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BWW Interview: THE LION KING's Shahadi Wright Joseph on Broadway Beginnings, Black Girl Magic, and Forging a Future in Film

BWW Interview: THE LION KING's Shahadi Wright Joseph on Broadway Beginnings, Black Girl Magic, and Forging a Future in Film

"Naaaaaaaaaaants ingonyama bagithi Baba!"

No matter who you are or where you're from, it's a sure bet you're familiar with those iconic introductory lines.

Set against the majestic backdrop of the rising Serengeti sun, the universally-recognized African cry, beckoning scores of meerkats, elephants, antelope and giraffes to emerge and greet the newest member of their animal tribe, is the quintessential Disney opening that defined a generation.

The long-running Broadway incarnation of the film sees the spectacle amplified even further, with noted theatrical visionary Julie Taymor parading full-sized elaborately-crafted puppets down the aisles and bounding across the stage.

In short, lovingly lampooned within popular culture - with references in everything from SOUTH PARK to MODERN FAMILY to the White House Correspondents' Dinner - the sequence has undoubtedly cemented itself as the stuff of legend, with the aforementioned opening notes enough to evoke tears in even the most cynical of cinephiles.

But yet, for burgeoning young actress Shahadi Wright Joseph, its significance hits even closer to home.

"It was my first audition for anything ever," the bubbly 14-year-old says, of her 2014 experience with The Lion King. "My mom heard about it on the radio.... It was at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem... an open call with about 700 people... I had no idea what to expect... and I kept getting called back and called back, until finally, I got it!"

Excited as she was then, she admits she never could have imagined that securing the role of the feisty future lioness, which earned her the distinction of youngest Young Nala in the history of the production, would lead to such a flourishing, fruitful, and diversified career.

"It's incredible!" she says, of all that's come as a result. "Nobody thought this would [initially] happen... my family didn't think I would make it as far as I have, I certainly didn't think I'd make it as far as I have... and just look at what it's all become!"

Truth be told, you might say her path was prophesied from the start.

Growing up with parents who were (and are) heavily involved in the arts - they've run a local Brooklyn-based arts organization for the last thirteen years - "music was always playing in the house... I was always humming and dancing. It was an innate part of me... My mom says I was the kid who would dance in her stroller, just because I enjoyed it so much and wanted to be like everyone else." True to form, when the time was right, "I got up and moved into line with them."

The true tipping point, however, came when she, as a tyke, sat in on a rehearsal for a studio production of RHYTHM STORIES, and fell in love with one of its notable numbers, "Wade in the Water."

When a teacher at school requested volunteers for a Black History Month presentation, Wright Joseph and a group of friends offered themselves up to perform the song in its entirety, complete with the original choreography from the production, which the wunderkind, naturally, taught her friends herself.

Her parents caught wind of it, realized she was not only hooked, but had serious potential... and the rest, as they say, is history.

Two Broadway shows, a live television musical, a successful holiday EP and a role on a groundbreaking podcast later, and it's safe to say she's taken the industry by storm. (Not for nothing, she also teaches with A Class Act NYC, a position she's held since June 2016, and her definitive debut single has been topping charts all month long!). Now, she's turning toward the silver screen, poised to make waves with roles in not one, but two of the year's most highly-anticipated films.

"I love horror movies!" she says, of her attraction to psychological thriller US, the sophomore effort from Oscar winner Jordan Peele, released in theaters last March and currently available to own on DVD. Citing IT, THE SHINING, and THE BABADOOK among her faves, Wright Joseph ultimately attributes her infatuation with the genre to the alluring and exciting element of suspense. ("I love how you never know what's around the corner even if you think you know you do," she states, proudly).

And this film is certainly chock-full of that.

Now a history-making, record-setting juggernaut, its story follows a family, within which Wright Joseph plays the daughter, "typical teen" Zora Wilson, who take a seemingly harmless vacation to the matriarch's childhood home ("Lupita [Nyong'o]'s character has a traumatic experience as a kid and wants to go back and [rectify] everything," Wright Joseph explains), where they find themselves in the company of some "unexpected guests."

Those who've seen the film can fill in the rest, but Wright Joseph, for one, remains tight-lipped regarding further details, stating simply, "you'll just have to watch and see."

BWW Interview: THE LION KING's Shahadi Wright Joseph on Broadway Beginnings, Black Girl Magic, and Forging a Future in Film
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

She giggles coyly, knowing such a tease is the norm when working with Jordan Peele, notorious, first for his unpredictable twists and turns, and second, for keeping certain elements covert.

