Billy Eichner’s casting for the 2019 remake of “The Lion King” began with shock.
He knew Jon Favreau a little bit; the director and his family were big fans of Eichner’s “Billy on the Street” show.
But one day he received a call he couldn’t believe. His agent said Favreau wanted him to bring to life Hollywood’s favorite meerkat, Timon, alongside Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa.
“I had no idea I was being considered for this,” he told The Times at the movie’s world premiere at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. “Then it just became a process of figuring out what our Timon and Pumbaa would be, while also nodding to the original elements that people loved.”
Nathan Lane voiced Timon in the 1994 original. Five years later, he came out after starring in “The Birdcage” as the drag queen companion of Robin Williams’ character.
Eichner, who has been openly gay throughout his career, has said that he’s glad Favreau kept the tradition of a gay actor voicing Timon, “with a certain type of comedic sensibility.”
In the 2019 film, he and Rogen riff off each other with incredible ease. Eichner credits that fluidity to recording everything together, while most voice actors recorded their lines alone. It also helped that Eichner previously worked with Rogen on a “Billy on the Street” video and in “Neighbors 2.”
“I love him. He’s a sweetheart, in addition to being super funny,” Eichner said of Rogen.
But they didn’t always have a worry-free philosophy while making “The Lion King.” There’s an ironic pressure to get the dynamic duo just right, despite what the characters preach in “Hakuna Matata.”
To shake off the nerves, they told themselves, “We’re here for a reason. Jon wants us here. Let’s go for it. And we did.”
While Eichner and Rogen recorded their lines, cameras filmed along the sound booth perimeter to capture their facial expressions, mannerisms and ticks to guide the film’s photorealistic computer-generated visuals.
The 2D-animated original has a special place in Eichner’s heart, though, especially Lane’s meerkat. He reached out to Lane right away when he was cast.
“We’re friends, and he’s a real hero of mine,” he shared on the red carpet. “I emailed him and said, ‘Hey, I was offered this role, I would like to do it. It’s impossible to walk in your footsteps, but I’m going to do the best I can. I can’t do it as well as you did, but I can do it my way.’”
Eichner continued, “[Lane] was lovely and very supportive. He made a lot of jokes, including, ‘What are you going to do next? “The Birdcage” with Ryan Gosling?’”