For these ‘Lion King’ cubs, circle of life is just getting started

Boston - 07/18/19 - JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph voice characters in the new The Lion King remake. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (Isaac Feldberg) Topic: (19nameslionking)
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
JD McCrary (left) and Shahadi Wright Joseph voice characters in the new remake of “The Lion King.”

JD McCrary just can’t wait to be king, but for now he’ll settle for a jelly doughnut.

The actor, who voices young Simba in Disney’s remake of “The Lion King,” turned 12 on the eve of the film’s Friday release. While being interviewed last week at the Boston Harbor Hotel alongside Shahadi Wright Joseph, the voice of young Nala, he accepted a celebratory Dunkin’.

It’s been two years since the pair first became attached to “The Lion King” – on track to make more than $150 million stateside its first weekend — and, after all the press junkets, they were finally in the home stretch. Wright Joseph was set to head home to New York; McCrary, who lives in Los Angeles, had a slightly longer trip home. If they were wearied by their travels, it didn’t show.


“It just feels like a huge blessing and an honor to say that we’re in it,” said McCrary. Wright Joseph, 14, called working on the Jon Favreau-directed movie “a huge roller coaster ride” neither were quite ready to disembark.

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“We’re making history right now,” she said. The original “Lion King,” which came out in 1994, is considered an animated classic. The photorealistic remake, she hopes, will inspire a new generation of moviegoers.

For Wright Joseph, the role was familiar; she got her big break at age 9, playing Nala in “The Lion King” on Broadway from 2014-15. But hearing her voice emerge from a lion cub’s mouth felt different and “a little weird at first.”

The pair learned to bring their own personalities to the characters, especially while performing songs like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”

“I’m pretty sure that song is ingrained in our frontal lobes,” Wright Joseph said.


While recording their scenes, the pair raced around a stripped-down black box theater, trusting that visual artists would later fill in the African Serengeti around them. Despite meeting in person for the first time on set, they became fast friends.

“We’ve kind of grown to be like Simba and Nala,” said McCrary, glancing at Wright Joseph. “She’s a knucklehead.”

Both actors signed on ahead of the movie’s biggest stars: Donald Glover and Beyoncé, who voice older versions of Simba and Nala. “That was so exciting,” recalls Wright Joseph of learning the “Lemonade” singer had been cast. “I had been hoping [Beyoncé] would get it.”

While recording their vocals for “The Lion King,” neither McCrary nor Wright Joseph worked directly with the pop stars (their voices occupy separate halves of the film). But they both stole a hug from Beyoncé later on and are full of praise for Glover.

On set, the two did encounter a number of actors, including Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen (who portray Timon and Pumba), as well as Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, and Florence Kasumba (all voicing hyenas in the thrall of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar).


McCrary and Wright Joseph have been on similar trajectories. Since landing their “Lion King” roles, each has starred in another high-profile film — Wright Joseph in Jordan Peele’s frightfest “Us,” McCrary in the Regina Hall-led comedy “Little” — and released their own music. What’s it like keeping so busy at such a young age?

“It might seem like I’m all over the place all the time, which I am,” said McCrary.

“It’s a bit unpredictable sometimes,” added Wright Joseph. “But it’s mostly exciting and fun.”

If the pair get their way, “The Lion King” is just the beginning of their partnership with Disney. McCrary has his eye on the role of Miles Morales, a.k.a. Spider-Man (recently voiced by Shameik Moore in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”).

Wright Joseph, for her part, hopes Disney will stage a live-action version of its 2009 “The Princess and the Frog,” with her in the lead role of Tiana. Who’d play the frog?

“It’d have to be someone I’ve already met, so we don’t need to go through that weird process of [establishing] chemistry,” she said. Across the table, McCrary takes a bow.

“I would love to be a frog, or a prince,” he said. “A Prince Frog. A . . . prog?”

Isaac Feldberg can be reached at, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg