Fans of “Billy on the Street” and “Difficult People” already know that Billy Eichner is one of the smartest and funniest men in show business, but his role in “The Lion King” will introduce the comedian to a whole new audience. Eichner voices the meerkat Timon, best friend to constant thorn in his side Pumbaa (Seth Rogen); crooner of such iconic songs as “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata.” The character was famously originated by openly gay actor Nathan Lane, five years before coming out publicly in The Advocate in 1999. Eichner, who is also gay, recently spoke to Buzzfeed about taking on a role so defined by another actor.
“I’m glad that [director] Jon Favreau kept the tradition of Timon being played by a gay actor, with a certain type of comedic sensibility, alive,” Eichner said.
In the original “Lion King,” many people read antagonist Scar (Jeremy Irons), with his limp paw and sardonic British drawl, as being coded as queer. While Eichner certainly understands the impulse, he sees one way to settle the debate once and for all.
“Gay people always had to sort of search for the closeted gay character, because there were no openly gay characters, and we were so thirsty for them,” he said. “People are always trying to find the gay character in animated movies. I think the way to correct that is to actually put gay characters in animated movies. … One of the last frontiers for LGBT representation is animated family films.”
Taking a swipe at the first of Disney’s live-action remakes, Eichner referenced the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “exclusively gay moment” (as touted by the movie’s out gay director Bill Condon) in 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I would love to see a world where we don’t have to argue about, you know, whether what’s his name in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is gay or not. I don’t want it to be subtle or a question mark. It just should be gay,” he said. “There should just be existing openly LGBT characters so that we don’t have to keep arguing about Bert and Ernie. I don’t care if Bert and Ernie are gay. I want to see actual gay people that are not a mystery. The way to move on from all those debates is to just create openly gay characters in children’s programming and family entertainment.”
As for Timon and Pumbaa? Eichner says the characters aren’t gay, citing the ethical complications of an interspecies relationship. While Eichner doesn’t play the role as gay,
“I didn’t think about him being gay so much as I thought, Well, I’m gay, and I have what some may consider a gay sensibility, and I’m going to bring that to the table, just the way that Nathan did. I’m certainly not going to shy away from it.”
Read the full interview on Buzzfeed.