The Come-Up: Shahadi Wright Joseph Just Can’t Wait To Be Queen
From Broadway to Disney’s biggest summer bet, the 14-year-old triple threat is very much ready to share a marquee with Beyoncé.
Disney has no shortage of princesses: There’s Cinderella, Aurora, Jasmine, Belle, Tiana, Elsa. They span decades and continents and (finally) races. There’s one that paints with the colours of the wind, another who befriends seven small men, and yet another who’s half-fish. But there is only one furry princess — one with a roar and a bite: The Lion King’s Nala, a daring lioness who can beat even the future king in a wrestling match. And 14-year-old Shahadi Wright Joseph, fresh off stealing scenes in Jordan Peele’s Us, is bringing the beloved feline back to life for the CGI and live-action remake of the animated 1994 Disney classic alongside Beyoncé, who plays adult Nala. It’s like Disney thought, How do we make one of the most iconic modern Disney movies even more iconic? And the whole board room screamed, Beyoncé! But while Beyoncé brings the most star power to director Jon Favreau’s ambitious and visually stunning remake, Shahadi (yes, she is in the elite group of women who can go by one name only — @shahadi on Instagram, where she has 74,000 followers, joining the ranks of Beyoncé, Zendaya and Oprah) brings years of experience.
Joseph has portrayed the spunky lion cub more times than she — or I — can count. She’s performed The Lion King original, "I Just Can’t Wait To Be King" approximately 208 times on Broadway during her yearlong role as Nala (she took the stage four days a week, alternating with another young actress) in 2014. She spent weeks travelling back and forth to Los Angeles to record the live-action sequences for the movie, out 19th July, likely singing it another 100 times. Now she’s on a press tour, where she’ll sing the duet alongside J.D. McCrary, 11, who plays young Simba, at least another dozen times. But Shahadi, it seems, would never complain. "A lot of people in interviews say, 'You’re so mature for a 14-year-old,' but I feel like that isn’t because I am a child actor," says Shahadi, who finished eighth grade last month. "It feels like that is just the way I was raised." Born and raised in New York, Shahadi, who speaks with a strong, high-pitched Brooklyn accent, is used to being around celebrities. Still, I bet she’s the only recent middle school grad among her friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, who can legitimately call Beyoncé a coworker.
Seated across from me at Woodland, a lively Brooklyn restaurant blasting Drake, on a sunny June afternoon, Shahadi’s wearing an outfit suitable for a full day of work: navy blue tracksuit, sparkly sneakers and a protective scarf over her hair. She’s just wrapped shooting in full glam — five outfits, each more colourful than the last. The palette was vibrant, youthful and playful, ranging from sunny yellow to cherry apple red to ice blue. Her mum, Dina Wright Joseph, showed up in a brilliant maxi dress, coincidentally sporting the exact same colours as her daughter. Before we left the Hudson Yards studio and headed to Brooklyn, wig maker and hair stylist Dionna Owens arrived with an overflowing suitcase to fit Shahadi for custom hairpieces which she’ll wear throughout the Lion King press tour. Shahadi sat in the chair patiently throughout it all — she didn’t request certain songs, or stop to adjust her outfit or hair — she was quiet and focused, but danced a little when Jorja Smith, her favourite artist at the moment, "The Billie Eilish of British people," she says, comes on.
During the long bumper-to-bumper journey via chauffeured SUV from the photoshoot in midtown Manhattan to Woodland, Shahadi’s older sister and best friend Sundari, who stopped by at the tail end of the shoot, draped herself across her little sister’s lap. Unfazed, Shahadi shifted her weight to continue playing with her phone. She scrolled through Instagram as she fluttered in and out of sleep, occasionally flashing her phone screen to the person using her as a human pillow. They discussed plans to go to the pool around the corner from their Brooklyn home the next day before Shahadi leaves to tour with Disney (she’ll hit all the domestic stops — Los Angeles, Miami, Washington DC — while Beyoncé will go international). After about half an hour of traffic, Shahadi ended up lying on her mum’s shoulder, creating a chain of exhausted Wright Joseph women. This curled-up teenager was almost unrecognisable from the Shahadi standing alongside her lion soul sister Beyoncé in photos from the Los Angeles Lion King premiere a few weeks later. "I got kind of starstruck after meeting Beyoncé, but I think I kept it cool," she tells me on the phone a few weeks after our initial interview. "She’s just like, 'You're my Nala, right?' and I was like 'Yes!' Then we hugged. I also met Blue Ivy and Jay Z — it was a dream come true."
