LOS ANGELES – Whether it be the 1994 animated version of “The Lion King” or the new live-action version of the animal tale, the one thing that remains a constant is that Scar is one of the most manipulative, power-hungry, control-obsessed characters in Disney history. Jeremy Irons was behind bringing that evilness to life in the animated version and now it is Chiwetel Ejiofor who has taken over providing the voice for the role in the new theatrical release.
As with most actors who have taken on roles that are so obviously vile in nature, Ejiofor didn’t go into the project playing the role as if Scar was aware of being evil.
“When you are looking at a character, you are looking to empathize and not necessarily sympathize and I think in that sense you are looking with Scar at someone who is envious but he’s also corrupted by this idea of power and status – and many of us are,” Ejiofor says. “He takes it to a very exaggerated place.
“If you feel that your status or your power is interrupted – and you are the kind of person where that makes life hard for you – then it is hard for you to not pursue a corrective to that. And then feel justified in that corrective because it is the only thing that brings you peace.”
In the case of “The Lion King,” this manifests itself through Scar’s efforts to get rid of the king of the lion pride, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and his heir, Simba (JD McCrary, Donald Glover), so he can rule. It is up to Simba to grow up and become the kind of leader who can stand up to the king who rules with deep villainy.
Ejiofor said it was easy to find the tone to play Scar as the film shows heavy influences from the works of William Shakespeare with a particular focus on “Hamlet.” Ejiofor started appearing in school plays while still in junior high school and continued acting at Dulwich College, with National Youth Theatre and while attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
It was during his time in college that Ejiofor saw the original animated version of “The Lion King” although he will argue that in his mind he sees himself as being 5 years old when he saw the film. It was a teenage Ejiofor who saw the elements of the film – especially with Scar – that he would get to use again when he stepped behind the microphone.
“I felt like its themes were so powerful and so resonant and so beautifully distilled even from the Shakespeare,” Ejiofor says. “I saw it really boils down to being a story about ethical leadership essentially and about strong moral values.
“It’s also about paternal and maternal ideas in a strong bonded way and how that is central to our community. The film touched me as a kid and still touches me today. In a way as much as I, absolutely with everybody else, loved the original, you kind of make it your own and you create the sort of individuality to it in that way.”
A lot has happened in Ejiofor’s life since he saw the film; only two years later Stephen Spielberg cast him in his film “Amistad.” That was followed by a long list of TV and film credits: roles in the romantic comedy “Love Actually,” the historical drama “12 Years a Slave” and the comic book-inspired “Doctor Strange.” He picked up an Oscar nomination for his work in “12 Years a Slave.”
His credits also include previous voice work such as the animated “Sherlock Gnomes.” Voice acting strips an actor of their facial expressions and body language but that doesn’t bother Ejiofor as he likes the challenge of having to play a role just with his voice. He compares it to a role where the character has no lines and must get across the emotions of the moment using only facial expressions. It all lets him tests his acting skills.
He approached doing the voice work for Scar in the same way he has tackled all of his acting roles. That starts with figuring out the psychology of the character and then seeing what happens. Ejiofor’s philosophy on playing a role is that “it’s going to do what it’s going to do.”
Ejiofor has had a very diverse acting career that has earned him a wide range of followers. He can generally tell when being approached which one of his past works the person will want to discuss. Ejiofor laughs and says it’s really easy to know what the topic will be between Christmas and Valentine’s Day because that is when “Love Actually” is aired repeatedly on television.
At least now he will have a whole new group who will want to talk about “The Lion King.”
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.