Throughout the summer, we’re interviewing up-and-coming actresses you’ll see on TV and in feature films in the coming months. This is the second installment, but find all of the Q&As here.
When Shahadi Wright Joseph was in the third grade, she memorized Lupita Nyong’o’s 2014 Oscar acceptance speech for a school audition.
She hadn’t yet seen the film Nyong’o won best supporting actress for, “12 Years a Slave,” but she was a big fan of her of her work. Just years later, Joseph would play Nyong’o’s daughter in Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film, “Us.”
And when she accepted the role to play Young Nala in Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Lion King,” a CGI re-imagining of the 1994 Disney classic, directed by Jon Favreau, Joseph had no idea who would be playing Nala. Finding out it would be Beyoncé was, she says, pretty amazing.
Aside from acting with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, the 14-year-old triple threat has made a name for herself. She got her start acting in “The Lion King” on Broadway at 9, went on to play Madison in the original Broadway cast of “School of Rock” and performed alongside the likes of Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson in “Hairspray Live!”
We spoke with Joseph about the transition from working on “Us” to “The Lion King,” the advice she’s received to stay grounded in this industry and more ahead of “The Lion King’s” Thursday release.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: You started your career as a dancer. How did you get into acting?
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Yeah, I did start as a dancer. Then my mom heard an audition for “The Lion King” on Broadway on the radio, and we kind of just took a leap of faith and a shot in the dark and went on the audition. It was like 5 a.m., and we had to be out in the pouring rain.
But I did get that the part of young Nala, so that was my first job ever — also my first audition ever. So that was really exciting. And then I just kept going on to other musical theater and Broadway projects. And here we are today.
TL: You played young Nala on Broadway and now you’re playing young Nala in the upcoming remake. What is it about Nala that you’re drawn to?
SWJ: I think that it was really when I first saw “The Lion King” — that was when I got inspired to act, just because Nala is so iconic and she’s really special to me. So I think that has kind of made a full circle back to where I started.
TL: You mentioned Nala is such an iconic character. How do you make such an iconic character like that your own?
SWJ: It was a little bit difficult, because I’ve never done a voice acting before. So it was different but it was also a lot of fun. You know, working with JD McCrary [who plays young Simba] was really awesome. We kind of made it our own by adding our own personality into it and really just trying to throw in subtle little details about ourselves that we could get into the character.
TL: Did you know that Beyoncé was going to be older Nala when you accepted the role to be younger Nala?
SWJ: I actually didn’t. You know, I remember that they were considering her for the role, so I was really hoping that she did get the part. And I’m so glad that she did.
TL: How could Beyoncé not get the part?
SWJ: Exactly, right?
TL: So what was it like finding that out?
SWJ: I was just really excited to meet her and work with her. Even though we’re in completely different scenes ... it was really great meeting her at the premiere. She’s really amazing, so talented.
TL: What are you most excited about for “The Lion King” to finally premiere?
SWJ: I’m so excited for people to see it. I’m excited for them to see the animation, just because even if you’ve seen the original “The Lion King,” it’s even better in the new one. It’s a totally different feeling and a totally different experience.
TL: What was the most challenging part about working on the project?
SWJ: I guess the most challenging thing is trying to get all of the energy of the character into your voice, because you don’t have your arms your legs or just your whole body to support you. So it was a little difficult, but we had a lot of fun messing up and just trying different things.
TL: Your character in “Us” was pretty opposite. It was a lot of body movements and agility.
SWJ: Right, exactly.
TL: What was that transition like?
SWJ: Well “Us” was such a completely different film than “The Lion King.” And I think ... that was one of the reasons why I really loved it. I’ve been doing musical theater and Broadway my whole life. It was just great to try something totally different. But I’m glad that people really enjoyed “Us,” because I usually — I love watching horror movies but I never thought I would actually be in one.
TL: Your character, Zora — or rather, her doppelgänger, Umbrae — was so incredibly creepy. Were you even afraid of yourself when you watched it back?
SWJ: Not really. I was kind of weirded out because I look so different as Umbrae. But I don’t usually get scared of horror movies. I was mostly just excited to see the film at the time.
TL: You don’t get afraid of horror movies? That’s pretty amazing.
SWJ: Yeah, I know.
TL: I read that you actually memorized Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar acceptance speech in third grade for a school audition. So what was it like then working with her so many years later?
SWJ: Oh, it was awesome. I was just so happy about it. I think that I kind of spoke it into existence by using her speech back then working with her now. So I thought that that was pretty cool, such a great coincidence. I’m just really excited and I’m really glad that I got to work with her, because she’s so talented, she’s such an amazing person to work with.
TL: You just released a song, “Skin I’m in.” What’s the message you’re hoping to send with that song?
SWJ: “Skin I’m In” is a summer anthem to teens, or to girls and boys my age, to tell them to love themselves just the way that they are — and they don’t have to change for anybody.
TL: What advice you would give other younger actors or actresses who want to be doing what you’re doing?
SWJ: I would just say to keep working for it because, over my time as an actress, there have been a lot of “nos” that I got from auditions. Don’t give up, because one “no” doesn’t define who you are as an actress.
TL: And what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
SWJ: It was basically when, in “The Lion King,” Mufasa says, “Remember who you are.” It reminds me of the advice that my parents give me to always remember your roots, and remember where you come from, and don’t change just because you’re successful right now.
TL: What is your dream role?
SWJ: I would love to play Dionne in “Clueless” the musical.