But this bucket-list moment had yet to happen: The Shahadi in front of me hadn’t even seen a finished version of the film yet, much less posed in a photo with Blue. Instead, she double-tapped selfies of her school friends at a stunning pace and caught up on whatever goofy meme @kalesalad had posted. She also mulled over her next trip to Target, her favourite store to shop for outfits because she doesn’t like anything "too expensive or too flashy…[I] like stuff that is going to make people see me for me."
Shahadi started dancing when she was 2 at Purelements: An Evolution in Dance, a Brooklyn dance studio founded by her dad, Kevin Joseph, and his longtime collaborator Lakai Worrell. Operating since 2006, the dance studio is where Shahadi’s career began, and where she spent most of her time studying classical ballet, hip-hop and modern dance as well as west African and Caribbean dance. She’s also a bit of dance royalty. Her mum studied at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre and Martha Graham School before touring for 12 years nationally and internationally with Forces of Nature Dance Theatre Company. After years on the road and numerous television appearances, Dina began to teach dance. She currently works at Purelements as programme manager. Shahadi’s father has a similar story, starting as a hip-hop dancer in Brooklyn and later touring and appearing in television programmes before cofounding Purelements. Sundari also used to dance at the studio before she started swimming competitively.
By age 8, Shahadi was cast as Young Nala on Broadway. At 10, she was in another film-to-Broadway production, the Tony-nominated School of Rock, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a year later, at 11, she starred in NBC’s Hairspray, Live! opposite the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande and Kristin Chenoweth. Now 14, Shahadi has starred in two of the biggest films of the year on opposite sides of the genre spectrum: One is chilling, the other is heartwarming; one is for adults, the other kids. "I like how people get to see me as a serious actor first, before they get to see me as a baby lion," Shahadi jokes. "People get to see me in a variety of characters, so [the timing] works out perfectly." But even with all this groundwork laid out for her at a young age, she wasn’t groomed to be a movie star. She says it wasn’t until she nailed the part of Nala on screen, 10 years after that first dance class in Brooklyn, that she really felt like she was on the right path.
The new Nala is tougher than the one you remember. In 2019’s The Lion King, Nala finds her full potential in the African savannah. She sneaks away in the dead of the night to find help for their dying pride; she proudly stands up against villain Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor). And while Nala has more agency in the remake, her newfound ambition calls back to the strength of the original cartoon-turned-Broadway Nala that Shahadi first fell in love with. "I was maybe 4 or 5 [when I saw] Lion King on Broadway," she says. "My friend was in it, and she was much older at the time, but she was a role model to me. That is when I really wanted to start playing [Nala]." In only three years, she would be running around that stage, playfully reciting, "Pinned ya! ...Pinned ya again."
Shahadi’s spunky and curious young Nala sets the groundwork for Beyoncé’s Nala to bring Simba home. The cartoon Nala may have ended up Queen, but this new Nala is "someone that little girls can look up to," Shahadi says. In the new movie, she tells Simba she’d rather "marry an aardvark" than be his plus one in the pride, and reminds him that she’s both the brains and brawn behind their cub adventures. "You would have never gotten away without your queen," she says, proudly. It’s as if she knows, unlike the original writers of the film, that in real life, a pride family is a matriarchy. The lionesses hunt, give birth, raise cubs and emotionally support the male heirs. That’s the real circle of life.
"I feel like if I have the joy of playing [Nala], I can inspire little girls to achieve the same accomplishments I did," she says. "The two [productions] are very different because when you are on Broadway, you have to follow everything the directors are telling you, and you can’t really add any of your own flair to it," she says. "Shooting Lion King in LA was totally different because Jon Favreau gave us so much freedom while playing Young Nala and Young Simba. It was amazing. I feel like I made her more confident, more sassy in a way."
Shahadi first auditioned for the role with a self tape, filmed by her mum. She sang 16 bars, did some sides, and sent it over to her agent. A month later, the part was hers. Unlike her Us audition, where Peele called her personally, it wasn’t Favreau on the phone telling her the good news — it was her agent, who Shahadi recalls screaming over the news. "I was 12, and that summer we basically went from LA to New York, recording and shooting and practising," she says. The only downside of a film like this? It’s all voice work, which means that up until the LA premiere in early July, Shahadi hadn’t met anyone else from the cast other than McCrary and Favreau.
