Published Jul 15, 2019When Billy Eichner landed the part of the meerkat Timon in the new remake of The Lion King, it was a dream role for the actor-comedian, who is a longtime fan of the original movie. Technically speaking, however, it's not the first time he has scored a gig with The Lion King.
"In a very strange twist of fate, when I was a struggling actor in New York, one of my first jobs was bartending," he tells Exclaim! "I bartended at The Lion King on Broadway for a short period of time. You can imagine what a bizarre full-circle moment this is."
During his time slinging drinks at The Lion King's theatrical production, he never got to watch the show. "I don't think we were allowed to watch it, but they would pipe in the soundtrack — so I could hear it, but I never actually sat and saw it," he remembers. That finally changed when director Jon Favreau cast Eichner, and the pair of them went to watch the Broadway show.
Eichner, now 40, was a teenager when original, animated The Lion King came out in 1994. And even though he was a little older than the target demographic, he was a diehard theatre lover who gravitated towards the film's iconic songs. "I saw all those Disney movies of that era in the theatre: The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King," he recalls. "I loved it. I love musicals."
While Eichner's career ultimately led him to comedy — notably, his beloved game show, Billy on the Street — he originally trained in musical theatre and dreamed of being a Broadway star. This makes him the ideal on-screen foil for Seth Rogen (playing Pumbaa the warthog), who offers lots of charisma and gravelly laughs, but relies on Eichner to carry most of the singing.
"I don't think Jon [Favreau] and [composer] Hans Zimmer even knew that I could sing, because you don't have to be a great singer to play Timon," admits Eichner. "But they were very excited when they heard that I could sing, and they encouraged me to go in that direction."
The new version of The Lion King features faithful renditions of all of the songs fans know and love from the original, bolstered by the powerful voices of stars Donald Glover (Simba) and Beyoncé (Nala). With mind-blowing CGI, plus a Hamlet-esque story about an exiled young prince and an evil uncle, the remake hews closely to the original — although Eichner and Rogen's hilarious comic chemistry has its own distinct flavour, full of jovial teasing and heartfelt warmth.
Naturally, Eichner and Rogen both felt some trepidation about stepping into the iconic roles of Timon and Pumbaa. "Seth and I kept looking at each other and saying, 'Jon Favreau cast us for a reason,'" Eichner says. "This is a movie where actors were begging to be in it. Very well-known actors, more well-known than me, were begging for this role. But you can't really dwell on that. I just thought, 'Jon wanted me here for a reason.' He had his choice of literally anyone, and so that gave me confidence."
After finally getting this opportunity to display his singing chops, is Eichner hoping to leverage the performance into a Broadway role?
"Theatre's really hard," he reflects. "Theatre actors really work so hard. Eight times a week singing live on Broadway. That's the hardest-performing gig in show business, but I would love get the chance to do it."