The Lion King’s Billy Eichner Talks Voicing Timon And Improvising With Seth Rogen
Just over 15 years after the original was released, 2019’s (disputably) live-action remake of The Lion King is finally here. Billy Eichner, who voices lovable meerkat Timon and is known for playing himself on comedy game show Billy On the Street, is just one member of The Lion King‘s incredibly star-studded cast. We recently spoke to Eichner about taking on one of animation’s most iconic roles, his love of musicals, and why he thinks The Lion King is deserving of a modern re-imagining.
Space: Timon and Pumbaa are one of the most iconic duos not just in Disney history, but in cinematic history. What did you and Seth Rogen do to prepare to voice those roles and put your own spin on the characters?
Billy Eichner: Well luckily Seth and I knew each other before. I have a show called Billy on the Street and Seth had been a guest on it. And I also had a small part in Neighbors 2, I had some scenes with Seth in that. And just socially we knew each other. I knew he was a fan and I was a fan of his, of course. So that made it a little bit easier. Basically our philosophy was, ‘look, this is an epic movie, and the pressure’s on.’ But once you get into the room and start working together, you kind of have to ignore all of that. You just have to lean in to the fact that Jon Favreau, our wonderful director, cast us for a reason. He could have cast anyone—literally any actor I know would have done The Lion King. And so you have to think, ‘well, he cast me for a reason, I’m going to go in and do my thing and put my spin on it.’
And Seth and I got to improvise a lot, which was very helpful. Jon really encouraged us to improvise. And a lot of the improv ended up in the movie, which I think immediately makes it distinct from the original in certain ways, just because the jokes are fresh, the lines are fresh. But we also made sure, especially in certain moments, to nod to the original because there are things that people remember and love and they would be disappointed if they didn’t see those moments in this version. We don’t recreate everything. The visual aesthetic of this movie is so unique and so different than the original that certain moments make sense to bring back and some moments just don’t, because they don’t fit this visual style. The improv helped, and that’s how we developed our chemistry. It just kind of happened organically. And it really helped to be in the room together, which is rare for these movies.
Given that The Lion King is such a beloved film, it’s kind of surprising that Jon Favreau gave you and Seth the freedom to improvise so many of your lines. Were you surprised by that as well?
I was really surprised, and really happy about it. Because as a performer, it loosens you up, it gets you out of your head. The minute you have to start thinking on your feet, you stop worrying about, ‘oh no, they did this movie already, it’s so iconic.’ It just forces you to be in the moment. So just as an exercise for performers, it’s great. And the fact that we were able to discover fresh, funny moments that could actually be put into the movie, I think that’s wonderful too. Because again, I don’t think people want the exact same experience. What would be the point of that? So I think it’s a mix of both. It’s a mix of things that people loved peppered with some new things.
Are there any specific moments or scenes you and Seth improvised that you can think of off the top of your head?
There’s improv during our first scene when we first meet Timon and Pumbaa. What I love about it is that it really brings this really grounded conversational tone to our scenes, which really matches how real the movie looks. It has this photo-realistic look, so to have done a more vaudevillian take on it, as Nathan [Lane] and Ernie [Sabella] did so brilliantly in the original would A: just be copying what they did, which we didn’t want to do, and B: not quite match this new aesthetic. I think the improv really helped in that way. So yes, in that first scene, in “Hakuna Matata“…there’s various conversations. Virtually every scene we did improvised versions of. I haven’t seen the final cut, so I don’t know exactly what was used in certain cases, but in almost every scene we did we were allowed to throw in jokes and try new things.
Obviously you’re no stranger to performing, but was it intimidating at all to be recording your own renditions of songs like “Hakuna Matata?”
It was at the very beginning because they’re such iconic songs, but for me, selfishly, it was really an excuse to get back to what I originally wanted to do, which was to do musical theatre. I grew up in New York, and I loved—well still love—Broadway. I mean Broadway and theatre is my number one, my favourite thing, even though I’ve never done it [laughs]. Maybe one day. So this was a really unexpected and wonderful way to get back to singing, which I’ve been doing since I was a kid. I was a musical theatre student in college at Northwestern. I love a good musical more than just about anything else, and these songs are so well written. I think one of the reasons The Lion King remains so popular, of course the story, but also you can’t forget how great the score is. Elton John, Tim Rice—these guys know what they’re doing. And then Pharrell came in and reworked some of the music for this version with Hans Zimmer, who did it originally and won the Oscar for it. So getting to sing was actually a huge bonus for me.
So did this reawaken a desire to go out and do more musical stuff at all?
It did actually, if I’m being honest. I’ve been thinking about other musical things I could do. Musicals are really hard. I mean when they work, they’re the best thing ever. But they often don’t work. The Lion King is an example of a musical that works on screen, on Broadway, and all these different versions. So to find the right project is tricky, but I hope to be able to.
Let’s get down to the visuals. This new version of Timon is indisputably adorable. How did you react when you first found out what he was going to look like?
Oh, I was so relieved. They did such a fantastic job with him. I mean, I’m looking at him right now on the poster, like, he’s so cute. He’s just this adorable little guy. I love the juxtaposition of me bringing this larger-than-life attitude to the character. He’s very opinionated, he’s very passionate and has a real great sense of entitlement, and those are elements I’ve often brought to some of the comedic characters I’m known for, like the Billy on the Street persona. But to see that voice and that tone coming out of this adorable little creature I think is really fun.
We’ve got Aladdin, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, and now The Lion King. Why do you think The Lion King, specifically, is worthy of a modern retelling?
It’s a classic, you know? And classics always get retold in any number of ways. The Lion King is also a musical, it literally became a Broadway musical. And like I said, Broadway’s my first love, theatre’s my first love. In the theatre world, we are constantly reviving classics—and even things that aren’t classics. We’re constantly bringing back plays and musicals and using new actors and new sets and new costumes. You’ll take a classic play and revive it and then put it in modern times or a different historic era. You get to see that piece of work…from an entirely new perspective. When the script works, and you’re dealing with a classic story like that, it’s always fascinating to put it in a new visual context. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s what so magical about it. I see no problem doing that with movies when the source material is so strong.
Sort of jumping off of that, what do you hope viewers—either people who have seen the original Lion King or kids who are only seeing this new version—take away after watching the movie?
I think The Lion King, this version especially, coming at this particular time in our history, is going to be at once a great escape from the daily onslaught of news and issues that we are dealing with. Because the movie truly takes you on a trip. It is a really great adventure. Visually, it is really spectacular. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And at the same time, while it is a great escape, there are some really important lessons to be learned from it in terms of how we are all connected in the world. All these different species, we’re living together on the same land and we have to take care of each other and be compassionate, because we’re all sharing this lifetime together.
The Lion King is in theatres now. Check out the most recent trailer below.