Children and many of their parents have come to love the Disney Junior animated series “The Lion Guard,”
a spinoff of the heralded award-winning original “The Lion King.” This new storyline followed Simba’s son, Kion, as he leads a group of friends in protecting the Pride Lands.
With the recent release of the remaining third and final season episodes, the Lion Guard embarked on a journey to the Tree of Life. It was there that fans were introduced to the soft-spoken lioness, Nirmala, who through healing sessions with Kion, teaches the values of patience and self-reflection as a means for finding inner peace and understanding.
The actress bringing these lessons and Nirmala to life with her voice is Miki Yamashita
. Her own name means ‘beautiful tree at the foot of the mountain’ in Japanese and seems a perfect fit for this rising talent. On television, Miki has appeared on “iCarly,” “Law & Order,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” and “Successful People.” On Stage, she starred in the national tour of “A Chorus Line,” and appeared in regional productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I,” “The Fantasticks,” and “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
Miki is no ordinary voice actress. She is a classically trained soprano who debuted at the Los Angeles Opera mainstage as Marcellina in “Figaro 90210,” an updated version of the Mozart classic. She created the title role of the WWII original opera “The White Bird of Poston”; and produces and hosts the Los Angeles concert series “Opera Off The Cuff,” featuring classical singers of color.
I recently caught up with Miki Yamashita to find out more about “The Lion Guard”:
Tell us about your role in “The Lion Guard.”
MIKI: Nirmala is a lioness who is part of the Night Pride. She is a nurturing, maternal figure who helps Kion in his journey to healing from an injury at the Tree of Life. She is very connected to the elements of nature that surround her, and wears a lovely flower tucked behind her ear. She recurs in 7 episodes this season.
As a voice artist, what did you do to prepare to play Nirmala?
MIKI: My first step is to see how I connect to the character. I ask questions about what the character’s life experience has been, up until the moment she appears on screen. And I try to draw parallels between my own personal experience and how I might react authentically in the same circumstances as the script.
What would you consider Nirmala’s ‘best’ quality? And ‘worst?’
MIKI: Nirmala’s best quality is her compassion. She is wise and knows how to guide an energetic lion cub like Kion, who can get frustrated easily by life’s obstacles. Her worst quality? She only gets to sing one song? Haha, I’m a trained opera singer so I love to explore characters through singing!
How was it working in the world of such an iconic storyline?
MIKI: I was thrilled to find out I would be voicing a character in the world of “The Lion King,” because I had been such a big fan of the original movie as a child. Everyone knows the characters and the story, so I was honored to be entrusted with voicing a role that had such a large impact on Kion, the son of Simba.
Any interesting stories from the v/o booth you can share with us?
MIKI: This was the first large animation role I had ever voiced, so I learned a lot very quickly. Ford Riley, the creator of the show, and Kelly Ward, the voice director, were so collaborative and gave me such expert guidance, and welcomed my input on the character. The funniest moments were when Nirmala was involved in big physical fights, and I had to jump and hurl myself around in the booth to generate authentic non-verbal fight sounds. I learned that you can’t be afraid to look crazy. Everyone in the booth understands.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from working on this project?
MIKI: I have much more experience working in live theater and on-camera, where other actors are usually physically with you in the space. For this role, the way the recording sessions were scheduled, I was in the booth by myself with Ford and Kelly and the engineers. So, I learned how to virtually connect to the other characters by really listening carefully to the cue lines that they had already recorded. It was a brand new challenge for me.
And, now just for fun:
Who’s your favorite actor/actress?
MIKI: I love Julianne Moore. She is always so connected and present in her work.
What role from the past do you wish you could have played?
MIKI: I wish I could have played Liz Lemon on “30 Rock.” So many great jokes and hilarious scenes!
Favorite animated movie or TV show?
MIKI: My favorite animated movie is “WALL-E.” In fact, my two cats are named after the main characters: I have a male orange tabby named WALL-E, and a white female cat named Eve! They are the cutest cats in the world.
Tell us one thing that would surprise our readers to learn about you.
MIKI: I’m only 4 feet 10 inches tall! I am small in stature but I have a big speaking and singing voice.
How can fans keep up with you?
MIKI: I love to interact with my fans on social media. On Twitter: @miki410 link
and Instagram: @miki410 link
I also have a fan page on Facebook: /mikifanpage link
I love seeing all the beautiful Nirmala fan art and enjoy retweeting them!
Thanks, Miki -- and we love hearing (and seeing) you, too!
"The Lion Guard" Nirmala (courtesy: Disney Junior)
"The Lion Guard" (courtesy: Disney Junior)
Miki Yamashita in the booth