They may preach “Hakuna Matata,” but Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen certainly felt anxious about taking on the roles of Timon and Pumbaa in the live-action remake of “The Lion King.” The carefree meerkat and warthog were key ingredients in the original 1994 movie’s success, stealing scenes with their antics. But the chance to join a cast that includes Beyoncé and Donald Glover and the opportunity to appear in a film that’s expected to be one of the biggest hits of the summer proved irresistible. “The Lion King,” featuring state-of-the-art computer wizardry, hits theaters on July 19. As they gear up for its release, Eichner and Rogen reunite to talk with Variety about what audiences can expect from their return to the Pride Lands.
When did you first see “The Lion King”?
Seth Rogen: I was much older than I thought I was. I guess I was 12 when “The Lion King” came out, which was a little old to be really into a cartoon. I was about to enter high school, which is really weird to think about. It’s a movie I watched a lot, and I know every word to every song.
Billy Eichner: I’m a couple years older than Seth, but I remember seeing it with my parents in the theater, and I vividly remember loving it.
Some people call this a live-action remake of “The Lion King.” But that’s not entirely true. How would you describe it?
Rogen: I would call it photo-realistic.
Eichner: I don’t care! It looks amazing, that’s all I know!
Does the photo-realism make it scarier for audiences?
Eichner: Maybe it does. That’s good. I think people should be scared.
Rogen: Exactly — these kids have to grow up.
Eichner: These kids grow up with the internet. Not nearly as scary as what they see here. It’s a nightmare out there; we are just reflecting reality.
You have both worked in voice animation before. How was this process different?
Rogen: We were actually together. That was really different, and you can tell when you watch the movie. Our rapport is incredibly naturalistic, and we really play off one another in a way that would have been impossible if we weren’t actually there in the room together. Weirdly it’s one of the most naturalistic performances I’ve ever given, and I play a warthog.
Eichner: [Laughs] It’s a beautiful transformation. Seth is absolutely right: Usually because of logistics or people’s schedules, you record your part separate from the other voice actors, and they just edit it together in post and make it sound like you were all in the same room. For this movie, we were always together. Even the scenes with Donald, we were all there for “Hakuna Matata.” It allowed us to really lean into our improv skills. I haven’t seen the final cut, but from the rough cut we’re overlapping with each other so you can just sense we’re in the room together. It makes all the difference in the world.
Rogen: I saw the movie! It works. You’re so funny, Billy. I was going to text you but I thought I’d tell you live during this interview. I was honestly so thrilled with how funny it is.
Eichner: Well I can’t wait to see it.
Rogen: You have to pay to see it.
How would you rate each other as singers?
Rogen: Very high. I’ve got to say that when you watch the movie, I am very pleased with my performance — but Billy is a strong singer. I didn’t know you were such a good singer. I thought, “Oh, Billy could sing,” and then he really can sing to a real degree, which I honestly was not thrilled about when it first happened.
Eichner: I don’t think when Jon [Favreau] gave me this role he knew about my singing background. In my back pocket I’ve had this skill but never been asked to use it before. But Seth has a very beautiful singing voice, and I think we should record an album of standards together after this.
Rogen: Part of the album should be Hans Zimmer giving me singing notes because that was equally entertaining as anything.
What kind of notes did he give you?
Rogen: Oh, you know just “more in the tune of the song.”
How does it feel knowing you will share song credit with musicians such as Beyoncé and Donald Glover?
Eichner: It’s about time. This is the culmination for them of so many years of hard work trying to get to our level. It’s really gratifying that we’ve been able to give them this opportunity.
Rogen: Yeah, I feel good for them. They deserve this break. I can’t imagine how thrilling it must be for them.
What is it like singing such recognizable songs?
Rogen: It’s fun because you grow up with them. There was a certain exercise in my head of not being too familiar with the original version. Your first instinct is, “I’ll go listen to the original version and remind myself of what it was like.” The instinct that served me better was to not do that specifically and really trust that Jon would guide me to do all the things that he thought were necessary in order to make the song hit.
Eichner: The songs were probably one of the more intimidating parts to record in terms of having to walk this fine line of nodding to the original and certain elements of the original performances that people just love and would be disappointed not to hear again, but also finding ways to make it our own. Especially “Hakuna Matata” — that song is ingrained in people’s heads. Once you get past the first few takes, you start to fall into your own rhythm. Eventually the anxiety wears off, but that’s a big one to take on.
How did you make the role your own while also honoring the things that made the first film special?
Rogen: I think I mostly had to trust that Jon cast us for a reason and just give him what I hope he wanted from that decision. Obviously the director, especially Jon, is very specific and articulate in guiding you in the direction he wants, but what I quickly found was he wanted us to really try and make it our own.
Eichner: It’s not really one of those movies where you were cast and you suddenly try a new voice out. It wasn’t like a Meryl Streep moment. He cast everyone for a reason because he heard our natural voices in his head and wanted some version of that.
Disney is very controlling about press. What has it been like promoting this movie?
Rogen: I’ve been amazed we haven’t gotten yelled at yet, Billy!
Eichner: I know, I know. I’m totally shocked right now. But what are they going to do to us?
Rogen: It’s not like there’s any other famous people in the movie who can promote it.
Eichner: Exactly. They need us more than we need them. The one other thing I’ll say is, Variety can’t go tweeting out some quote like “Seth and Billy Eichner say that this was a great opportunity for Beyoncé” and leave it at that.
How about something like “What Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen taught Beyoncé about singing”?
Eichner: Part of me wants that.