Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Interview with Robert Guillaume, the voice of Rafiki in "The Lion King"

"The Lion King" has just been released in 3D as part of a Blu-ray/DVD set.

Velasquez:  My readers remember you best as “Benson” and wanted to tell you they enjoyed it. What was your favorite TV series?
Guillaume: My favorite show was “Soap”. I felt that the character was outrageous. There was something about it that was free-swinging. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy doing “Benson”. I felt that “Benson” was a little curtailed.
Velasquez: So you started out on stage after the Army. How did you get into acting in the first place?
Guillaume; When I was a kid in school I would always sing. I found a voice. I was a singer. When I was looking around and saying, “Well, what do I do?” I was in my twenties, I had this idea, I said, “well, maybe I should go on the stage.” I couldn’t see myself becoming a doctor or lawyer or that sort of thing. And I gave that (acting) a thought. And I though about it long enough to continue in that direction.
Another thing that I almost went into was writing. I loved writing.
Velasquez: That’s great that you pursued your dream.
Guillaume: I was lucky that the industry gave me encouragement. I was there (Broadway) for 15 years.
Velasquez: You toured the world in “Guys and Dolls”
Guillaume: I did enough touring in my time.
Velasquez: One of my favorite roles of yours is as the Dr Napier the school superintendent in “Lean on Me”. I was a teacher when that came out, and watched it every year before school began.
Guillaume: Oh, I had a great time doing that! Do you remember the argument between Morgan and me? We were allowed to improvise it, and one thing led to another and we were going at it, and we worked it up to a fever pitch. We worked it up to the point where in any other situation we would have to go to war, to fisticuffs. We really didn’t know how to end it. We felt “how do we get out of this?” So I said, “come on man, let’s get some lunch”. It was a way of taking the tension out of the scene with a little humor
Velasquez: That was an amazing scene. I appreciate the diversity of characters you have played. Was that deliberate?
Guillaume: I don’t know how that happened; I wanted to do different things. I was never comfortable thinking the same thing over and over.
Velasquez: You never seemed to be typecast. For example, you were the voice for Rafiki in “The Lion King”. How did you come up with that voice?
Guillaume: Well, we talked about it, since I could only act with my voice. We said, “What would a monkey sound like?”
Velasquez: It’s a very distinctive voice.
Guillaume: It was something I had been clowning around with at parties and with my wife. I would answer in that voice, it always tickled me,
Velasquez: We loved to imitate Rafiki’s voice in our house too!
Guillaume: (laughs) Oh yeah?
Velasquez: So did you mind it when “Lion King 1 ½” poked fun at the wisdom of Rafiki?
Guillaume: No, no.
Velasquez: You stayed with the role of Rafiki for three movies, seven cartoons and even video games. That was one of your most enduring characters. You’ve been acting for half a century. What are some of the changes that you’ve seen in Hollywood?
Guillaume: Well, I’m not sure. . .  Particularly, I wanted to be more aware of the impression they were making on young black people. I think we’ve finally got to that place.
Velasquez: What films have convinced you of that?
Guillaume: Well, many of the films Denzel (Washington) has done and Laurence Fishburne, I know I’m leaving people out. Some of that work is impeccable.
Velasquez: So you didn’t want the stereotyping of black youth or the bad examples?
Guillaume: Yeah, I wanted to try and get away from that. It was within our power to change things, to inspire black youth to see the world in a much broader way than previous characters played by black people. 
Velasquez: Do you have any comment on the moral climate of Hollywood overall?
Guillaume: No I think its pretty much the same as its always been, lackadaisical morally.
Velasquez: I see that lately you’ve been doing narration for a lot of children’s film, fairy tale narration.  
Guillaume: When I was coming up, I remember feeling left out of fairy tales. My images were images of white people, if you will.  I don’t want to sound like I’m on some great kick, but I was only interested in changing what I could.
Velasquez: Disney just did a version of “The Princess Frog” based in New Orleans in the twenties, using black characters. It’s a delightful film.
Guillaume: Yes.
Velasquez: A study came out that children are watching media for 7 ½ hours per day. So the role of the actor is even more important. Children spend more time listening to actors than their parents, with earphones in most of the time. Are you involved in any electronic media?
Guillaume: I don’t participate in anything that happened after 1920!
Velasquez: What would you like to consider your legacy?

Guillaume: You take me too far afield to talk of legacy and all that. If I did something which influenced people of my era, I’m very happy. 

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