The Lion King’s Chantel Riley talks about role in upcoming biopic, Race

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Hollywood is alive. It lives, it breathes, it moves. The great thing about it, more now than before, is that it isn’t the location that defines it anymore, but by the mere presence of those who strive to be great actors, actresses, directors, writers, anything. Hollywood can be found all over, from the western shores of California to the bustling busy streets of New York, breathing the inspiration of stars past and present to those with passion and desire. It has even made its way into Broadway, inspiring some of the most unique and visually stunning shows in Broadway’s long history. In weaving its way into one of those famous stage productions, The Lion King, it found a heart driven by passion and faith and gave it a chance to shine like never before. That heart belongs to Chantel Riley.

Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Chantel knew that her life was being prepared for more than just what she was used to. She attended York University while striving for a degree in Sociology. Amidst all the school work, she held down a nine-to-five job as an insurance adjuster. It was at this point in her life that Chantel realized the path of her life was going to take a dramatic turn.

“I applaud those who do that job, but it was not for this chick,” she stated, as she laughed. “A friend of mine told me that there was an open casting call for The Lion King (musical), so I went and did the audition. I later got a couple of callbacks, which got me freaking out because I have no acting experience,” she chuckled. “Other than being in church Christmas plays, and singing as a worship leader for my church, I didn’t have much else experience in the arts department.” Despite all this, Chantel received an invitation to audition for The Lion King Musical Company in Hamburg, Germany, and won the part of Nala. “After about a year in Hamburg, I was soon offered the same role but on Broadway, and I took it. I’ve been here now for 3 years.”

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Being a woman led by her faith, Chantel has heavily relied on her beliefs and her spirituality to be the guiding force of her career. “I’m a Christian. I started singing when I was young in the church. I danced at church and at a dance studio called The Dance Pac from 11 until 18, when I finished high school.” Chantel felt that she had been prepared all her life for the role that she had been blessed with, as she likened the opportunities she received as a young girl to how they prepared her for the big stage. “It was a life-changing experience for me(playing Nala), and it was as though I was being prepared and I didn’t even know it,” she exclaimed. “Doing church plays, standing in front of the congregation; it was kind of like performing. You had to lead the people in singing, and the same thing with being on stage, you have to tell the story in front of the audience and keep them engaged.” Although the size difference was notable, in Chantel’s mind, the idea and heart behind it were one in the same. “I tried to take the opportunity to be somewhat of an inspiration on stage. On stage, you’re taking those gifts you’ve been given to inspire other people, and that’s pretty much what I pray for every night before going on stage: That at least one person leaves with an inspired heart.” Quoting Colossians 3:23, Chantel chooses to live out every aspect of her life as if she was doing it for God, and giving all that she has in everything she does. “It’s all for Him, everything.”

So when asked about how a woman of faith, who has played a Disney character on Broadway, gets cast as a young flirtatious socialite bent on stealing a married athlete in the upcoming 2016 biographical film, Race, Chantel bursts into laughter! “I know, I know!” Chantel explained about whom Quincella, her character, was. “She was someone that was actually true in the story. She was around during Jesse Owens’ life.” Race is the true story of runner Jesse Owens, and his quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. “The character I play is Quincella, a friend of Jesse’s, and an admirer of his. She would show up at all the practices and all the meets, like one persistent woman would do,” she laughed. “She was very affluent, as her father owned an insurance company in California, and ended up giving her everything she had wanted. Jesse was involved with someone else at the time, but that didn’t deter Quincella, and she was going to do whatever it took to get Jesse.” As an actress, Chantel didn’t want to get typecasted for the same roles, but in the same mind, she wanted to also let people know that she uses moral and spiritual judgment when picking a part in any project. “I wanted to show that whoever it would be that I get an opportunity to portray, whether it was Nala or Quincella, that I give an opportunity to show more than just the surface of who the character is. Every role I choose, I choose wisely, and I hope that people remember it’s just pretend.” She giggles, “I didn’t go around, sleeping with a bunch of men or something for preparation. It’s just a character. It isn’t someone I bring home with me.”

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Chantel wanted to stretch her acting prowess and wanted to create more of a three-dimensional character out of Quincella, wanting to show more than just a man-stealing brat. “I wanted to tell a story with my character. Although that she got whatever wanted, I felt that there had to be more to her than just the stereotypical character. Maybe she lacked the attention from her father. Maybe she needed more one on one time with him. I tried to play that angle in the role, wanting that attention from Jesse and trying desperately to get him to notice her,” she states. “Everybody has a little dark side that they don’t want to talk about, and I think this is hers.” Chantel wanted to do her best in giving depth to a character that many seem to overlook in films, and in doing so, could possibly translate well among moviegoers. “For her, I feel she sought out those needs. She had those issues that she didn’t want to deal with. More than the money, more than being a socialite; her life surrounded itself around the problems she didn’t want to talk about.”

As far as projects outside of Race, Chantel couldn’t speak on some. “Well, some things I can’t discuss, but I have been a part of some short films lately, directed by my friend, James Brown-Orleans.” Brown-Orleans is a member of The Lion King Broadway cast, playing Bonzai, the hyena, but when he isn’t playing the laughing animal he is earnestly setting out to making and directing short films, according to Chantel. “He’s so creative! It’s great to be around him so much because we’ve been able to collaborate on some short films. One of those we just did is called A Teacher’s Nightmare, which I just heard from James that he submitted it to the New York International Film Festival.” Excited, Chantel mentioned that once they are done shipping out all the submissions, they will be able to finally release it for people to watch. “It’s just so great to be able to appreciate the smaller, independent films, and work with people like that, I love it.”

Race, starring Chantel Riley, along with a star-studded cast such as Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt,  and so many others, takes off from the starting line in a few weeks February 19, 2016.

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Eddie Villanueva Jr.
Eddie Villanueva Jr. 313 posts

A movie connoisseur of only the finest films, and an Encyclopod of geek and nerd knowledge. And if you know what an Encyclopod is, you're cool too!