After attending the Disney Lion King Cub School, Hunter Del Valle Marfo played Young Simba on the 20th Anniversary UK Tour of The Lion King for his first big professional job, and he made his West End debut as Young Simba last year when theatres could reopen since the pandemic forced them to close. On screen, Hunter has filmed for a number of commercials including for Disney Junior Den, Nestlé Pure Life, Nintendo, Clarks and Boeing, and a few of Hunter’s short films he’s worked on this year are set for film festivals in 2023. Currently, Hunter is filming a music video for David Bowie’s band Killerstar, and early next year, he will be completing filming for Ben Wicks’ short film Boy in the Shed, with a teaser being screened at a charity ball with the Prince of Wales next month. Chatting to us, Hunter talks about playing Young Simba in The Lion King on tour and in the West End, filming a music video for Killerstar and working on commercials.
With The Lion King reopening in the West End last year after the pandemic had closed theatres, how was it returning to performing?
Performing is like breathing to me. Not being able to perform during lockdown broke my heart. Returning to the stage made me feel alive again.
How was your time playing Young Simba in London and what was it like being part of the cast?
It was extraordinary… it filled my heart with joy from start to finish, even at a challenging time dictated by COVID tests, social distancing and potential firebreaks. There was so much gratitude from the London audience; it really energised me and I was proud to be part of a tremendous team. We were a family and I got plenty of support, praise and encouragement from everyone, especially West End veterans, Shaun Escoffery and George Asprey, who played Mufasa and Scar.
Do you have any stand-out highlights from making your West End debut at the Lyceum Theatre?
I was honoured to be asked to do the opening show in the presence of my favourite people, my family. My little brother was my loudest cheerleader, I could hear him yelling my name from backstage. Having them there with my mentor, Akosua Boakye and the President of Disney Theatrical, Thomas Schumacher was unforgettable – it meant the world to me!
However, little did the audience know that our most iconic prop, Pride Rock, was actually being temperamental less than an hour before opening. It was beyond nerve-racking. I knew that the crew were working against the clock to fix it but was unsure whether it would work. Thank God, it did – rising like the sun for Circle of Life… it took our breath away and I was dancing backstage before my first scene.
You previously played Young Simba on the 20th Anniversary UK Tour, how was the experience touring with the production?
This was my first big professional debut on stage. Opening night at the Bristol Hippodrome was nothing short of phenomenal, but I was a sack of nerves. I had previously been very active with my local theatre in London, The Space Theatre, but this was different. I knew that the press were there to write reviews which meant I needed to deliver a perfect performance. For a moment, I wanted to hide in my dressing room but the nerves subsided when I heard the audience and my cub crew cheered me on. The moment I stepped on stage, it was pure magic. You never forget that feeling, it’s on par with your final curtain call at every theatre you get to call home. I have fond memories of the tour. I enjoyed performing in Bristol and in Edinburgh and creating some lasting friendships. When we were off, we behaved like tourists – we took open-top bus rides, ate around the city, visited museums, fairgrounds and other attractions.
How did you feel finding out you’d booked the role and what did you enjoy most about playing the character?
I was nine years old when I was cast as Young Simba. The casting director told my parents first and they broke the good news during dinner. I almost choked on my chicken wing before running riot! It felt like Christmas and all of my birthday wishes came true at once. To be able to play a character I have adored since the age of three was an absolute dream. His mischievous, playful quality and quick-wittedness was easily relatable but I also admired his deep understanding and love for his family, his home… his pride.
You attended the Disney Lion King Cub School, can you tell us about your time there?
At first, it seemed like the Hunger Games. All the kids had professional experience and I felt like fresh meat trying to avoid the chopping block. Cub School was run at the prestigious Sylvia Young School of Performing Arts. You could taste the serious talent as soon as you walked through the front doors. It was intimidating but exciting and I made sure I worked hard and deserved my place there. The teachers were generous and strict in equal measure. If you gave 100%, they were full of praise… if not, you knew you were going to walk the line very soon. The pressure was fierce and intense but I made a lot of friends and that gave me and everyone else real comfort and encouragement. I never really considered anyone as a rival – I just admired everyone’s talent and shared mine. Hopefully, I get to work with them again some day.
