The Jungle Book: Mowgli actor Neel Sethi on the fun of CGI, superhero ambitions and sharing brisket with Bill Murray

The actor spoke about wanting to do The Jungle Book 2 and not meeting Idris Elba

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The Independent Culture

Just two years ago, Neel Sethi hadn’t watched Disney's animated classic The Jungle Book, let alone read Rudyard Kipling’s novels. 

“Normal life was going to school, playing with friends,” an excitable Sethi tells me. “Sometimes going to the dentist's office where my parents work. Doing homework. I was just a normal kid.”

That has all changed. Now 12-years-old, the US actor is set to become a household name playing Mowgli in the live-action remake alongside an all-star cast including Bill Murray, Sir Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken.

Despite only having starred in one short film, Diwali, Sethi is the only human to feature significantly in the film. Surprisingly, he didn’t struggle too much. 

“There were puppets that helped me, so it wasn’t just a tennis ball that I was trying to have emotion with,” he says, every word energetically animated by arm movements, his body doing half the talking.

“When an animal is supposed to be sad, the puppet would drop its head [Sethi makes sad face], and when it was happy, it would be happy [arms up, huge smile]. Jon [Favreau, director] got into the puppet at times. I got to interact with him which made it a lot easier.”

Throughout the shoot, Favreau - best known for helming Iron Man and Elf - was hands-on, partaking in many of the scenes, but he was open to letting the young actor try out new and different things. 

“He let me do whatever I wanted, then he would be like ‘Let’s try it a different way.’” Sethi says. “We would just see what worked and what seemed right. Even if we got it on the first take, and he would be like ‘Ooh, that was good. [Points at the table] That was good. [Points at me] That was good. [Points at the window].’”

Sethi tells an anecdote from filming his favourite scene, when Mowgli is sat on Baloo’s chest, swimming down a river and singing the Bare Necessities

“It is a real scene," he says. "There’s a lump of Styrofoam with a piece of carpet on top. It kinda looks like Baloo, which is kinda creepy, but it really looked like that. I was patting it, and I would jump in the water sometimes.” While he was sat on the belly, Favreau was acting as Baloo's head and arms, singing along and splashing water up at Sethi. “It was a lot of fun,” Sethi adds. 

The film itself is stunning; it is hard to believe it was all shot on a soundstage in LA with the majority of the jungle created in blue screen.

“We didn’t go out to the jungle at all,” Sethi says. “I was just in New York - that’s where I live - and flew to LA and that was just it. It was all blue screen so there was no need for a jungle. Sometimes there was set there; anything I was touching or reacting with was actually there. They had dirt, and soil, and grass, and trees. 

“Sometimes they would scan this stuff, create the set and replay it. If there’s somewhere I go more than once, they can make the set, scan it, and then just put a blue screen there. It will look exactly the same. It was a lot of help, as there wasn’t time to do all that again.”

More experienced actors might complain about the lack of other actors on set, but Sethi speaks about the technology with admiration. It’s quite apparent he’s an actor from a new era, one in which reacting to CGI buffalo is easier than getting covered in mud.

Neel Sethi with Bagheera in The Jungle Book

“The hardest part to get right was this bit in the mud, where buffalo are charging at me. I’m not used to the mud. I have to act likes it is a normal thing, getting run over by buffalo. So I just had to act like the buffalo was a problem and not the mud, but it was the mud that was the problem and not the buffalo. 

“It would dry everywhere on me because I’m just wearing a diaper. Then they would have to spray me with cold water [pretends to spray water], and if I rubbed it the makeup would come off and there would be another 40 minutes putting back on. It was like ‘Oh. My. God. Oh my God.’”

Struggling with 40-minute make-up routines isn’t the usual hardship of a 12-year-old and Sethi’s aware of that.

“My life is crazy different now. I’m not in school, I don’t get to see my parents in the dentist office [he pretends to cry for a minute]. I don’t get to see my friends. But I’m in a movie. I’m flying across the world. I’m doing stuff like this. I’m doing premieres, which is really cool. So it all balances itself out.”

Baloo and Mowgli in The Jungle Book

It’s striking how bubbly Sethi is, talking energetically about the rest of the cast, most of whom he has now met. “I have met all of them except Idris Elba. Even now we’re in London,” he says. Elba plays Shere Khan in the film, the tiger who hunts down Mowgli.

Does Sethi have a favourite cast member? “I can’t pick a favourite. But with Baloo - Bill Murray - me and Jon flew out to LA to meet him there, and while Jon made brisket, me and Bill played American football. Then we had brisket, and the next day we had lobster rolls. That was really good.”

Moving onto the film’s success in India, where children won't be able to see it without parental supervision, Sethi reveals that the scariest bits are in the trailers:

“If you could see the trailer and not get that scared, then you can watch the movie. The really intense scenes are in the trailer, that’s it. If you see the trailer, you would be like ‘Oh, that’s a cool trailer’ or ‘Whoa, that’s scary. I’m not watching that.” That’s it, don’t watch it, but you should.”

So what does the future hold in store for the young actor? Firstly, more Jungle Book could be on the way. “I want to do Jungle Book 2. I don’t know what Disney is thinking... I want to keep playing Mowgli, but I also want to be a new superhero [his voice has become even more excited]. One no-one knows about yet. I don’t know out of DC and Marvel, I want to be a mix!”

Aspirational, charming and exceptionally well media-trained, Sethi has a long future ahead of him in Hollywood.