Chiwetel Ejiofor was at a train station when a phone call made him feel five years old again. The Oscar-nominated actor was in New York, on his way to Washington DC, when his agent called him and said Disney wanted him to voice Scar in a remake of The Lion King.
“I think it’s one of those moments when you’re just filled with a pure kind of joy,” he told Gizmodo of getting that call. “[Also], as a fan, I was excited about the prospect of there being another Lion King and just what that might mean.”
At that time, Ejiofor had no idea about the impressive technical process director Jon Favreau was going to use to bring The Lion King back to the big screen. Virtual reality sets using video game engines driving computer animation and all that. Instead, he simply began thinking about what The Lion King meant to him.
“Honestly my memories of the first time seeing The Lion King was really of being five years old and then realising later on that I was 17,” Ejiofor laughed. “It just made me feel like a young kid.”
Though he’s been in Marvel movies, most people think of Ejiofor as a “serious” actor — a man who excels performing Shakespeare on stage. Knowing that, you might think the fact that The Lion King made him feel so nostalgic would give him pause about taking on the role of Scar, the evil lion who kills his brother and tricks his nephew in order to take the throne.
Maybe the role and the film are too iconic, its songs, themes, and visuals too well known and Jeremy Irons’ original performance too perfect. But none of that occurred to Ejiofor at all. In fact, there wasn’t a single hesitation.
“Even if you were to think ‘Oh, am I hesitating’ at some level you’re just kidding,” he said. “Of course you’re not hesitating. Of course you want to try and do that. Of course you want to experience this.”
To find his voice for Scar, Ejiofor didn’t look back at the original film. He didn’t go to see the Broadway play again (though he was a fan of both the screen and stage productions, having seen each numerous times). He didn’t even think about what Irons had done before. He just tried to find the Scar in himself.
“I didn’t feel like I needed to go back and make different decisions or something. I felt like I’d just interpret it the way that I interpreted it and if it ends up similar, let the chips fall where they may,” Ejiofor said. “My suspicion was that it would end up pretty different, just given that myself and Jeremy are so different in our personalities and our way of looking at stuff. So it wasn’t a question of trying to avoid what he was doing or move towards what he was doing. It was just a question trying to interpret it as I would.”
And so he dove into that interpretation. In Scar, Ejiofor saw a character he believes lies within all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. It’s a character living with darkness he chooses to explore, whereas most of us don’t. That’s how the actor brought himself to such a deep, dark place.
“To play [a character], you don’t necessarily have to sympathize but you have to empathise with their position,” he said. “You have to understand where they’re coming from whoever that person is and whatever they do. Then you have to somehow connect that to yourself. You have to understand that we’re all very complex, all flawed, and all of these things bubble around inside of us. We manage, most of the time, to control the most nefarious aspects of them. But they’re there and that’s part of the experience of being alive.”
“So tapping into whatever that kind of rage is,” Ejiofor continued. “The addiction to power and status and all of those things that Scar represents. So much of the world is built on exactly those kinds of emotions and those kinds of dynamics. And, so, recognising that that is in yourself as well and then trying to figure out what that means, [you] put all of that into the voice, into the characterisation, into the sort of three-dimensionality of it all.”
Not only does Ejiofor strive for three-dimensionality with his character, but he’s also just hit the third dimension in his work with Disney. In addition to being Scar in The Lion King and Baron Mordo in Doctor Strange, he’ll soon be seen as a mythical creature in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.
(When asked about Mordo’s whereabouts during the Avengers films, or rumours of his return in a Doctor Strange sequel the actor says “I cannot speak on these issues. I think, you know, we’ll continue to see and Mordo will continue to evolve. I don’t want to jump the gun.”)
Those three roles put him in a unique position to discuss a topic that been quite prevalent in Hollywood of late: the uber-success of Disney and what it’s doing to the rest of the industry. Ejiofor feels the company’s success isn’t just because of all the marquee brand names it owns but the way those films have tapped into something the world needs.
“I think we’re in a time and a place where we need great storytelling. We need to be able to relate some of the experiences that we’re going through in order to feel optimistic,” he said.
“In order to feel that we can continue to be the sort of chroniclers of our time and communicate some of these ideas, and potentially warnings, to the generations that are coming up…I feel like for whatever reason, with myself anyway, Disney is right at the forefront of some of those conversations about the nature of storytelling in communicating. Communicating deeply complex ideas in these wonderfully kind of edible sort of ways and formats.”
Which, certainly, applies to The Lion King, a fun, funny musical that’s also about family, death, bravery, and the importance of home. And, just maybe, it’s also about being reminded what it’s like to feel five years old again when your phone rings at a train station.
The Lion King opens July 17.