Some people have gravitas. They walk in the room and people naturally turn to them. Lean in to hear everything they say. That was what it was like meeting Sir Ben Kingsly. I mean this is the man who played Gandhi. He came in with a smile and sat down in a room full of 25 bloggers to chat about The jungle Book. I love interviewing the cast of a movie like this. Especially when they are passionate about their role. So let’s get to the interview!
Q: Have you seen the film yet? What did you think?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I think it’s very close to what Rudyard Kipling envisioned, which was, an enormous leap in his imagination, which was a child literally living with and talking with animals. And I think from what I’ve seen that’s what you experience on the screen here. With all respect to its predecessor in the ’60′s, that was an animated cartoon talking to animated cartoons, but this is a little boy, and we are blessed with him, Neel, he’s amazing, literally, well, not literally but what you see is he’s with animals, which is wonderful!
Q: How do you get ready to become a character, and more specifically, this character?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I think it varies, because either I’m propelled towards a character through recognition or through curiosity. Sometimes if neither of them is there, well, curiosity has to be there, because if I’m not curious about him, then that won’t be contagious and the audience won’t be curious. I started 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, and on the screen, whichever.
I think that if I can feel that there’s a genuine pattern of recognizable human behavior, even a little bit with animals, but 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: Because of the way Kipling wrote the book, having deconstructed it as part of the colonial literature of India, the characters, and their speech was very much Indian. Did the actors or did you, in this contemporary production, have to navigate the Indian-ness, or did you just treat it as a childhood classic?
Sir Ben Kingsley: When I first discussed it with John Favreau, I recognized that Magera was military, in the Indian Army certainly then, and then in post-colonial times, probably less now, there were British and Indian officers serving in the Indian Army. I’ve recently played in Sikh in Learning To Drive, and I’m fascinated by Indian military combination. I offered an Indian accent as Bagheera, to play him as an Indian colonel or general, probably a colonel, and he felt that it didn’t fit the universality of the appeal of the story. I think he made a very good choice in making it more universal, more accessible. Having said that, there’s still the ghost of the Indian colonel in my performance. It’s not any action, but it’s in his. I think it’s in his tough but very affectionate love. I did actually embark on an Indian accent and I saw Jon Favreau’s face slowly fall.
q: Did you see Bagheera as more of a father figure to him than Akela?
Sir Ben Kingsley: 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 in how to survive in particular circumstances. I liked John’s version of this which is close to Kipling’s, which is to prepare a book and a story that prepares a young person for life.
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, even if I do, the cover would come. 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.
Q: Which character do you personally relate to the most? Is it Bagheera or a little more free spirited Baloo?
Sir Ben Kingsley: I think I’m both. I think we’re all both. I think that, that when you 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 adolescence and adulthood, massive challenges. I think that all the characters, we’ll 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 tougher for you, onscreen acting or voice acting? Does voice acting bring particular challenges to you?
Sir Ben Kingsley: 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 play Hamlet, for example, so that 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, but then to, 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 Baghera’s body, you know, 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. Storytelling 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 storytelling.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the voice recording process and how long it took.
Sir Ben Kingsley: 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 the boy, which was great, so we were able to establish that dynamic between us. Then keep that as part of it, let that inform our performance even when we were separated by geographics. You really cannot embark on a massive project like this unless you’re director, he or she has amazing taste and judgment. Jon has both and therefore, 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.
Jungle Book In Theatres Now
The Jungle Book” is an all-new live-action epic adventure about Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), a man-cub raised in the jungle by a family of wolves, who embarks on a captivating journey of self-discovery when he’s forced to abandon the only home he’s ever known. Hits theaters NOW!
***Disclosure: I attended the #JungleBookEvent My flight, lodgings, and expenses were covered by Disney All opinions are 100% mine. ***