Thank you to Disney for sponsoring my attendance at the #JungleBookEvent!
From start to finish, The Jungle Book event was full of amazing experiences. And one of those amazing experiences? We interviewed a knight! That definitely doesn’t happen every day. But of course, Sir Ben Kingsley isn’t just a knight. He’s also an Academy Award winning actor and the voice of Bagheera in The Jungle Book. He was also incredibly charming when he joined us to talk about the movie.
What does he think of the film?
I think it’s very close to what Rudyard Kipling envisioned, which was an enormous leap in his imagination… 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. 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.
How does he approach his characters?
I think it varies, because either I’m propelled towards a character through recognition or through curiosity. Sometimes if neither of them are there…well, curiosity has to be there, because if I’m not curious about him…then of course that won’t be contagious and the audience won’t be curious. Ah, I started my career very-my third job actually-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.
Did he treat his role as a childhood classic or a part of colonial Indian literature?
When I first discussed it with Jon Favereau, I recognized that Bagheera was military, in the Indian Army certainly then, and then in postcolonial 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 that Indian military combination. So 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, that it might corner it and make it a province of one particular period of history, culture, hierarchy. So I think he made a very good choice in making it more more universal, more accessible. Having said that, there’s still the ghost of the Indian colonel in my performance. It’s not in his accent, but I think it’s in his tough but very affectionate love. I think it’s there, but I did actually embark on an Indian accent and I saw Jon Favreau’s face slowly fall.
Did he view himself as more of a father figure to Mowgli than Akela?
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 prepare a book and 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 immediately [when] it goes dark. Whenever I read stories to my children, they would always ask me to read the scary bits over and over again, even if the duvet covered them. 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.
Did his experiences as a parent impact his performance as Bagheera?
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.
Is he more of a Bagheera or a Baloo?
I think I’m both. I think we’re all both. I think 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 growing up, adulthood-adolescence and adulthood-massive challenges. I think that all the characters are, you know, 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.
Which is tougher? On-screen acting or voice work?
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 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 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.
What was the recording process like?
Ah, it was spread out over at least a year. And 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. So I did have two days with the boy, which was great, so we were able to establish that dynamic between us. And then keep that as part of, let that inform our performance even when we were separated by geographics. And you really cannot embark on a massive project like this unless your director, he or she, has amazing taste and judgment. Ah, and 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.
Find full coverage of the #JungleBookEvent right here on As The Bunny Hops.
The Jungle Book is in theaters everywhere in 3D, RealD 3D, and IMAX 3D!