Cheech Marin & The Lion King

Funnyman Cheech Marin

My absolute favorite Disney movie, The Lion King, has roared its way back to the big screen in IMAX and 3D. Working for La Prensa de Houston, I was lucky enough to snag a phone interview with comedian and actor Cheech Marin, the voice behind Banzai the hyena. He was kind enough to speak to me about his role in the timeless classic as well as his new role in a CBS Rob Schneider project.

AG: Hi, Mr. Marin, how are you today?
CM: I’m good! Just here at my palacial estate in Miami. The weather is wonderful. How are you? 

AG: Must be nice! It’s steaming over here in Houston.
CM: Oh, I know Houston, one of my favorite cities in Texas. Love the people. Did you grow up there? 

Banzai the hyena, voiced by Cheech Marin

AG: Actually, no, I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley.
CM: I’ve heard of the Valley. South Texas? 

AG: Yup. My house is literally about five to 10 minutes from the border.
CM: Wow, that’s crazy. Very cool! 

AG: I know! Now, The Lion King is back on the big screen, which is really exciting for me, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, so my question for you is, what is it like being part of such a timeless and influential movie like The Lion King?
CM: Being in The Lion King was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I had worked in animation before and I had done a lot of voice-over work for Cheech and Chong, but the process of working in the Lion King kept building and building. I read the script and thought, “Ahh, this will be good,” and then I saw drawings of the characters and thought, “Oh okay, this is going to be great,” and then they started showing us some of the animation and I thought, “Wow, this is going to be big.” When I saw the whole thing for the first time, I was blown away. It was like being an astronaut, being blasted off into space past the moon, and it was like, “Wow, I get to be a part of this movie forever.” I was so honored and thrilled. 

AG: I’ve noticed you do a lot of voice-over work for Disney like in Oliver & Company, another one of my favorites, Cars, Cars 2, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and all of these movies are so different from your earlier work with Cheech and Chong and others. What do you like most about voice-over work as opposed to everything else?
CM: It’s a different type of art. It’s like sculpting with a chainsaw. My opinion is that you can be subtle but in a big way. You have to create that intimacy on a large scale. If you just use your normal voice, like you acting in a film scene, it can fall flat. I see that happen a lot in animation. I mean, you have to create a character, a voice that competes with that image on the screen, something that fills it and brings it to life. You don’t have anything but your voice to do that, there’s nothing else you can bring to the table but your voice. You have to be big and bold and loud and subtle, all at the same time. It’s a very interesting thing to do. 

AG: Going back to The Lion King specifically, what do you think it is that makes this movie so timeless? With it back on the big screen, I mean, I can only remember a couple other Disney movies coming back when I was younger, it’s back in the public eye, back in its hearts. What do you think it is that makes The Lion King so loveable?
CM: It’s the story. The story really connects. It’s the story of a son trying to find his father. It’s about family and community, it’s that simple. The characters are great, and this movie was a huge step forward in animation. The first time I saw what’s called “rack focus,” that means when you see something in the screen, and all of a sudden, it focuses like you’re turning a lens, it’s the same technique as when you go from far away to close, and that had never been done before in animation. It was like, “Wow, these guys are blowing it out.”

AG: What was your favorite part of playing Banzai?
CM: That sniveling voice! (laughs) It was fun, really neat. This guy had to be kind of scary, but dumb and a coward at the same time. He had to be menacing, but a menacing coward, so that’s what I had to do. Working with Whoopi and Ed Cummings was a great thing to do. Each hyena had its own personality. It was really interesting, I had never done sniveling before. 

AG: Have you ever seen The Lion King on Broadway?
CM: Actually yes I have! It was amazing how Julie Taymor, the director, took that story to the stage and it was all to scale. The music, too, you can’t escape the music. Tim Rice’s score, people know it as well as they know “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” 

AG: Aside from The Lion King, I understand you’ll be appearing in a new CBS Rob Schneider project playing his father-in-law. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
CM: Sure! The premise is that Rob Schneider marries Mexican woman. He marries this beautiful Mexican woman, and his character is sort of OCD, agoraphobic, well not really agoraphobic, but he doesn’t really like to be touched, and he marries into this touchy-feely Mexican family. Learning about the culture, he’s really a fish out of water. That’s what makes the series funny. In the Hispanic, Mexican-American, Latino, Chicano culture, he’s sort of floundering around trying to find himself.

AG: When will the show air?
CM: Whenever it gets picked up. We’re waiting to see if CBS picks it up, and if they do, it’ll most likely air this season.

AG: What’s the name of the show? Do you know yet?
CM: I wanted to call it “I Married a Mexican!” (laughs) That’s funny. But we’ll see. It’s “a Rob Schneider project” for now.

AG: Speaking of Mexican, what advice do you have for any young Hispanics reading the paper here in Houston that would like a career in show business? Or just about life in general?
CM: Go where the jobs are. Always be in their face, be that guy or girl that’s there when they turn around. Study, go to school, always go to school, finish up your education, learn as much as you can. Don’t take no for an answer. Because you know all the Chicanos know, you gotta have three jobs at a time! (laughs)

AG: Where is your family from?
CM: Los Angeles. My mother and father were born here, like me, and all my grandparents are from Mexico, all different parts. Tepic, Guaymas, Culiacan and Tuscon when it was Mexico.

AG: Well, is there anything else you think Houston needs to know about the movie or the DVD?
CM: Just enjoy, I’m sure that the 3D will be great so make sure to buy the glasses, it’ll make it that much better. Enjoy it all over again, it’s a timeless story. It’s relatable the world over and you connect through the culture that way. The Lion King culture is international and it speaks to human values which is what I like.

AG: The 3D is great! I saw it in 3D a couple of weeks ago, and there were parts like “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” that I knew were going to be great in 3D.
CM: Oh really? I’m sure it was with all those colors. You’ll have to make sure to recommend it.

AG: I will! Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like Houston to know about you?
CM: That’s it, I don’t want to give away too much, I like to maintain my “Man of Mystery.” (laughs)

AG: Okay, well thank you!
CM: No problem, thank you.

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