Rudyard Kipling’s beloved The Jungle Book is being given new life as Disney releases its second iteration directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau.
The original 1967 animated version was a huge hit. The latest version starring 12-year-old Neel Sethi is headed in that direction with its hyper real jungle environment, stunning cast of creatures and its cinematic flourishes.
The first-time actor carries the film, appearing in nearly every scene, and works alone, acting against a green screen.
That’s something that takes a lot of imagination – which Sethi has in abundance.
He’s naturally funny and says he’s the funniest kid in his class. Combine that with natural talent, charm and mad physical skills and you’ve got the perfect Mowgli.
We had the good fortune to speak with Sethi in Toronto.
M&C: You’re very strong and co-ordinated, parkour-ing all over the jungle. It looks like so much fun but hard work. You must be in top physical shape.
Neel Sethi: Yes, I did all those physical things like running and jumping and all that stuff before this movie because I’m very athletic. It wasn’t that much of a change.
M&C: How long would you do that in a day?
NS: Sometimes it would be one day walking and technical stuff and on dedicated stunt days we’d do a lot of stunts, running and jumping and playing.
M&C: You’re a pretty good actor. You can do serious stuff and funny stuff pretty easily.
NS: I haven’t taken classes. They just like me. They don’t want me to be an “actor”. Well, they want to be an actor but they don’t want me to “act”.
M&C: Have you had experience?
NS: I’ve never acted before, it was my first audition. I never thought about acting before but then I thought “alright”.
My dance teacher was like, ‘you should do this’ and says acting is fun – so I said “okay”.
It was really big and I didn’t know that at first. I didn’t know 2,000 people were auditioning. So I was just myself.
My dad said “You have to be good. You’re not supposed to be yourself. You’re supposed to act!” But they didn’t like it when I acted. They liked me when I was myself.
M&C: What was it you liked most about working with director Jon Favreau? The brisket he cooked for you?
NS: He’s really funny. I like that he’s funny, he cracks a joke even when there’s nothing to do and everyone’s just waiting there silently he’ll just crack some jokes and everybody starts laughing. It’s funny.
M&C: I hear he cooked for you and the cast.
NS: He made grilled cheeses and brisket. You know his movie Chef? He made the grilled cheeses from Chef. You know what he said? He said: “James Bond made martinis on set once for everybody and that was kind of funny so I should make grilled cheeses for everybody on the set”.
M&C: You sing all those wonderful songs, and one while you’re riding Baloo [Bill Murray] in the water.
NS: We were sitting on a lump of Styrofoam with a brown carpet on top and I’m just sitting there on my wet loincloth and so basically it’s me there talking and Jon would get in the water and he’d talk with me.
There’s one scene where Baloo spits at me and splashes me. Jon actually hoses me and I give this reaction [pulls a hard glare].
M&C: Did you know he was going to?
M&C: How did you react to creatures you couldn’t see, working against a green screen or with CGI? Who did you react to?
NS: If it wasn’t Jon, there were puppeteers and puppets were there and that really helped me. Jon got into a puppet and acted with me. He did a lot.
M&C: We go through a lot of emotion and life lessons. Did you learn anything from The Jungle Book?
NS: Just to listen. I knew that before but, now, a lot more to listen to people. Mowgli didn’t do that and he almost lost his life, right? You have to.
M&C: And help. You helped get the baby elephant out of the pit. I teared up.
NS: You did? Yay! Not bad yay but good yay! Good crying.
M&C: So you and Bill Murray! How was that?
NS: A lot of fun. Me and Jon Favreau flew on a private jet to Martha’s Vineyard and we met Bill there and I played football with him while Jon made brisket. A normal day, you know.
M&C: You and Bill Murray sing “I Want to Be Just Like You”. Who do you want to be just like or aspire to?
NS: Captain America. He’s tall and strong and a superhero. He’s my favourite superhero.
M&C: So you’re a fan, but your director directed Iron Man.
NS: Yah. Can we all just get along? I bet in four films’ time they’re going to fight DC Comics some way. Batman vs. Superman, Captain America vs. Spider Man. Spider Man is really amazing. If they were together, imagine that!
M&C: Did you get to meet everyone you worked with?
NS: Everyone but Idris Elba [who voices tiger Shere Khan]. That’d be cool to meet my arch nemesis. I didn’t get to, but I bet I’ll meet him somewhere!
M&C: I’ll bet your dance teacher is pretty excited.
NS: Yeah! We’re going to have a big celebration!
M&C: Well, thanks!!
NS: Now I get to do school! [Laughs].