With the live-action The Lion King out this week, it isn’t surprising that singer and actor Jason Weaver says he is, “super excited” about it. Though Home Improvement star and '90s teen heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas voiced the part of Young Simba in the 1994 animated version of the film, it was Weaver who did all the singing for the character. Shadow And Act caught up with the star during filming for a secret project in L.A. to talk about his impact on The Lion King and how the Black community rallied around him.
The Lion King “is a gift that just keeps on giving. It's just been a really rewarding experience,” Weaver shared about the continued significance of his role in the film, decades later. Fans still warmly approach him to let him know how special the film was to them and how much knowing that a Black kid sang the iconic song meant to them. “I had no idea that it was going to reach the level of success that it eventually did, and, you know, make such a positive impact on people's lives, a long-lasting impact on people's childhoods.”
Weaver rose to stardom as a child when he played young Michael Jackson in the television biopic The Jacksons: An American Dream. It was also the vehicle that led directly to his getting the job singing on The Lion King when a legendary singer/songwriter watched his performance. “Sir Elton [John] you know, kind of checking out my performance from that, reached out and expressed interest,” he said of the convo that would begin his longtime relationship with Disney.
Though Weaver had a passionate fan following because of his work on The Jacksons: An American Dream, Disney opted not to capitalize on that when they were marketing and promoting the film. “The people that were promoting the film at that time were like Matthew Broderick [who played Simba], Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and like Whoopi Goldberg [who played Shenzi the hyena]. They were the ones that ultimately Disney felt people were going to want to come and see. It really wasn't common knowledge that I had any involvement with it.”
That is, of course, until word spread in the Black community that the singer behind young Simba was fam. “The community put me up on their shoulders,” he said. “When they heard that I was involved with the more memorable aspects of the film, the music and especially, ‘I Just Can't Wait To Be King,’ when the community caught wind, and became aware that I was behind that, the community rallied behind me to make it known that I was the one that did that.”
That love and support he says deeply touched him. “I saw this heavy outpouring of love and support because people were aware there was a young Black boy behind that singing voice. It is something to celebrate, and something for all of us to be proud of to know that from the very beginning, we were there.”
Still, Weaver understood Disney's decision. “I don't think that that was a slight by Disney in any kind of way. I think they were just looking at it like, 'Okay, how are we going to sell this film?'”
Weaver, who went on to star on Disney's Smart Guy and Summertime Switch as well as the Black classic coming of age dramedy ATL with T.I. and Lauren London, isn’t involved in the live-action version. “My singing voice has changed drastically since then," he explains. "Even the way that I use my voice now is totally different so I wouldn't want to do anything just based off of selfish reasons, or just wanting to be a part of it.” In other words, he’s totally fine with sitting this version out. “I have no complaints whatsoever. I'm thankful for the fact that when people want to hear the original, they can go back and listen to it or buy the album, or look at the original film.”
Though he missed out on the recent Hollywood premiere due to filming his next top secret project, he has become acquainted with the young Black actor who is voicing and singing the role of Young Simba this time around, JD McCrary. “I'm super excited for him. I think he's done an amazing job. I think this is the first of many, many more major opportunities that are going to come. Just to see that innocence and that excitement from him, it brings back a lot of good memories. I pray that God blesses his life and his career and that everybody supports that young man.”
The two "met" via social media when McCrary's parents reached out to Weaver. “They just reached out to let me know that he was, you know, doing the new Lion King, which I thought was awesome. Our correspondence that we have from social media is always positive. He definitely knows as well as his parents, that they have my full support.”
Weaver was careful, he says, not to give too much advice to McCrary about the role because he says, “With this kind of thing, everybody has to breathe their own kind of life into it. This is his opportunity to breathe life into the character.” There is really just one thing that he made sure to tell McCrary. “The main thing that I just told him was just to have fun.” Looking back on his own experiences, he says being a part of a film like this can feel like everything, “ Going from like, zero to 100, seemingly, in one week.” It’s therefore crucial, Weaver believes, that young actors like McCrary, “Take in the moment and enjoy the ride. Take advantage of every blessing.”
It's advice that Weaver is also taking to heart. On top of his secret L.A. project, he's also gearing up to release exciting projects over the next year.
“I am also currently producing an animated project right now for Comedy Central called The Secret Society and I have another animated show that I took over to my good friend, Lena Waithe, and [her production company] Hillman Grad. It's an animated series called Dream Supreme and highlights and showcases kids that have disabilities and special needs. Their disabilities and special needs are turned into superpowers by their doctors.”
Dream Supreme is something Weaver is particularly passionate about because it provides much needed visibility and representation for disabled people. “I'm all about inclusion and diversity and I think that people with disabilities and special needs, first and foremost, are underserved as far as images being out there. And then also, I think people need to be educated more, as it relates to people with special needs and disabilities and we're looking to get that out to the people hopefully by next year."
Still, Weaver can't escape questions about when the sequel to ATL is coming. Fortunately, he’s just recently discussed the movie with rapper and fellow ATL co-star T.I. Weaver says, “We're just kind of giving Lauren [London] a little bit of time right now. She's still dealing with the emotional wounds that she's suffered, the loss of the love of her life,” he says. London was the partner of slain rapper and social activist Nipsey Hussle. “When we do make a sequel, we want everybody to be able to come with a certain kind of spirit and feeling good about it."
It isn’t at all surprising the level of sympathy that Weaver and Harris have for London’s situation. The cast, Weaver explains, forged a strong bond even before actual filming began on ATL. ”We did skate practice at [skating rink] Skate Towne on the south side of Atlanta. We did that for like, two to three weeks prior to principal photography starting. We were in a skating rink together all day, every day going over these routines. And, the thing about skating is, because nobody's ever done it before, everybody was on an equal level, an equal playing field.”
In the end, the experience of filming ATL was one of incredible warmth and loads of fun. It was Weaver says, “Like shooting a music video for like, two and a half months.” As for the sequel, he explains, “It is definitely in the works. I can’t give a specific time or date because I’m not one of the producers but I know the cast is committed to the idea of doing a sequel.”