Though she’s been working steadily on Broadway as Nala in “The Lion King,” Chantel Riley just received her first movie credit for “Race,” a role that she calls “a blessing.”
“We’re here on Broadway, and they give each of us the opportunity to do different things, which is great,” Riley explained when reached by phone for an interview. “Just because I had ‘Lion King’ didn’t mean I stopped auditioning and stuff. I knew this was the Jesse Owens story, which was an incredible story to be part of. I submitted a self-tape and I booked the job.”
“Race” examines the life of Jesse Owens, an extraordinary athlete who won four gold medals for track-and-field events during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Riley plays Quincella Nickerson, a woman whose relationship with Owens caused a bit of a stir in the press.
“Quincella was a huge fan of Jesse’s, and a lot of people read into their relationship or their friendship. It could have been a negative thing, I guess, between him and, at the time, his fiancée back home,” she said. “You know, like gossip columnists do: making up stories and saying they were together. Or saying stuff like they were engaged at one point. I guess it did cause a little bit of a problem. She was a little troublemaker.”
Riley thinks Owens’ story is exciting, but she feels like it’s a story that many people don’t know too much about in detail. “Before I got on the project, I kinda just knew who [Quincella] was and knew that he was big athlete. But I didn’t know the full details of his life, his upbringing and all the records that he broke. It was really cool to work on this and just learn,” she said.
Riley went on location in Montreal, but she was not part of the scenes shot in Berlin. Her part did require her to take some time off from “The Lion King.” “I think I did about a week-and-a-half, two weeks of shooting, but it was all spread out,” the actress explained. “It was like ‘Okay, we need you for a day here, two days there.’ Which was great for ‘Lion King’ because I was able to shoot and come back the next day and go into work.”
Riley also said that she is so blessed and honored to be a part of this Broadway show, which is turning 19 this easy. “There really is nothing like that out there. To be a part of something like that, and tell that story is so incredible. And seeing the reactions of the people from that first opening number, ‘Circle of Life.’ I’m not in the show until the second act; I sometimes sneak into the back and just watch from the audience’s point of view.”
Going forward, Riley will be continuing with “The Lion King,” but also wants to do more films. “A lot of people have been asking me: ‘What’s the difference between the set and the stage?’ Well, on the set I can mess up a bunch of times, and we can just reset and do it over again. On stage, you only have one shot,” she said, laughing.
“Race” opens in theaters on Friday, February 19.