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A quick chat with...Robert Guillaume!

VETERAN: Robert Guillaume

IF YOU thought The Lion King had finished breaking records, you’d be wrong.

Disney has re-released the phenomenal animated cartoon in 3D, 17 years after it first became an instant hit. And surpassing all predictions, the reworked picture grossed an amazing $29.3 million in its opening weekend in the US, proving its limitless appeal.

Amongst the film’s loveable characters is Rafiki, the energetic shaman baboon, who is ever ready to share his knowledge and wisdom. The voice behind the memorable character is award-winning actor Robert Guillaume, who reveals that it was daunting auditioning for the now world famous animation.

“Before I went for the audition, I had been waxing poetic in my mind about what I was going to say,” Guillaume recalls. “I got there and I thought they wanted me to be the lion king. When they said [I’d be auditioning for] the monkey, I was like ‘what?’ I didn’t have a clue! But it exceeded my wildest expectations.”

With The Lion King marking Guillaume’s first animated feature, the 83-year-old admits that the experience was miles apart from the world of TV, which had initially found him fame.

“At first, I didn’t know what voice to give [Rafiki]. I finally came up with a character that I had been goofing around with. It was an attempt at a Jamaican accent – it was not a good Jamaican accent, but the more I practised it seemed to fit the bill for Rafiki!"

“I was like a fish out of water trying to meet the demands, but I was fortunate to get the opportunity. I found great joy in putting the character into action. Another curious thing, the more I threw caution to the wind, in trying to realise what the writers had written, the more it made scene, the crazier I got, and the more it fitted.”

Though The Lion King brought the actor newfound attention, it was his stint in the ‘70s sitcom Soap that originally brought him to mainstream prominence in the US. Starring as the wisecracking butler Benson DuBois, Guillaume admits that he did have concerns about depicting a black butler, who tended to the needs of a wealthy white family.

“I was a little worried about Benson,” he says. “I didn’t spend my career thinking ‘Gee, I hope they offer me a role as a butler’, so there was trepidation. But I felt an immediate kinship with the show.

“My grandmother had been a woman who raised us off her wages as a housekeeper to a wealthy white family; she had unwittingly laid the foundation for Benson. She did her work and expected to be treated with a certain amount of respect; she wanted to do her work as she thought it ought to be done. I took a few pointers from her work.”

Guillame’s character in Soap earned him his own TV spin-off, Benson, before the actor went on to star in the TV series, Sports Night.

His other notable achievements include being the first and only black US talent to win a lead comedy actor Emmy award for his role in Benson.

He is also the first and only black actor to play the Phantom of the Opera in the musical of the same name, having replaced the original Broadway Phantom, Michael Crawford in 1990.

After waiting sixth months for an audition, Guillame, who is also a singer, was finally chosen for the part; a move which sparked some controversy, with purists questioning whether a black performer should undertake the world famous role.
Still, Guillaume cites this experience as one of his career highlights.

“I am most proud of playing the Phantom,” he says. “I had always thought of myself as a singer and had been pursuing the idea of becoming the first black tenor at the Metropolitan Opera House [on Broadway]. So when I got the opportunity to play the Phantom, I was very happy.”

The Lion King 3D is in UK cinemas from October 7.

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