The live-action epic adventure The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi, in a remarkable debut performance), a man-cub raised by a family of wolves who must leave when he learns that he is no longer welcome in the jungle because the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), who bears the scars of Man, promises to eliminate him. Forced to abandon the only home he’s ever known, Mowgli embarks on a life-changing journey of self-discovery, guided by his stern mentor, the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), and the free-spirited bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray).
At the film’s press day, actor Ben Kingsley spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about his love of the Rudyard Kipling book, finding his character’s voice, what he thought of the magnificent Bagheera, getting to have Neel Sethi to interact with, if only for a couple of days, and why he loves collaborating with director Jon Favreau. He also talked about the questions he asks himself before signing on for a project, and that he’s currently filming the political thriller Backstabbing for Beginners.
Collider: Congratulations on being a part of such a wonderful and beautiful movie!
BEN KINGSLEY: Kipling wrote this amazing book, over a hundred years ago, for young people, about a little boy with animals. Although so many of us pay respect to and love the animated cartoon that came out in the ‘60s, that is a cartoon, talking to cartoons. I’ve seen little excerpts from this, and this is a boy with animals. It’s extraordinary, what they’ve achieved. And that additional dynamic has really rocketed it into the modern age and touched base with the original story by Rudyard Kipling, which is thrilling.
Were you ever jealous, at all, that you didn’t get your own song to sing, like Bill Murray and Christopher Walken did?
KINGSLEY: I think I hum along, towards the end, with the famous song. But, Bagheera is military. I don’t think he’s given to humming or singing. I see him as General Bagheera. Knowing that Kipling was born in India, I based my Bagheera on the kind of British officer who would be stationed in India, at the time of the Empire, who would have a lot of people under his command. He probably loves his men under his command, but he’s a tough love coach. That military side of him, I really warmed to.
Why do you think Bagheera took in Mowgli and kept track of him?
KINGSLEY: I think he understands the kid. He’s known the child since it was a baby. He snatched him from death. I think he is someone who listens and responds, as well as issuing commands and a framework and structure for life. I also think he’s sensitive and responsive.
Even though it was only for a couple of days, what was it like to have Neel Sethi there to work with?
KINGSLEY: I was only with him a couple of days, but it opened up a channel in me that I could tap into when he wasn’t there. I knew him and I knew his energy, his curiosity, and that wide-eyed courage that Neel and Mowgli have. I was able, even though he wasn’t there, to access that, as an actor, when I was alone in the studio. Also, dear Jon [Favreau] showed us footage of certain scenes, as well, so that I could see his body language, how he was talking and how he was listening to me. You speak very different to someone who is half-listening than you do to someone who is giving you their full attention. All of that was great input for me.
You’ve worked with Jon Favreau before, and it was on another big film, but this is such a different experience. How was the collaboration with him on this?
KINGSLEY: I sense that Jon really understands the original Kipling book. This is not the copy of a copy of a copy. This is going right back to the original and interpreting that book, which is why the rating is PG. It has to be because it has to include what Kipling himself wanted to include, as a guide to life and as a book to prepare a young person for life. It invites a child to look at the light and the dark in a balanced way. Jon has that in his bones and in his DNA, and therefore there is an immediate response in me, and respect and affection for him, as a great director and guide. You’re only as good as the taste of your director. That is the limit of film. He would guide the animation and translate the voice to our body language and the environment with which we live, none of which we could see.
What was it like to see what your counterpart, Bagheera, would look like?
KINGSLEY: I had drawings first, and they were magnificent. And then, later on, there was a little bit of opening animation. The military voice I used was very well translated into the body language of the character. He’s not a big, sprawling, relaxed bear. He’s a lean, mean fighting machine.
At this point in your career, what is it that gets you interested in a project and makes you decide to sign on for something?
KINGSLEY: Every day is different. If you boiled me down to the essence, I think it would be that I’m a storyteller. I hope so. I think so. Therefore, when I’m offered a project, it’s about whether the story is life-enhancing, whether it will be told in a way that’s appropriate to the material, and whether it will keep an audience enthralled for 90 minutes to 120 minutes. It’s that, really. And that will immediately embrace with whom that I’d be working, who my fellow actors and director are, and what the guiding taste of the ensemble is. But, those choices tend to become intuitive with experience because you know if something won’t work. People will say, “How do you know and why?,” and I say, “I’m just telling you, that won’t work.” And you can also sense, very quickly, what will work or what has potential to work. It’s a chemical thing. The more that actors, writers and directors like Jon are responsible for bringing that team together, the better. Very often, unfortunately, the team is brought up by a committee who doesn’t really understand the reliance we have on one another to create something and that it’s communal. Those are never really good choices. The individual guiding intelligence is the way forward, and Jon has that.
Are you currently working on anything now?
KINGSLEY: I am right in the middle of a movie. I shouldn’t really be here. We started off in Morocco. We then did massive scenes in Toronto. I’m now here. And then, I go on to Copenhagen to finish the film. It’s called Backstabbing for Beginners, and it’s about the United Nations scandal over oil for food during Saddam’s reign. It’s very interesting. It’s a whole examination of that scandal. It’s a political thriller. So, I’m slap in the middle of that right now.
The Jungle Book opens in theaters on April 15th.