In keeping with Peele's aesthetic, even the audition was shrouded in secrecy. "All of it was such a huge mystery," she explains. "The sides I read weren't even for US! It was [for] a different film entirely," she explains. "We didn't even know [what the project was] when we booked it!" She goes on to detail her apprehension in the audition, as the material was "dark and heavy" and the film was then known only (to her) as THE UNTITLED THRILLER PROJECT.

However, thanks to a little encouragement from Peele himself, she booked it almost instantaneously.... and has delighted in the opportunity to spook audiences ever since.

But while the movie certainly has its darker, spine-tingling moments, Wright Joseph insists it's not all about the thrills and chills - the film has a surprising amount of heart to it as well. "It's definitely a movie that makes you think," she explains. "I think people are going to walk away not knowing what hit them.... they're going to be more aware of global issues and what they can do to help."

To that end, in an effort to eschew critics' inevitable thematic comparison to Peele's premier directorial triumph, GET OUT, she relays that the acclaimed writer-director "was not as much focused on race" this time around, instead opting to promote the pertinent theme of celebrating one's self.

"It's a great message," she says, noting its essence is further fueled by the film's tagline, "We are our own worst enemy." "A lot of times, we as humans tend to be afraid of the 'other,' pointing fingers at the outsider, the invader or whoever we perceive as the 'monster.' But sometimes, especially in this day and age, we just need to look at ourselves in the mirror and [recognize] that the monster is really us."

In presenting those ideas through the lens of this central Wilson family, Wright Joseph relays that the film aims to "put the viewers in their shoes," asking, "How are you like this? What are you hiding? What are your demons? What are your scissors?"

At the same time, while not the central focus of the film, Wright Joseph explains that, in keeping with the concept of portraying life as it is, "Jordan did want the film to predominately feature a black family, because there aren't a lot of movies - especially not horror movies - that showcase black families in that [manner]."

A strong proponent of diversity and inclusion, Wright Joseph applauds the intentionality and impact of Peele's work, as it does much to move the needle forward at a time when it needs it most.

"It's important to have this family [portrayed] as regular people. It's meaningful and significant... in fact, perhaps much more than people may realize it is."

BWW Interview: THE LION KING's Shahadi Wright Joseph on Broadway Beginnings, Black Girl Magic, and Forging a Future in Film
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

"When I was younger, I remember I wasn't content with just being black," she continues. For that reason, "representation - and normalcy in representation - is so important for other young girls, and young people in general, who look just like me. This is our culture. It's important for people to see that... to know their history and where they come from. And then, to have this idea that the film doesn't go into the fact that they're a black family... that they're just an American family... it's literally re-defining our place in the industry and in our world."

It's clear this commitment to duty and responsibility is important to the young actress; she shares the belief of her director that people of her background have an obligation to make themselves known.

It's a concept which all too coincidentally parallels the words her former Broadway alter ego relays to pal Simba when goading him to step up and take responsibility for his actions and to acknowledge his familial duty out of obligation to his pride.

So it's perhaps incredibly apropos that the second of her uber-hyped, much-anticipated flicks is, of course, Jon Favreau's blockbuster "brand-new" LION KING remake, and sees her reprising the role that sparked her passion for performing in the first place. (In that sense, you could say, albeit facetiously, it's the circle of life).

BWW Interview: THE LION KING's Shahadi Wright Joseph on Broadway Beginnings, Black Girl Magic, and Forging a Future in Film
Photo Credit: Disney

In fact, her previous work in the Broadway show played a part in earning her a spot on Thomas Schumacher's short list when casting for the film... but, truth be told, it was ultimately her confidence, fierce loyalty, and sense of whimsy that made her a prime pick for the role - qualities one might say, not so surprisingly, that Nala possesses as well.

Booking the role - three years after her departure from the Broadway production - immediately unleashed a "wave of nostalgia" within her, a feeling which only intensified upon first opening the revamped script. "I was like, 'Oh, I remember this! Oh, I remember that!'" she recalls, all the while focused on ways in which to improve her performance.

Given her storied history with the material, it's not hard to see why this project is so close to her heart. "I've grown up with it... literally," she says, with a laugh. "Again, it was my first audition, but it was also the first Broadway show I ever saw... it was the thing that made me light up and say, 'Yeah! I wanna do that!' It changed my life in so many ways... so it's very, very special to be attached to this project."