This brings up another point: How does one fully embody a sassy lion cub with just their voice? How does she work on her roar? Shahadi has it down to an art: "Half an hour before we shoot, I get into character fully," she says. "I would start to think about how my character would talk a certain way, walk and act, and do all of the things she would do...I feel like you have to really embody the character before you showcase yourself."
Even though Shahadi is more in the Disney age bracket, you won’t find animated movies on her Recently Watched list. "I love watching horror movies," she says. "My sister and I are going to probably watch one tonight. I like the massacre movies, but she does not. She said that she saw Jigsaw and was throwing up and crying, but I loved it!" Her obsession with the macabre influenced one of her two Us characters, Umbrae. Umbrae is the "shadow" of her human character Zora Wilson. Zora is the oldest child of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and, along with her little brother Jason, played by Evan Alex, she must fight for her life when their "shadows" decide to untether. "I was imagining some of my favourite horror movie characters like Chucky or Annabelle," she says of bringing the Umbrae to life. "Just those really cool characters."
Shahadi wants to channel the same confidence she exhibits as a performer in her social life. Being a teenager is already weird, but balancing school (she starts high school in autumn) with auditions, red carpets and interviews is exhausting. But friendships — real ones — are a priority to her. "I am building friends who are Disney Channel [kids] and out in the media, but I want to make sure I am not friends with them just because they are famous," she says. "I want to have a real relationship." That includes actress Lexi Underwood, who Shahadi calls her role model. She only met Underwood, next seen in Reese Witherspoon’s Little Fires Everywhere, once before she knew she was a real one. "Our friendship/mentorship, for me at least, is the truest essence of Black Girl Magic," Underwood, 15, says of her relationship with Shahadi via email. "It isn't about the come-up or clout. It has been and will always be about seeing each other at our best and at our most vulnerable moments and still supporting each other, pushing each other, and loving each other."
Shahadi and Underwood are part of a small but growing Hollywood sorority that also includes the likes of Little and Black-ish’s Marsai Martin (the two interact on Instagram but "haven’t actually met yet," Shahadi says) and When They See Us and Euphoria’s Storm Reid, who also broke out in a Disney movie.
"For young black girls in Hollywood, there is a lot of opportunity because people are finally opening their eyes to how much we can really showcase," she says, specifically noting director Ava DuVernay’s critical impact: "She is really powerful and is telling the most amazing stories with the perfect perspective." As an actor, on screen and on stage, a singer (her first single, "Skin I’m In" dropped 12th July), dancer and aspiring screenwriter (she has a pact to write a screenplay for her Us co-star Evan Alex, a budding director), she’s proud of her diversified talent, and inspired to create meaningful art. "My platform is a good way to let everybody know what is happening in the world," she says. "A lot of people say they look up to me, so I think now is a good time to start."
Another possibility in her future: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Shahadi is currently Twitter’s first choice to portray Marvel superheroine Ironheart, a teenage engineer who teams up with Iron Man. Written by Eve L. Ewing, the character hasn’t been confirmed to join MCU, but the internet, Ewing and Robert Downey Jr. himself have spoken out about the importance of having the young and inspiring female hero join the franchise. Despite public interest, Shahadi hasn’t been contacted about anything — yet. "I don’t watch a lot of Marvel, but I looked her up and she seems really cool," she says. "I should start studying, just in case." As of publication, Disney and Marvel Studios did not respond to a request for comment.
When she isn’t forcing her sister to watch trauma-inducing movies, dreaming of her debut screenplay or low-key preparing to be a superhero, Shahadi spends her free time roaming around her home city. She’s a fourth generation New Yorker on her mother’s side, and proud of it. She shops at the Barclay’s Target down the street, and she grew up, career-wise, a few stops north on the Q train on Broadway. Her grandmother on her father’s side, Sylvia Joseph, who immigrated from Trinidad, is her biggest non-Hollywood role model and lives only a five-minute walk from her. ("My grandma has made such a big impact on my life with food, and the way she talks and how real she is and the strength that she had to drop everything and come to America to give my dad a better life. It makes me feel really amazing, because she is passing down her strength to my dad and to me, and I can pass that down. It’s an honour just to be related to her.") She once started a side hustle while in School of Rock, selling her homemade knit hats and scarves throughout the theatre. Although she’s bicoastal, Shahadi says she’d never be a Hollywood girl. She’s a true New Yorker, from her thick accent to her unwaveringly strong spirit. After all, her name literally means "most brilliant protector of our people".