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Interview: Robert Guillaume – Voice of Rafiki in “The Lion King”

September 21, 2011

By John C.

On September 19th, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Guillaume on his memories of voicing the wise and insightful Rafiki in The Lion King.  Although we only spoke on the phone for just under ten minutes, his warmth and aspects of the character always managed to shine through.  A close transcript of our interview is included below.  Currently enjoying an incredibly successful run in 3D theatres, please read our reviews of The Lion King right here.  Enjoy!

What is your greatest memory from voicing Rafiki in The Lion King?  Well, my joy was at finding the character’s voice in the characterization.  I was so relieved that we pulled the voice out of a hat somewhere, and the director said let’s go with that, and we started and I think it expanded very nicely.

What are your personal thoughts on the 3D conversion of Disney’s beloved masterpiece?  I think it expanded it in a very nice way.  I think it was nice to see all of the animals in that environment and watch it come to life and expand in 3D.  That was wonderful.

Having come in first at the box office over the weekend, are you surprised that the re-release has been this successful?  Well I’m always surprised.  I’m just a lowly actor.  I’d like to think I could predict it was going to do that, but I couldn’t.  I am surprised and pleased that it was successful once again.  I’d say to anyone go see it with a kid and you will understand it better and have a better time.

I saw it at a screening a few weeks ago, and the response seemed to be just wonderful.  So I personally believe that it has held up just as well, but do you think audiences are reacting any differently to the film versus how they did in 1994?  I’m not sure.  I don’t think it would be a monumental change if anything.  It is a wonderful story and told wonderfully and I think that this is one of the great… well I call it a cartoon, but somebody corrected me and said – what do they call them these days?

Animated films?  Yes.  I think it’s a great animated film.

In the 17 years since the film was originally released, what do you believe is the most lasting legacy of The Lion King?  Questions like that always catch me of guard, because I always think I must come up with a profound answer and I can’t think of one…

That’s okay.  Now you’ve had quite an impressive career, so who are your greatest influences as an actor?  Sydney Poitier and Sammy Davis…

Where did you draw your inspiration for the voice of Rafiki?  The voice of Rafiki was one that I was already playing around with it.  I was saying to someone that I’d been playing around and speaking at parties, and just got a lot of fun out of saying things in that way.  When I finally came up with this I tried it for the director and he said ‘let’s try this out and see how it works.’  So I did it one day, and they said, ‘we think that works – let’s go with it.’  This character was like in my mind, really.  I was having fun trying to be Jamaican or something like that.  I was just having fun with it, and I realized later on that it was a really poor attempt at a Jamaican accent, but I liked it and had a lot of fun with it.

I think that sense of fun really translates into the film and over to the audiences that watch it.  What was it like reprising the voice in the straight to video sequels and short-lived TV series?  I liked that, too.  It was fun.  I liked that.

During the production, did you ever work with any of the other actors?  No, we didn’t.  I don’t think I ever worked with anyone else.  Maybe once or twice, but I don’t remember.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and for answering my questions.

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