Whether hamming it up on the streets of New York for Funny or Die’s “Billy on the Street” or his biting one liners as Craig in “Parks and Recreation,” Billy Eichner knows how to make an impression. So, when it was announced the frequent scene stealer would be filling Nathan Lane’s shoes and voicing the role of Timon in “The Lion King,” it felt like a no brainer. Eichner, 40, has gone to great lengths for a laugh and has a musicality in his past performances, so it was a natural pivot to refresh the 1994 Disney classic. The Queens native plays off Seth Rogen’s lovable Pumbaa in the movie, out Friday.
When looking back on his experience with “The Lion King,” Eichner ties it back to his roots in New York. “Speaking of musicals and ‘The Lion King’ always sort of connects me to what I loved most as a kid, which was theater, Broadway and New York City.”
“I grew up in New York with parents that loved going to the theater," he tells amNewYork. "When I first discovered ‘The Lion King’ as a teenager, what I loved about it most was the music, the comedy and Nathan Lane.”
Eichner spoke with us more about his love of Lane and his experience voicing the most iconic character.
You’ve spanned the gamut in comedy throughout your career. When you were getting started, did you feel like one day you would be able to find your voice in such a huge Disney property?
That is definitely not something that occurred to me. I knew [director] Jon Favreau and he reached out to me years ago to say that he was a big "Billy on the Street" fan. That alone was a huge compliment. I got a call from my agent saying "Jon wants you to do Timon in the new ‘Lion King’" and I literally didn’t even know what he was talking about. I just watched the audience [at a preview screening] and saw how well it played and their reactions to Timon and Pumbaa and it was incredibly gratifying. I turned to Jon at the after party and said thank you.
What resonated with you the most about this script?
What hits me as an adult are certain themes that I think the photorealism of the movie really elevate — like our relationship to nature and our relationship to animals. Then, on an even broader level, how everything we do affects other people. I think those themes really hit home, especially in a time we’re living in and things we’re seeing in the news. The movie, on one hand, is just this really beautiful, visually breathtaking escape from the everyday world and I think people are really going to be grateful for it; but it’s also a reminder of the things that matter, like taking care of the planet and animals and being compassionate to other people.
This is a character Nathan Lane voiced and he’s beloved by everyone. Was that intimidating?
Oh yeah! I mean, you have to be crazy not to be a little nervous about it. I love Nathan — even before he did “The Lion King,” because I saw him in “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway when I was 13. He did this landmark revival where he played Nathan Detroit. Broadway fans are very aware of that revival when people talk about it to this day. So I was obsessed with him just from seeing that show. And then many Broadway shows he has done since in addition to [movies] “The Lion King” and “The Birdcage” — the man is a hero of mine. A few years ago at a birthday party, a friend of mine pulled me over and said, "Hey, there’s someone here who wants to meet you," and he pulled me into a corner and introduced me to Nathan Lane. I nearly fell over … when you meet someone who you really admired and looked up to as a kid, it’s a whole other level of star struck. So, of course, I was concerned, but at the same time if you’re going to take the role, you can’t just sit around thinking about what Nathan did.
Did you reach out to him once you knew you had the role?
I reached out because I wanted to be the first to let him know and I wanted his blessing, so I emailed him. He was hilarious about it, as always. He said, "What are you going to do next? Remake ‘The Birdcage’ with Ryan Gosling?" He was hilarious. He could not have been more supportive.
It felt like you and Seth Rogen have been working together as a team for years. How did you capture the rhythm of those characters?
We did know each other a little bit previous to the movie. He had done a “Billy on the Street” with me and I had a small role in “Neighbors 2,” and I had done stuff for his Hilarity for Charity events. So we were friends and mutual fans of each other but obviously, we’d never worked together to this extent. We just looked at each other and said, "hey, we’re here. People would kill to be in our shoes right now, so let’s just go for it." Jon encouraged us to improvise. At one point, he actually had us throw down our scripts and just improvise through every one of our scenes and that really helped get us out of our heads. It helped find our own rhythm and defined what our Timon and Pumbaa’s relationship and our chemistry would be. I think just by the nature of who we are in our comic sensibilities, we were able to find a new path.
Since you’re a native New Yorker, what’s one thing you take with you to remind you of home?
Wow. Well, this is a very on story this answer considering we’re dealing with a musical but I have almost every Playbill of every Broadway show I’ve ever seen since I was a kid. I don’t have all of them and it annoys me that some have gone lost along the way, but I have a remarkable amount of them and I brought them with me to L.A. when I got a place here.