West End legends Shaun Escoffery & George Asprey talk ‘The Lion King’: “In 15 years, it’s never felt like going to work”

As the coronation approaches, we’ve set up to speak to a different kind of royals. Guillermo Nazara chats with lead actors Shaun Escoffery and George Asprey, currently celebrating 15 years playing the iconic roles of Mufasa and Scar at the London production of Disney’s biggest international stage success.

Fifteen years as a part of one of the longest running shows in the world. It almost feels as breaking a record within a record breaker, doesn’t it?

GA: (laughs) Can I first say I’m definitely using that phrase from now on?

SE: I didn’t think of it that way at all, but yeah, it’s phenomenal. We’ve started at the same time at the beginning, and 15 years later, it’s only when you look back that you realize just how enormous it is. People keep asking us: “do you still enjoy it?”. We’ve had to literally sit back and start thinking about these questions, as I suppose it was taking it for granted.

In your eye, it’s not something that you can ever look forward to, because it’s more like an accumulation of shows – you’re only ever as good as your last show. So every night there’s a different audience. So you can’t rest on the laurels of last night’s performance, because they weren’t there to see you being really good last night. It’s a huge responsibility, you owe it to them to be the best Scar and Mufasa that you can be.

GA: We are blown away by the amount of interest that this has generated. I mean, honestly, this was just going to be like a quick Instagram post here. Here’s me and my buddy, 50 years. And that’s literally what we’re gonna do. Because actually, that alludes back to when we first joined the company, we were in our tech week, and we decided to go to get a burger, fries and a milkshake at lunchtime. And we ate so much that when we came back, my dresser couldn’t put my corset on. We’ve never felt more uncomfortable onstage. We felt we’d never do it again. But now we’re gonna make that same mistake again… (laughs) It’s been incredible the amount of interest that is generated, and we’re completely humbled by

As performers, what has triggered your interest to be a part of the show for so long?

GA: For me personally, Scar is such an incredible character, with so many layers – deep, deep psychological problems, and they’re always so much fun to explore: why is he the way he is? What has happened in his childhood to make him become this, his struggle for relevance? Which is something that echoes in productions and stories throughout History. And not only dramatic stories, but real life – look at Prince Harry and William, for instance: that that struggle for relevance of the second son. Obviously, not everyone deals with it the same way that Scar does – there aren’t that many fratricidal maniacs running around the place. But for me, there’s just so much to explore. And also, we are incredibly lucky that we’re allowed to do other little projects as well: I’m able to do a bit of filming, for instance, like The Crown or Sex Education. And I’m filming another Guy Ritchie movie next week too.

SE: I’ve never really seen as work. And like George said, they’ve allowed us to do projects outside: I’ve had the privilege of singing for Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones and all these huge people. So when I come back to it, I’ve got a new kind of freshness and a new approach to it. Whatever kind of experience I’ve gotten from these performances, I’ve thrown back into The Lion King to explore and discover new things about it. So it’s been 15 years, but it hasn’t been 15 years – it hasn’t felt like it. George and I keep ourselves accountable to each other, literally. And so, we’re always trying to discover new things about how we interact onstage, new things to just explore. I think that’s helped to keep the freshness in our performances but also in our minds..

GA: Shaun’s been very, very humble. He’s an incredibly successful recording artist who’s put out three albums since he’s joined the production. He’s phenomenal. One of my joys in the show is sitting behind the backdrop and listening to Shaun singing He Lives In You. I do that every night. And it is extraordinary. And he comes offstage going: “my voice was roug”, and I’m like: I dreamed I had a voice like that, honestly.

And now that you both mentioned it, during all this time, you have had the opportunity to keep exploring the characters. Do you think that the approach that you’ve given to your role has evolved during all this years? And in which way?

SE: Oh, yeah, most definitely. Before, it’d be like an ABC kind of thing. But now, there’s a little bit more spirituality to it, there’s a little bit more experience that comes with it. We’ve been lucky enough to grow with the characters: I’ve been here and I’ve got married here, had children, all that good stuff. So, I’ve been allowed to have the opportunity to add those experiences to the character, which is a rarity in this business – because year in, year out, and then you go on to the next performance. So to be able to do that as been a real privilege.

GA: Also, you have to remember, we have new people coming in playing different parts the whole time – bringing in a new energy and new excitement. I would love to take all the credit for me being here 15 years, but so much of it is the people we work with – the unbelievable, incredible professionals performing this show (who bring it night, after night, after night) that the we have to step up, because we have to be on their level every night. So when you’re when you have that incredible energy coming at you, it’s not difficult to be energized and to look forward to to every show, and I really do. There’s never a time when I’m on the train coming in, like going to work. I’m incredibly privileged to do the job I do and to work w with my best friend every day for 15 years. He’s the first person I met when I came to Lion King, we both started on exactly the same day. That’s an absolute privilege.

During this time, how much of you have you incorporated into your characters and how much have your characters influenced you?

SE: (laughs) I hope George’s not too much, otherwise my life is in danger!

GA: It is an absolute honor to kill Shaun every night and something I look forward to it greatly. (laughs) Playing Scar has definitely made me a better actor. I’ve had to dive into my own psyche in a way and evaluate what my role as a human being here, not just as an actor, but as a father. As a martial artist, we both train Brazilian jujitsu. So it does when you explore a character so deeply, it makes you think about yourself. And also you do have to find a simpatico with with the character that you’re playing, you do have to understand no one’s born evil, I really don’t believe anyone’s born evil. So there have to be certain things in his life, that they’re making their way and you can explore things that have happened in your life and how that made you turn out the way you are. And here, by the grace of God, I am here and maybe things in my life, if I taken a different time could have sort of made my life turn out in a different way. And maybe, to the criminal elements of scouting, you just don’t know.

SE: And just to add to that, George is such a phenomenal actor. I know this man intimately. And for him to put on this persona on stage and I look at something. Sometimes once they start, I’m looking, thinking: “man, you’re evil”. But you offstage is nothing like the character. In fact, it’s the complete opposite: a sensitive, big hearted, generous human being, and it just kind of gets credited to his artistry. I’ve learned so much from him in the last 15 years.

Throughout all these 15 years, have there been any bloopers that you remember that you would like to share?

SE: Oh yes! Loads of them. My favourite happened during a moment when we confront each other. So we come in and our masks come out and meet in the middle. So what happens? My mask comes off my head and rolls up on the floor! And so I look at George, George looks at me, and he candidly walks across the stage, picks up my mask gives it to me. And I had to keep it underneath – like Hamlet. And I was crying with laughter. But that was a great, absolutely amazing.

If you have to give me one single reason to come see The Lion King, which one would that be?

GA: Every time you see The Lion King, you will get something different from it. At every age you are, you will understand something on another on a deeper, more visceral level. The Lion King is fundamentally about life and death, the most fundamental things that we experienced as humans. And so it can’t unsee it because once you see it, you’ll never forget it.

The Lion King plays at London’s Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Sunday. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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