A Dream Come True: Shahadi Wright-Joseph and JD McCrary Talk Disney’s “The Lion King”

by Jenna McLaughlin, Class of 2023

The Lion King was released in theaters this Friday, July 19. I had the amazing opportunity to meet and interview the extremely talented Shahadi Wright-Joseph (Young Nala) and JD McCrary (Young Simba), the stars of Disney’s newest movie, The Lion King!

photo courtesy of John Vitti

JD McCrary was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up singing in a musically inclined family. At a young age, he pointed to the TV and asked, “Hey Mom, can I do that?” Six years later, here he is. While recording, JD didn’t realize he would be playing the younger version of such a big name as Donald Glover, and didn’t find out until he performed with him at the Grammys. He “just thought it was a real blessing. It is a huge honor being in such a huge movie like this.”

photo courtesy of John Vitti
photo courtesy of John Vitti

Shahadi Wright-Joseph, a native of New York, has wanted to perform from a very young age. The Lion King on Broadway was her first-ever audition, and after getting that, she knew that was what she wanted to do with her life. She grew up watching The Lion King, so she was super excited to be in not only the Broadway adaptation, but also the new live-action remake. She also explained, “I remembered a lot of the things I learned from Broadway, but wanted to make the characters a bit different so we could differentiate between the onstage Lion King and the new one.”

Another movie starring Shahadi, Us, was also recently released, and she stated she was “glad she was able to showcase herself as a serious actor before The Lion King came out.” She said that working on Us was challenging and “one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do,” but that she loved the challenge and had so much fun. She also said that when she was buying movie tickets to see Us, she was kicked out of the movie theater with her friends even though she was in the movie!

photo courtesy of John Vitti

They both said the easiest part about portraying these best friends was the chemistry. Shahadi says the spark was already there when they met, so the actors were already prepared to play Young Nala and Young Simba.

photo courtesy of John Vitti

When asked what their friends from home think of their amazing successes, they both agreed most didn’t care. Shahadi goes to an arts school where many kids are well-known. She said her locker-mate just won a Tony Award, and they don’t say anything about it and “don’t talk about their work at school, because when they go to school, that’s what they want to get away from.”

In order to create Pride Rock, the Savannah, the Watering Hole, and even the Elephant Graveyard, actors used Virtual Reality headsets, which both JD and Shahadi considered “the best part” of working on The Lion King. The headsets created a virtual film set which both agreed “felt real.”

photo courtesy of John Vitti

JD knows audiences will love this classic story. Disney’s creative team have “outdone themselves with graphics that feel so real.” He hopes people will love it as much as he does. Shahadi explains, “it was a totally new experience from any of the other versions of The Lion King.” She says she “laughed so much more, cried so much more, and hopes families love it because the story is about family.” Having seen the movie, I totally agree the experience in this version is like no other.

What’s next for these young stars? Both are ready to make a splash on the music industry.

McCrary just released an EP called “Shine,” and has two singles out: “Keep in Touch” and “My Name.”

Shahadi’s single, “Skin I’m In,” was exclusively debuted by Billboard on July 13, 2019.

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