LOS ANGELES -- Some actors will work only a few days on a movie, while others can spend months. In the case of "Mia and the White Lion," the producers made it clear to lead actor Daniah De Villiers before production started that she would be spending three years on the project being shot at the Welgedacht Reserve in South Africa.
"When we started, I was 11 years old and the first block of shooting was one month long. That was when the cubs were one and two months old," Daniah says. "At the end of the year, we had a three-week block and the next year we had a two-week block. Then we had the longest block of shooting in 2017."
The 15-year-old South African native has traveled to the United States to promote the film, which will be available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon, Video on Demand and Digital HD on July 2.
"Mia and the White Lion" has Daniah's character, Mia, finding it difficult to adjust to her family moving from the United States to South Africa. That changes when a white lion cub, Charlie, comes into Mia's life. When the lion grows older, there is a real danger for Charlie as hunters travel to the area for sanctioned kills that can be taken home as trophies. The only hope is for Mia to take the lion across the South African savanna to a sanctuary.
French director Gilles De Maistre's decision to shoot the film over three years ended up being a strange and surreal experience for De Villiers as she got to see herself grow in front of the camera. But what she recalls most when watching the movie are all the great moments that occurred during filming.
"I look at a scene and remember 'That's where that happened,'" De Villiers says. "Then getting to see the cubs get older. Thor, who plays Charlie, has gotten older, but his personality really hasn't changed. None of the lions are trained, but Thor was absolutely amazing. The only way we got them to do what we wanted was through our relationship with them.
"Even though there was a script, the director and I had to be really flexible in the moment to react to whatever Thor was doing. But most of the time, it was as if Thor had read the script because he would do exactly what we needed done."
There were also some meat treats to get some acting cooperation. It helped that Kevin Richardson, a lion expert who has become known as the Lion Whisperer, was in charge of interactions between the lions and the human actors.
De Villiers got to know Thor's personality well, having spent so much time with the lion over the three-year span. During the long shooting gaps, De Villiers continued to interact with the lions three times a week, doing everything from feeding them to cleaning the area where they stayed.
"I had never worked with lions before, so I just had to get used to them. When they are cubs, they are very energetic. I had to learn what lions do. I remember when I met Thor for the first time, my mother would drive me to the farm and I would just sit there for hours," De Villiers says. "Growing up with the lions, interacting with the lions became second nature. I got to know what Thor liked and what he didn't like."
She adds the affection she shows for the lions in the film came naturally because she really did fall in love with her animal costars.
There were a few uncomfortable moments when the lions would put all their weight on the actor to the point she found it hard to breathe. Even when the lions showed affection, De Villiers ended up with some scrapes because a lion's tongue is so rough she would be left bleeding. But all of that was part of the bonding process between actor and animal.
The role came early in De Villiers' career, as she was cast only a year after starting to take acting and singing classes. Her resume includes the productions "Zero is Not Nothing" and "The Dating Game Killer," plus an appearance in 2013 at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Hollywood, where she was named the Junior Grand Champion.
The cast of "Mia and the White Lion" also includes Melanie Laurent ("Now You See Me"), Langley Kirkwood ("Black Sails") and Ryan Mac Lennan ("Rumpelstiltskin").
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