Go wild with 'Mia and the White Lion' star Daniah de Villiers
When you’re ten years old, the prospect of headlining your first feature film can be pretty daunting, especially when your costar just happens to be a 400 pound lion. For Daniah De Villiers, star of Mia and the White Lion, the incredible two and half year production meant actually growing up in front of the camera and, in the process, forging the friendship of a lifetime.
“It was a really long audition process,” De Villiers recalls. “They held auditions across South Africa and then they selected 11 kids to go and see how we all reacted with the lions… I remember auditioning for the scene. It’s my favorite scene in the movie, where Thor and I are on top of the Land Rover and Mia says she’s wishing for a shooting star.”
Signing on to play Mia meant that De Hilliers’ parents and sister would have to move almost a thousand miles north, from Cape Town to Pretoria, for nearly three years. Not only would the production schedule allow for the character of Mia to grow, it would let Daniah do so alongside Thor, a young lion cub who plays the film’s lead, Charlie.
“[The move] was a really big decision, obviously, but we all had peace in our hearts that this was the journey and adventure for us to embark on,” De Villiers continues. “My parents love me. It’s not like they just sent me off to play with stuff. They were part of the process. They saw how the lions loved me and how much I loved the lions and I think that they had so much trust in Kevin [Richardson] as well.”
Dubbed “The Lion Whisperer,” Kevin Richardson is a wildlife conservationist whose experience working alongside the massive cats was of vital importance to the production.
“I wouldn’t have been able to like done this without [him],” De Villiers continues. “He’s been working with lions for over 20 years and he has such a unique way of building relationships with these big cats. It was so inspiring to be able to learn from the lion whisperer. His technique was really based on love and trust. There was no need for tricks or anything. It was a really intimate relationship with the lion.”
Not entirely dissimilar to De Villier’s own story, Mia and the White Lion follows a young girl whose family leaves London in order to oversee a lion farm in Africa. There are no visual effects involved in bringing that story to the screen, just an incredible display of trust between De Villiers and Thor.
“It took so long because the cub had to bond with me so that he didn’t eat me at the end of the movie,” De Villiers laughs. “So we had to have that bond with the lion. I was interacting with the lions three times a week, even when we were not filming, just to maintain and keep that bond.”
“I remember it was so special meeting Thor,” she recalls. “He plays the lead throughout the movie. I just remember it being so special. He gave me my very first lion head bump and rub. That’s how lions greet. They would come and bump heads and stuff. I had so many bruises from that, but it was so worth it cause he’s so sweet. He was very magical.”
Like any other species, lions go through a lot of changes as they grow up and, thanks to Richardson’s expertise, De Villiers was able to deal with Thor even at his most mischievous.
“They go through phases,” she explains. “With each phase, there was a challenge. I had to grow comfortable being where the lions were at at their age. They’re toddlers to teenagers, you know. When they’re toddlers, they play a lot and they jumped so much. There, the challenge was to get comfortable with them jumping on me all the time. When they’re teenagers, they’re testing you. Seeing how far they can push your boundaries. There was a challenge with each phase and that’s where Kevin really helped me. He helped me understand that they’re not being malicious. They have a good intention. They’re just growing, just as I was growing. So we grew together.”
The secret to being around a lion like Thor, De Villiers says, is all about trust.
“Kevin especially taught me that it’s really a mind switch to trust the lion,” she explains. “Kevin taught me how to like get on the lion’s level. Let him into like your space and bubble, just having a lion next to you, close to your vulnerable parts like your neck. Having that trust is really so mind blowing and the lions, they can feel that. I think it just grew more and more the trust like throughout the years.”
What is like performing alongside a lion when the camera is rolling? De Villiers says that it’s about respecting the narrative of the film while understanding that the lion stars don’t necessarily know the difference between performing and just hanging out.
“Even though we had a script, we had to be very flexible to what happens in the moment,’ says De Villiers. “Because it’s a lion. You can like control a lion in a sense, but whatever he does, I have to react to. We have moments like that in the movie, which I think makes it really unique and natural. But Thor was so amazing. It was as if he read the script because he did everything and he would even like do it again and again.”
Even though production on Mia and the White Lion is long done, De Villiers still takes every opportunity she can to visit her costar.
“I do, but through the fence, because I’m too young to go in on my own without Kevin,” she says. “But I miss him so, so much and I try to see him as often as I can. He’s so beautiful because he’s been such a big part of my life and he will forever mean so much to me.”
Mia and the White Lion is now available on Blu-ray and digital via Shout Factory.