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Eager to Enter the Lion's Den

Disney: A search for new stage cubs for 'Lion King' goes to South-Central, where child actors 'go for broke.'

August 19, 2001|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took a conscientious casting director to remember South-Central. And a few Baptist ministers to pass the word. And a godmother who didn't mind waiting under the hot Saturday morning sun.

Now it was up to 12-year-old Eric Gordon to show Disney that he "just can't wait to be king."

Disney's "The Lion King" needed a couple of cubs for its ongoing Hollywood production, so casting people had come looking in the Crenshaw District. Eric, a lanky boy from Hawthorne, was among more than 100 children who would audition at a converted firehouse on Crenshaw Boulevard.

Eric thought he had what it takes to be the new Simba, the prodigal son of the Lion King. Disney is also looking for Nyala, Simba's love interest.

A veteran of "Space Jam," six plays and 25 commercials for products including Tide, Eggo waffles and the Volkswagen Passat, Eric's confident bearing is one boast short of cocky. But even pros get nervous.

"I hope I do good," he said.

An experienced child performer such as Eric is a rarity anywhere, but is a real find in South Los Angeles. It takes only 10 minutes to drive to Hollywood, but it might as well be a world away, said casting director Lynne Marks.

"I don't think Hollywood realizes all the talent that's down here," she said. Logistics might be one problem. Getting the word out about a casting call in Burbank is one thing, Marks said. Doing it in South-Central is quite another. So Marks called every YMCA and Baptist minister she could find. She announced the auditions on FM 100.3 the Beat and Power 106.7.

She enlisted the help of Karmyn Lott, director of the Harambee Acting Camp, which is based at the old firehouse. After Marks saw a Harambee production about the life of Malcolm X, Lott invited her to hold the auditions in South Los Angeles.

"We knew we would get children here that Disney wouldn't usually get," Lott said.

In her lilting British accent, Marks said she is looking for kids with "street creds and that edgy, urban feel--you know, gutsy." And though the casting call is open to kids of all ethnicities, "it is, after all, a show set in Africa."

Finally, Eric's group is called. About a dozen boys and girls file into the room, where they stand in line, their head shots and resumes on the floor in front of them. In front of the children the lyrics to "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" are pasted up. Marks' assistant, Breck White, plays a Lion King compact disc, and the kids start singing.

"Come on! Let's get moving!" Marks shouts, bobbing around. The kids bob with her, pumping their arms, some better than others.

Leonard King, 8, heard about this audition through his tap dance teacher and asked his mother to bring him, but clearly his heart isn't in it. Leonard is virtually standing still, a deer-in-headlights look on his face.

Eric, however, is the picture of cool focus. His dance steps are fluid, his pitch is correct, his notes are in tune.

After hours of waiting, the audition is over in a matter of minutes. Marks shows them to the door. "Very good. Thanks so much for coming today. You all did very well. If you're in performing arts school, keep going."

But she holds back Eric and another little boy in a lime shirt. She plays the CD again; the pair go for broke. Eric clearly is the better dancer, but the little boy in lime has a lion's roar for a voice.

"Let every creature go for broke and sing. Let's hear it in the herd and on the wing. It's gonna be King Simba's finest fling. Oh, I just can't wait to be king!"

Both boys nail the last note, and Marks tells them to come back for the final audition next week.

Eric is ecstatic, bounding over to his godmother. "I got a callback! I got a callback!"

At the end of the session, Marks has 30 finalists and a new appreciation for South-Central, storehouse of "street cred," treasure-trove of "edge."

"They all had that spunk, guts," Marks said. "You can't teach that."

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