What do Adolf Hitler, disgraced MP Chris Huhne and Princess Margaret have in common?
Aspects of their personalities have all influenced the performance of Stephen Carlile – while playing an evil lion.
Rather than trying to appear like a big cat by watching David Attenborough documentaries, Stephen is more interested in channelling human behaviour.
He is deliciously nasty and scheming as Scar in The Lion King, the ambitious younger brother of Mufasa who kills the king in order to claim the throne.
He says: “There are a few people I’ve based him on. Hitler, because he was charming as well as evil.
“Princess Margaret, as the younger relative of a monarch who was also a bit naughty.
“And I even had Chris Huhne in my head the other night too!
“I did go to Bristol Zoo to have a look at the lions there, but really you have to think of yourself as human but with animal instincts. You can’t be crawling on the floor like a lion.
“There’s so much to play with with Scar. He’s a mangy old cat who comes across as older than he is because he’s been in many a fight and is skinny and weak.
“He’s dilapidated and only has three good legs. I walk with a cane.
“The transformation into Scar is pretty intense. The costume weighs two-and-a-half stone and it takes four people to put it on me. That really takes it toll and you have to keep fit to do it properly. I go to the gym regularly to make sure my back and legs are strong and I don’t have any injuries.
“I have a long tail but the anamatronic helmet alone weighs half a ton. I control it with a switch in my hand to make the lion head come forward.
“I’m wearing Cuban heels too! I have to bend over a lot and I even get to fly at the end.
“The great thing is that, although there are 20 productions of The Lion King on all over the world, we all play Scar differently.
“I assumed we all had to go by the book, but it’s the sort of part you can change and make your own. It’s refreshing that during rehearsals we were allowed to take it in our own direction.
“That’s partly why I’m still loving playing Scar after eight months. I’m contracted for 14 months, which will be the longest I’ve spent on one production, but I don’t think I’m going to get bored. I change the way I play him day by day, by tiny amounts, to keep it interesting.
“It’s great fun playing a baddie. And Scar is quite complicated – I think he’s schizophrenic. He’s bonkers, really.”
Stephen, aged 34, has been in the film Brideshead Revisited and theatrical productions include The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera – and Snoopy! the musical.
He played the title role, wearing a white suit and red collar.
“I was a dog in that, and another dog called Muttley in Space Family Robinson. So I’m getting pretty good at playing animals.
“Plus in my last job, as Viscount Trimingham in The Go Between, I had a massive scar on my face.
“So they were all clearly warm-ups for this role.”
Stephen last performed at the Birmingham Hippodrome in My Fair Lady, where he played Freddy, but he knows the city well as he has been travelling through it every weekend.
“My girlfriend Emily Kempson was working as an assistant director with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, on the play My Life With Galileo.
“I went to see her every weekend and changed trains in Birmingham. I know the walk from New Street to Moor Street very well.
One of the highlights of The Lion King comes right at the start, with a magnificent procession of animals while Rafiki sings the gloriously uplifting song Circle of Life.
Rafiki is a baboon and a shamen or witch doctor. He was male in the Disney film but director Julie Taymor changed his sex when she decided there weren’t enough female voices.
She is played by Gugwana Dlamini, who is almost unrecognisable out of her elaborate, padded Rafiki costume. She looks much more petite and younger, and it’s hard to believe such a strong voice could come out of her.
Her native tongue is Zulu, but also speaks Sotho, a Bantu language and one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, which uses a lot of clicking sounds.
Her beautiful, elaborate costume, typical of the attention to detail throughout the show, includes bones and long fingers made of bamboo.
“You get used to them,” says Gugwana, 35. “They’re quite comfortable really and I can still hold a stick.
“I played Rafiki in London for five years, in America for four years and for a year in Singapore.
“It’s been 10 years and I’m still enjoying it. It feels new every day, playing to different audiences and in different countries.
“I auditioned in South Africa and came to Britain to perform. It’s hard to be so far away from my family, but the Lion King is like my new, international family.
“I’ve sung Circle of Life at the beginning of the show every night for so long, but it still feels new every time I do it. The audience don’t hear any instruments so I think ‘I hope my voice will be perfect’. It’s a beautiful song, as I call all the animals.
“I sometimes see people crying. It makes me think ‘Wow, I’m so blessed to be part of this production’.”
* The Lion King comes to Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday to September 28. For tickets ring 0844 338 5000 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com.