What do you remember most from appearing in your first advert for Disney Junior Den?
I was a tiny tot then – I was five years old. I remember going to Disney HQ in London to meet the director, Nam Patel. She was so warm and welcoming; I instantly liked her. On set, I remember going through technicolour tunnels that were set up in a house. My partner kept making me laugh and I enjoyed taking direction from Nam and the crew, who gladly jumped in and played with us. It was a marvellous learning experience for a little kid like me who regularly chomped on Disney content like popcorn.
Can you say about some of the other commercials you’ve been involved with?
I have been lucky to have done some big international campaigns for Nestlé Pure Life, Nintendo, Clarks and Boeing to name a few. I remember sitting on a futuristic-like speedboat for Nestlé. I was in a studio in Bucharest with a French production team. They had travelled in with this enormous prop from France along with a cable car and hot air balloon, they basically created a mini fairground in the studio and we all had so much fun trying them. Boeing was another memorable one. I met an aerospace engineer and quietly considered leaving acting for a bit to join a kids’ STEM programme. It was short-lived though… the heart always knows what it really wants.
We understand you have worked for independent production companies, what are some of the projects you’ve filmed?
I love the stage but also screenwork. You can’t have the same meal every day. I have done a few short movies this year: Wagwan, Isolation, Fairer Together and the concept for Boy in the Shed, some of which are planned to hit the film festival circuit next year. I was attracted to these projects because they tackle difficult themes about the human experience – all of which are important to young people but a real challenge to talk about.
Where does your love of performing come from and how did you start?
I think it is in my DNA. My grandfather who died before I was born was a musician. My family says I am a lot like him, a natural born performer. From the age of two, I would climb onto the dining table and perform to an imaginary audience. It was my first ever stage. Singing, dancing and acting felt very instinctive to me and I wanted to make people happy. My parents also regularly took me to the theatre, ballet and performing arts classes so that too contributed to my love of performance.
How do you like to spend your time away from acting?
I love writing short scripts: sci-fi, mystery and fantasy. I also enjoy drawing. Once upon a time, I wanted to be just like Kandinsky who compared his artwork to music. I also dabble in anime illustrations. I love finding calm, creative ways to relax after a long day but I also like channeling my energy in martial arts. I do taekwondo a few times a week.
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?
I am a bit of a retro kid. I love The Goonies, Gremlins, Star Wars and Stranger Things, which is 80s inspired. I am also a big fan of comic books and comic book movies (Marvel and DC) and of course musicals (Thriller and Get Up, Stand Up! are my stand-out favourites).
You are currently filming for a music video, what is this like to work on?
This is my first music video. It is for Killerstar, David Bowie’s old band. He was/is such an iconic musical hero, and I think this video pays special tribute to him. It is a cosmic adventure brought to life by JJ Eringa, whose vision is out of this world! It was fun to squeeze into a commander jumpsuit for an 80s style space odyssey.
Do you have any upcoming projects you are working on and what are you hoping the next year brings for your career?
I will be reuniting with Shoreditch Pictures early next year to complete Boy in the Shed written by Ben Wicks. It is a beautiful story with real emotional depth and a strong message. Its teaser will be screened for the Prince of Wales next month at a charity ball. I am sure there won’t be a dry eye in the room.
2022 has been a bumper year: great opportunities and even greater people. I plan to keep working on my craft, growing my creative outlook and network. I am inspired by the talented people I have met and I want to keep moving others with good, honest storytelling.
I recently turned 13 so I am going to go the distance, be bold and just put it out there that I would also love to work with filmmaking heavyweights like Ryan Coogler, The Duffer Brothers and the Russo brothers one day. I admire their style and profound impact on popular culture.
All in aIl, it’s all about being more fearless in the new year. I look forward to more projects that will stretch me as an artist… essentially, anything with a powerful, positive bite.