In this exclusive interview, the director talks to Helen Herimbi about 20 years of The Lion King

The arts have been the Pride Rock of Julie Taymor’s life. A place for her to lift her talents – ranging from directing, editing, writing and even costume design among others – to show off a promising future.

Taymor was the first woman to win a Tony Award for best direction of a musical in 1998 and she has been the director of The Lion King since its stage debut in 1997. Next year, The Lion King will embark on an international tour and make a stop in Mzansi in 2020. The last time Simba and ’em were in this country was in 2007 when the Teatro was built especially for the highest grossing stage production in the world.

This year marks its 20th anniversary and Taymor was in town to scout some African talent for the international tour. So when I meet the multi-award-winning veteran of film and the stage, it’s only fitting that we are seated in the film room of a fancy hotel. Inside there are cameras certainly older than me on shelves. And before I get to fiddle with them, 64-year-old Taymor appears in a tan ensemble and I suddenly remember, woah, this is a powerhouse! I sit still like all the cameras in that room are watching me.

But Taymor is such a smooth conversationalist that really, all eyes are on her.

“The auditions have been going very well,” she tells me as a vintage camera looks beyond her. “We have a number of good people for some roles. It’s great to be back here and to see the kind of talent that comes out of South Africa.”

The Lion King begins with one of the most pop culturally significant ditties, Ngonyama, which is led by Rafiki. I ask Taymor if this is always sung by a South African. “In the beginning, in America, we started with a South African – Tsidii Le Loka – and the understudies were American,” Taymor said.

Power of puppetry

“But we felt the difference in the singing styles was huge. And the character is different. So we’ve had non-South African Rafiki’s in Japan. But in China we brought a South African Rafiki.”

“It was very successful in the beginning in Japan because they actually went out of their way to bring a shaman woman from the Ainu tribe in northern Japan. She came in with the kind of gravitas understanding, like a sangoma, what being a spiritual leader means. She was outstanding but that’s not the norm. As much as we could in every country since then, we’ve had a contingent of South African singers and a Rafiki.”

Taymor was artistic as a child and as a teenager, the American studied mime and movement in Paris. She moved on to sculpting and she has had a huge hand in crafting the lifelike masks you see on The Lion King musical.

She explains: “I always painted and sculpted and made things. I was in the Bread and Puppet Theatre during the 1970s, which was a very political theatre. Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre were the giant Vietnamese ladies who would do the marches on Washington and if you saw my film, Across The Universe, you would see that re-enacted.”

“So I understood the political power of puppet theatre and also the possibility that transcends culture. That you don’t need language. So having lived in Indonesia for four years and travelled through Japan when I was 21 years old, when I had my own theatre company and worked with shadow puppetry – I use every medium to tell the story.”

“I use puppets when they are necessary to do the story and when I was asked to do The Lion King (I thought) as it is a human drama, how are you going to get humans to become wildebeest or giraffes? “

“I used my imagination and the imaginations of many world cultures – African and Asian in particular – to conceive of those landscapes and images. Walking with grasslands on the head came from an image in my earlier work in Indonesia. It’s on the cover of my book (Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire).”

“I had gone to a ceremony when I was 21 where you climbed a mountain going to a religious ceremony and women would carry baskets or bowls on their heads, and I thought about it and it felt like they were carrying their worlds on their heads. Taking that in as a young woman, designer, director, I abstracted that into that larger, transcendant image.”

We get to chatting about awards – particularly that first Tony – and Taymor laughs when I bring it up. She says: “Well, it’s nice to be the first. There was another woman who won in straight theatre that year, but she had a male’s name (Garry Hynes) and I didn’t even know she was a woman because I had been so caught up that I hadn’t seen her work.”

Breaking boundaries

“But it’s good,” she continues. “It’s good to break boundaries. I have been the first in a couple of places which is really great. It’s a pleasure because now you know you’re a role model for women. I didn’t have any.”

In 2002, Taymor directed the critically-acclaimed cult-favourite, Frida – starring Salma Hayek – by chance.

“It came to me as a work for hire,” Taymor said. “I had spent time in Mexico so I was very familiar with all the great painters of that era. I was a huge Diego Rivera fan, not a Frida fan at all. So when I had to immerse myself in Frida’s paintings, I became much more fluid in understanding they were her biography.”

“I felt that I could bring those paintings alive and make you understand who she was. “She wrote her letters but all her life is in her paintings, moment by moment. I felt that would open up what can be a dry approach. I wasn’t the first person to direct that but all the Mexican directors didn’t want to because for them, it’s kitsch to do such a film. They were going more into the Tarantino and Scorsese way.”

“You have to go away to appreciate what you have quite often. So when they saw the film they were like ‘oh, how did you get there?’”

This year, Taymor has her plate full with directing a new version of M. Butterfly on Broadway. She’s also working on two TV series. One is Hackabout about Fanny Hackabout-Jones and the other is a series that sees her working with Pulitzer-winner, Lynn Nottage where the idea is “taking Great Expectations and setting it in 1950s black America because in America we don’t have class issues, we have race issues so this works”.

So what keeps her wanting to and making the time to direct The Lion King? “The people,” she says. “I think the play brings so much pleasure and solace and inspiration to people on so many levels and that’s what pure theatre does at its base. At its root, you are part of a tradition where theatre can be a healing medium.”