JD McCrary has a message to kids who have a special talent and a dream: Keep going and never give up.
The 12-year-old actor and singer—whose most recent role was the voice of young Simba in the live-action The Lion King remake—is a young Hollywood star on the rise. When we sat down to talk, McCrary had recently walked the red carpet for the July Los Angeles premiere of the film. He radiated gratitude and positivity.
He said his goal is to inspire others with his talents.
“I don’t want to squander my blessings. I want to use my talents to make a positive impact. That’s my main motivation for anything that I do,” said McCrary.
He is certainly not squandering his blessings through idleness. In addition to his role in The Lion King, he is a cast member on the OWN TV show, The Paynes and was the stuttering schoolmate in the spring hit movie, Little. But the preteen says his role in The Lion King helped him stretch his acting skills.
“I learned that you have to put all your energy into your voice when you are doing voice-overs because you don’t have your body to reinforce what you’re saying,” said McCrary. “It was a huge honor to play one of my favorite Disney characters,” he added. “I was able to really be myself in the movie because I can relate to Simba in a lot of ways.”
In talking to him, it’s clear that McCrary is like young Simba in two ways: His expectation of great things in his future and his ability to use his unique experiences to learn and grow.
“I study myself to make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes and I always try to acknowledge what I didn’t do right and improve when I feel like I didn’t do my greatest,” said McCrary.
“I believe if you keep trying to achieve that goal you’ve really been wanting to do, you’ll make it there eventually.”
McCrary began his acting career at seven years old and says he has been lucky to work with and learn from so many gifted artists, including his older brother Josh, who had a role as an elephant shrew in The Lion King.
Family is a big source of inspiration for the young star, particularly his parents, Jay West and LaRisa, who were extremely encouraging when he told them he wanted to be a performer. He believes his family—and God—keep him grounded.
“My family keeps me humble and they make sure I remember my roots. They remind me not to lash out and do crazy stuff,” he laughed. “And I have faith in God, so I know whatever I do, I will be fine.”
His parents have worked hard to make sure that despite his meteoric rise and the necessary changes that has entailed, McCrary feels supported in every aspect of his life: socially, emotionally and academically.
While he is no longer in a traditional school setting, McCrary recognizes that his education—particularly math and problem solving—is important, especially in his chosen career.
“I love math! Mainly because I am going to be using it all my life,” said McCrary, who is a spokesperson for Office Depot’s back-to-school campaign. “You need math to manage your money— what you are losing and what you are gaining.
“…education in general is important because you can always improve. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are; you are always able to learn more.”
His resilient spirit pushes him to do more with his talent. In addition to acting, he’s pursuing a music career as the youngest artist ever signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records. McCrary released a single, “Keep in Touch” and his first EP entitled, “Shine” earlier this year.
Influenced by his father and extended family, who also sing, McCrary’s music gives young people hope with messages to aim high, be positive and stay connected with friends and loved ones.
“It feels good expressing myself in my music,” he said. “I love that how I write and sing my songs helps me share my thoughts and feelings with the world.”
He says look for new music coming out soon.
As for other young artists looking to break into Hollywood, McCrary wants to remind them that there are a lot of talents to share, beyond acting and singing. He encourages kids to not be afraid to express themselves authentically. In fact, McCrary plans to one day open an art gallery to showcase another of his passions—painting and drawing.
He has this advice to kids who desire to go big with their talents.
“Always be yourself and keep doing what you’re doing,” said McCrary. “And if you want to express yourself through math or art—or singing or dancing— don’t be afraid to just do it, because being able to express yourself in any way that you choose is the best thing in life.”
Kisha DeSandies Lester is the senior editorial and digital manager at National PTA.