Sure to appeal to fans old and new, Wright Joseph assures the diehard Disney fanatics that the script and score of the CGI remake very closely mirror both the original 1994 animated motion picture and its blockbuster Broadway counterpart ("it's such an iconic movie... we didn't wanna ruin it!" she laughs), but allows her enough "wiggle room" to put her own stamp on the role - a stamp that has evolved, no doubt, with the growth and maturity she's developed since she last roamed within the Pridelands.

"I was nine at the time and I had a completely different perspective," she says. "Back then, it was all about play... I didn't have the ability to get into character or analyze a character as quickly as I do now, and [infuse] those characteristics into my performance. Now, I can read and understand a breakdown, deduce who this person really is, make rational decisions about how to play her based on the information [given] and wholly transform into this character. I [recognize] I'm starting to take in the scene a little bit more."

And this practice supports her work far beyond just this film. Wholeheartedly invested in her craft and always looking for ways to improve herself as she matures, Wright Joseph proudly stands in awe of her peers, constantly drawing inspiration from fellow child actors like Marsai Martin, Skai Jackson, and Nico Parker.

But that doesn't mean she's not revered for her own bonafide performances; in fact, her dedication, coupled with her rising breakout status, has landed her on many a "Stars to Watch" list in her own right in recent months.

"It means a lot... it's really close to my heart," she says, deeming the accolades, which include a spot on the roster of Shadow & Act's 17 Young Black Actors 17 and Under and on New York Post's List of 10 "Can't Miss" Rising Stars, to be her "Wow! I made it!" moment in the industry. "Because again, even though I knew I had talent at a young age, I didn't really think I would make it as far as I have. So it's sort of a [validation] that I made the right choice and am on the right path."

So, given all her inevitable success, what's next for the lauded young luminary? While there's no denying The Lion King did, in a small way, pique her enthusiasm about returning to her theatrical roots, Wright Joseph remains excited to explore the opportunities that await her in the world of film.

"I really love film," she says, crediting the process of self-taping and her HAIRSPRAY LIVE! experience - a "perfect mix" of theatre and film - for bolstering her confidence in the medium.

"It just comes to me more naturally....There's less pressure. With Broadway, it's live, and you feel pressure not to mess up. [In film], if you don't like something, you can just do another take. For me, it's a lot less stressful."

Nonetheless, she asserts she's "beyond grateful" for her Broadway beginnings, acknowledging the stint - though, at times, admittedly challenging - ultimately produced invaluable skills and lessons.

BWW Interview: THE LION KING's Shahadi Wright Joseph on Broadway Beginnings, Black Girl Magic, and Forging a Future in Film
Photo courtesy of Shahadi Wright Joseph

"I'm actually kind of glad I was able to wet my feet in theatre," she says, detailing how ritualistic rehearsal call-times and the rigorous demands of an eventual eight-show week schedule helped to build the endurance and stamina that was required of her on the film set. "It taught me a lot, and I'd love to go back someday."

And while she looks to build on that growth and maturity, continuing to "challenge [herself]" with each future project and role she takes on ("cause this what I want to do for the rest of my life," she adds, with a laugh), for now, she's reveling in "just being me," and taking her life and career one day at a time.

"Looking back, at first, I didn't really know how big Broadway was or could be," she confesses, stating, "I didn't actually become a 'theatre geek' until my debut."

But again, look at what happened. It's yet another example that proves you should take the plunge because, as Wright Joseph's journey has proven, you truly never know what could come as a result.

"I grew up playing pretend with my sister literally all the time... and now, to get to say that I do that for a living" - and at such a young age, to boot! - "it's been something I've dreamed about since day one."

With theatre, television, music and now film under her belt, it's clear she's well on her way to superstardom.... and we, for one, "just can't wait" to see where she ends up next.

Likewise, neither can she. "We'll see," she says, of her future plans. "Whatever happens, I'm very thankful and grateful for it all. I know I've been a lucky, lucky girl."

Disney's The Lion King is currently playing in theaters worldwide; US, from Universal Pictures, is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray. For more information on either of the films, visit www.usmovie.com or https://movies.disney.com/the-lion-king-2019. For more information on Wright Joseph herself, follow the actress on Twitter and/or Instagram.


Matt Smith is a writer and theatre enthusiast based in New York. For more information or further inquiry, including additional writing samples, please visit mattsmiththeatre.com.

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