we're just going to say the lines and go home.’ But John had a whole other idea. 

“From the first day we were there, John had us literally at one point throw the scripts down. And he built this makeshift stage which had cameras and microphones all over the perimeter of it. And he had us do a walkthrough and improvise the entire movie. 

“I just thought that was an exercise and Seth and I were thinking this is to loosen us up. Then they recorded all of it. And so much of it either ended up in the movie or was then used and kind of transplanted into the script and used in some way later on.“

OC: It's almost like you were doing it like a play.

 BE:  “Exactly. We felt like we were doing an improv show in some small comedy theater except it's going be seen in China!”

 OC: You also get to sing a couple of iconic songs  but you didn't get to perform or work with Beyonce who voices Nala. 

 BE: “We didn't sing together.  We are on the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” but the part that Seth and I sing is separate from the part that Beyonce and Donald Glover sing. 

What was amazing to me is so many of these movies are done with the actors in different countries, different cities recording separately. 

“Seth Rogen and I were always together. Seth and Donald Glover and I sang Hakuna Matata together with (soundtrack composer) Hans Zimmer there, and Jon Favreau in the room and Pharrell. It was unreal,  we were all there together and so I think you can really feel that when you're watching the movie.”

OC: Has it even dawned on your exactly how many people are going to see this movie until the end of time? 

BE: “Yeah, it's pretty shocking. Seth and I were saying  more people will probably hear our voices in this then anything we will ever do again until we die! 

“That's kind of a daunting thing but it's also it's thrilling. Movies this size don't come along that often. People don't go to the movies the way they did when I was growing up. And so to have a movie come along that people are really paying attention to and  going to see, that's really special. It makes you feel like, ‘Okay all the work and the worrying is worth it.’”

OC: I love watching you do Billy On The Street. I honestly do not know where your energy comes from, but it truly is the most hilarious thing. Who would be your ultimate “get” celebrity if you could have just one person run around the streets and harass innocent bystanders and hand out dollar bills!  I would love to see Beyonce, I think you have an “in” now! 

BE: “Beyonce would be great number one, but my real number one choice  is Meryl Streep!  We've been trying forever to get her.  We’ve been close it's just a matter of timing! 

“I just have to get Meryl before I stop doing it! She just got to come and join us because I've been talking about her on the show. She's been  this constant reference. I mean come on Meryl! What the heck else are you doing with your time?”