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Chantel Riley: Nala in the Broadway production of ‘The Lion King’ (Includes interview)

Appearing on a major Broadway show tends to leave little time for anything else, though for two weeks last summer, Ms. Riley was able to film her scenes for Race, a hotly-anticipated biopic of Jesse Owens, the African American athlete who famously won four Gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Riley, born and raised in Toronto, plays Quincella Nickerson, the woman who came between Owens and his high school sweetheart, Ruth, and I began the interview by asking how she ended up in what will surely be one of the most talked about films of 2016.

“Well my agent brought this audition to me and I was attracted to it because it was a story about Jesse Owens, who was an American hero for what he was able to do at that time,” she explains. “That was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Recalling how she researched the role, the actress states, “I was able to find a couple of things about her online – there’s not too much about her because she was only with him for a short period of time. I found out she was a socialite, she was a big fan of Jesse’s and they hung out a lot and went to parties together. Her father was well known in the community as well…”

“I loved the scene where she and Jesse first meet,” enthuses the devout Christian, looking back on the shoot. “You just see her presence and she demands attention whenever she enters a room, so that was fun – a lot of dancing.”

The Race premiers in New York City on Wednesday, February 17. Some of the scenes were filmed in Germany, though most of the movie – which stars Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons – was shot in Montreal. I wondered whether Chantel had any other projects lined up.

“I’ve been doing a lot of independent projects with a friend of mine, James Brown-Orleans – he’s in the show with me – and we just wrapped up one that will be released soon,” she reveals. “We also have a project called Teacher’s Nightmare, which he has been submitting to a lot of film festivals.”

We moved on to The Lion King, a long-running musical Chantel has been an integral part of since 2012. Is she still enjoying the experience as much as she ever has? “Yeah, I am. People always ask me: ‘How do you still do the exact same thing over and over again?’ but I kinda look at it as an opportunity to perform in front of a new audience every night.

“It gives me a chance to try something new. If I put a minor change into my performance, it makes a big difference… I was in Germany doing it for a little over a year and that was actually my first professional acting credit.”

The Lion King is also famous, of course, for its soundtrack. Songs such as “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” – composed by Tim Rice and Elton John – are widely known, while pieces written by the likes of Lebo M and Hans Zimmer also play their part in bringing the story to life. Does the skilled artiste, who has come this far with no formal acting training, have a favourite?

“‘Circle of Life’ is a beautiful song and I also love ‘He Lives in You,’ a song that reminds Simba that his father, the king, lives within him,” she replies. “It reminds him who he is.”

To conclude, Chantel outlined her plans for the rest of 2016: “Definitely hoping to get the opportunity to do some more film, and of course I’d love to do some more stage work as well… Just hoping for the best and waiting to see what God has lined up for me.”

Race will be released nationwide in the USA and Canada on February 19.

The Lion King is performed eight times a week at the Minskoff Theatre in New York City. Tickets for this award-winning extravaganza can be purchased here.

For more on Chantel Riley, visit her official Facebook page.

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