I received an all expense paid trip from Disney to attend the #JungleBookEvent. The opinions expressed here are my own and I received no monetary compensation.
“Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody dared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.” — Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
As Sir Ben Kingsley (yes, he was knighted in 2002) walked into the #JungleBookEvent interview room, the atmosphere in the room shifted a bit with his grand presence and immense talent. I’ve long admired his work in Schindler’s List, Gandhi, Dave, Searching for Bobby Fischer and my husband would insist that I also list Iron Man 3 as one of his greatest roles. The list goes on and on. Sir Ben Kingsley has won an Oscar, Grammy, BAFTA, two Golden Globes and a Screen Actors Guild Award. It was an incredible honor to steal 20 minutes of his time to chat with him about his role as Bagheera in The Jungle Book. I enjoyed listening to him speak about how he prepared for and related to the character. He definitely puts an incredible amount of introspection and thought into every single role he plays. I really couldn’t imagine anyone else more perfect for the role of Bagheera!
Q: How do you prepare for a character?
A: I think it varies, because either I’m propelled towards a character through recognition or through curiosity. Curiosity has to be there, because if I’m not curious about him, I haven’t played a her yet… Oh, I did in Box Trolls. Then of course that won’t be contagious and the audience won’t be curious. My third job [as] a stage actor was with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he still is the maestro of storytelling and of putting patterns of human behavior on the stage, on the screen, which ever. And I think that if I can feel that there’s a genuine pattern of recognizable human behavior, even a little bit with animals, that human element which is healing, which provides an explanation, comfort, entertainment, all of the above, then I’d love to be part of it. If I feel that it’s just an invention, an obstruction, that it doesn’t have anything to do with us, then it doesn’t really excite me at all. It has to have that human ingredient to it, that moves us forward even a tiny bit as a tribe or species.
Q: Did you see Bagheera as more of a father figure to Mowgli than Akela?
A: No, I didn’t see him as a father figure at all. I did see him in military terms that it was as if I was training a young cadet into how to survive in particular circumstances. And I liked Jon’s version of this which is close to Kipling’s, which is a story that prepares a young person for life. And you have to prepare young people for life by lovingly introducing them to the fact that there is light and shade, that both exist side-by-side in life, and that if you dilute, distort, sugar coat, sentimentalize everything in the hope that you’re gonna keep a child’s attention, you won’t. You get the child’s attention, [he’ll] immediately go dark. Whenever I read stories to my children, they would always ask me to read the scary bits over and over again. They would love it, because they were hearing it in a safe place. That’s the ingredient. If they are introduced to that dark side of life in a really safe environment by their parents, then it’s fun.
Photo: Becky Fry / MySparklingLife.com
Q: In the original Jungle Book, Bagheera seems a little more irritated with Mowgli than caring about him. I feel like in the new movie he cares more about him, even as he’s introducing him to his dark spaces. Did you draw upon your own experiences as a parent or was that written?
A: I’m sure it’s inevitable to use one’s experiences as a parent, but I think in Kipling’s time, which was colonial Britain, and I think actually Victoria might still have been on the throne when he wrote the novel, which is extraordinary, you did discipline your children through irritation and lack of empathy and impatience, rather than love and encouragement. So I think that if we want to translate it into the 21st Century, then yes, there is irritation in Bagheera, and there are those limits that he won’t let the boy transcend, but that it’s done with more empathy and more affections rather than from the book of rules. So there is a shift, yeah.
Q: Which character do you personally relate to the most? Is it Bagheera or the more free spirited Baloo?
A: I think I’m both. I think we’re all both. I think that when you see, read a great novel or see a film like this, you realize that they all represent different aspects of you. As these animals all represent different challenges to the central challenge of the young boy, which is adulthood, adolescence and adulthood, massive challenges. I think that [we] find that they’re all part of us rather than any one individual character, that we change according to the people in front of us, to dads and moms and that’s how we approach them.
Q: Which is more difficult for you, onscreen acting or voice?
A: If I go back to Shakespeare and the density of that text, and how you have to give every word its appropriate weight and emphasis in a great speech. I do enjoy and find it empowering and important, urgent, to express things vocally. It’s part of my DNA. It’s part of my training, to surrender one’s whole physical side to an animating genius who is thousands of miles away and maybe there’s 12 of them working on Bagheera’s body, that’s very exciting and allows me or makes it very imperative that I explain to them through my voice, so that they can hear what I’m doing and they can animate to my voice. It’s all very exciting. Story telling for me is, is the essential thing, so if I’m telling a story with my voice or my voice and my body or my voice, my body and an action, and then in a costume and then all sorts of things added on, the essential is the story telling.
Photo: Becky Fry / MySparklingLife.com
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the recording process and how long it took.
A: It was spread out over at least a year. As we developed it with Jon into the story, he was able to show us more and more what our physical shape would be on screen. I did have two days with [Neel], which was great, so we were able to establish that dynamic between us and then let that inform our performance even when we were separated by geographics. You really cannot embark on a massive project like this unless your director, he or she, has amazing taste and judgment. Jon has both and given that he has the intelligence to see the bigger picture always in his head, he was a wonderful guide as to tone, timbre and pitch in the film. So it was really wonderful experience.
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