As I watch Shahadi Wright Joseph dance to the music of Ariana Grande and Missy Elliott during her Elite Daily photo shoot, she strikes me as a typical 14-year-old — capable of shedding any insecurity once a catchy jam plays. Playing up her moves for the camera, she has a natural presence, and given her experience on Broadway and in films Us and The Lion King, this is no surprise. With her career already full of special parallels and coincidences, Shahadi Wright Joseph takes The Lion King's message of coming full circle personally. After all, she's reliving her childhood dreams and realities on the big screen before she's even left her teens.
While she shot to worldwide fame as Zora/Umbrae in Jordan Peele's horror film Us, Joseph's first big break was a 2014 stint as Young Nala in the long-running Broadway production of The Lion King. She isn't the first to eventually come across success after stepping into one of the onstage child roles — Stranger Things' Caleb McLaughlin once played Young Simba. But in Joseph's case, the role especially came in handy when she was cast as Young Nala in 2019's movie remake of The Lion King.
"I really got taught a lot of information about the story from The Lion King while I was on Broadway, so I got to transfer a lot of those ideas into the remake of the movie," Joseph says. "When I first saw the [animated] movie, I was in love with Nala and I really wanted to be her ... While I was on Broadway, I was still in love with her."
During the remake's production, Joseph and her castmates were observed in order for animators to insert their personal qualities into their characters' looks. Joseph believes her interpretation has made Nala's confidence, intelligence, and street smarts "bolder," she says. "Now in the remake of the movie, you get to add some of your own personality, so now, people can see Young Nala as Shahadi Wright Joseph. It’s really cool that I get to have people compare me to Nala."
Reprising a character for a massive project is already unique, but Joseph's past coming full circle is shaping into a recurring theme of her career. As a child, she memorized Lupita Nyong'o's Oscar acceptance speech for a school competition, long before the two starred in Us as a mother and daughter battling doppelgangers on summer vacation. Like Nyong'o at star-studded events, Joseph is currently dressed to impress, sporting pink eye shadow and rhinestoned Miu Miu sneakers. At the mention of her former co-star, her eyes light up.
"If you won [the contest], then you got to do the speech on TED Talk. So I did not win," she says, laughing. "But it was really great getting to memorize Lupita’s speech because I thought she was so beautiful and so talented, and I’ve been such a big fan of her from way back. And I’m really glad I got to do that, even though I didn’t win ... I did tell her about it, and she was so happy."
Us was released only four months before The Lion King, which starred Beyoncé and Donald Glover as the grown versions of Joseph's Nala and JD McCrary's Simba. While Joseph recorded lines and grew friendly with McCrary, their adult counterparts were elusive to them until the film was complete.
"I met Donald Glover at our cast photo shoot, and I met Beyoncé at the premiere," Joseph says. "They’re both such great people, and I’ve been looking up to them for a pretty long time so it was just great to even be in the cast with them."
Like the original 1994 animated film, the new Lion King emphasizes the importance of familial pride and life's natural progression. "I think that I really love the messages and the morals that the story conveys," Joseph says. "I think that our director, Jon Favreau, really made sure that he added a lot of the 'circle of life' into the story, and 'remember who you are.' I think that that is what a lot of families and audience members really love about the movie as well."
Though she's become an integral part of the Disney legacy, Joseph wasn't even born during what's now known as the Disney Renaissance, an era that produced animated hits such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. All three movies have been adapted into live-action remakes in recent years, and new versions of Mulan and The Little Mermaid are also underway. "I love the remakes, just because there are a lot of people who didn’t get to grow up with the original films," Joseph says. "So now, kids today get to grow up with the remake and they can see some of the subtle differences or even make it their own."
She may not be old enough to drive a car, but Joseph discusses her projects with an eloquent maturity that's definitely reminiscent of women like Nyong'o and Beyoncé. Before hugging everyone in the room goodbye, she talks about her first single, "Skin I'm In," and how she splits her time between acting and singing. "Both of them are my passions, but I think that I want to focus on acting right now," she says. "But I still want to do singing, and everything comes together and it always circles back."
Unless playing the grown Nala on Broadway is in her future, it's possible Joseph won't ever return to a Lion King role. But as she's proven, life has a funny way of reminding you where you've been and how you may find your way back.
Photography: Lauren Perlstein
Hair and makeup: Andrea Fairweather