I don’t think you watch Billy on the Street and think family film star, and yet, here we are. That’s what you can do in 2019.
Those words come straight from the mouth of The Lion King star Billy Eichner. If you’ve seen Eichner in shows like Billy on the Street and Difficult People, then the last place you expect to see him is in an animated family movie. He’s known for brash and vulgar characters who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. In Disney’s The Lion King remake, Eichner crams his larger-than-life persona (and signature pissy-attitude) into the film’s tiny meerkat, Timon – a role made famous by legendary actor Nathan Lane.
Finding out he was up for the role surprised Eichner too. “It was pretty shocking,” said Eichner, who learned he was in the running during a cold call from his agent. “I was literally shocked. When they called me and were like Jon Favreau wants you to be in The Lion King. I was like, Disney on Ice? What version of it?”
Despite his modesty, Eichner delivers a brilliant performance. If you’re only familiar with his outrageous shenanigans on Billy on the Street, then this casting is a real head-scratcher. But he has been preparing for the role for his entire career. Eichner was a theatre kid who grew up idolizing performers with multi-faceted careers. He credits stars like Steve Martin, Martin Short, Bette Midler, and Lily Tomlin, as his inspirations.
The Lion King showcases Eichner’s own multi-faceted skillset. His Timon dishes out zippy one-liners, heartfelt ballads, and even elevates some corny dad jokes into legit laughs. He’s a scene-stealer in a movie that also features Donald Glover, Beyoncé, and Seth Rogen.
Eichner passed through Toronto last month to promote The Lion King and we couldn’t be more excited to catch up with him. That Shelf sat down with Eichner and asked him a few questions about working on Disney’s latest feature.
Victor Stiff — Now that the film has wrapped, if you could go back to the day you were cast, what would you say to yourself?
Billy Eichner — I would say to myself what I said to myself that day, which was, “Don’t f*ck it up.” I would say, try to enjoy it. It’s a once in a lifetime type of movie. People aren’t going to the movies as much, in general, and this is a movie… Seth keeps saying this. This is a movie people are actually going to see. People nowadays are like, “Oh, I’ll wait for it to be on Netflix or some streaming service.” This is a movie people are going to go see. You want to go see it in the theatre. It looks so spectacular. It will not look the same at home. I’m not trying to sell the movie hard because I think this movie is going to be fine, but I’m just saying, it’s a great, unique experience, and so, I would just remind myself to enjoy the making of it because it does not happen all the time.
Many people believe that The Lion King is Disney’s most beloved movie. Why do you think this film resonates so strongly, and why does it endure to this day?
Have they never seen Lilo and Stitch? Just kidding. I think two things. I think the story itself; the themes of the movie are timeless. And I think The Lion King is very different from some of the Disney movies from that era; The Little Mermaid, Aladdin etc., all great movies, Beauty and the Beast, but it leans less on comedy and more on emotion. [It’s] an emotional story about parents and kids, and leaving your parents behind, and moving on from your parents and circle of life, etc., etc. And I think that will always resonate.
And also, honestly, the score. It’s a great score. Elton John, Tim Rice, those songs have stayed around. Can You Feel the Love Tonight? Hakuna Matata was not something people said before The Lion King, and it has become part of our lexicon. It connects with people, and I think that is why you can keep reinventing it. Because the basic story remains the same and people connect to it.
We couldn’t let Eichner go without asking him which The Lion King character he would most like to roast on an episode of Billy on the Street.
Oh, man. Scar. He’s a bad guy. He could use some roasting. Maybe the hyenas too, they’re mean.
Disney’s The Lion King is now in theatres.