The Jungle Book's Neel Sethi on becoming Mowgli

In a studio in Los Angeles, Neel Sethi had only his imagination to help him become Mowgli in the new remake of The Jungle Book. Sethi talks to CBC News about movie magic — and the sneaky tricks used to bring his performance to life.

The only human in a CGI spectacle, 12-year-old depended on imagination and a creative director

The young star tells CBC's Eli Glasner the back story of filming one particularly scary scene with director Jon Favreau. 1:02

Imagine you're 12, you're a newbie actor starring in a beloved pop-culture property and you're all alone in a studio. It's just you, the blue screen and your imagination. 

That was the challenge facing Neel Sethi, who has slipped into Mowgli's loincloth for Disney's new live-action, multimillion-dollar remake of The Jungle Book.

Young New York actor Neel Sethi has slipped into Mowgli's loincloth for Disney's new live-action, multimillion-dollar remake of The Jungle Book. (Disney Enterprises)
 

Inspired by the 1967 cartoon classic, this Jungle Book is populated by talking animals voiced by a who's who of Hollywood: Idris Elba as the tiger Shere Khan, Scarlet Johansson as a seductive snake and Bill Murray as the bumbling bear Baloo.

But nearly everything onscreen — from the animals to the lush Indian jungle — is computer-animated. The only flesh-and-blood actor who appears is Sethi, who spent the entire production in a Los Angeles studio with director Jon Favreau guiding him. 

"It felt kind of weird, when I watched the full product and everything was finished," Sethi said of seeing the film, after having solely relied on his imagination for his performance. 

"Those animals weren't really there, but they looked like they were."

'Those animals weren't really there, but they looked like they were,' Sethi recalled of shooting The Jungle Book in a Los Angeles studio. (Disney Enterprises)

Walt Disney Studios recruited puppeteers from the Jim Henson Creature Shop to give him partners to act with. Sometimes he performed opposite actual puppets. Other times it was just a puppeteer's hands that gave Sethi an eyeline — something to look at.

For action scenes designers constructed elaborate sets where he could run, jump and swing on vines that would be blended seamlessly into the finished product.  

Creative direction

But there was one time Sethi's imagination wasn't up to the task: at a critical moment, where Shere Khan explodes out from the tall grass to pounce on the man cub. 
  
"I wasn't getting the reaction right," Sethi recalled. 

Neel Sethi is seen performing opposite a puppeteer from the Jim Henson Creature Shop. (Walt Disney Studios)

Unbeknownst to the young star, Favreau had hidden in the spot where the imaginary tiger would be. 

"Jon was behind me and I didn't know this, so I look back and Jon was there and then he screamed at the top of lungs and I jumped I was so scared. It was crazy." 

Sethi, who acknowledges that the stunt was a little unfair, noted that it was the take used in the film. 

I didn't know acting. He taught me everything I know.- Neel Sethi on director Jon Favreau

The movie has been a steep learning curve for the youngster from New York City. The Jungle Book is only his second professional acting credit, but he said he picked up a lot working with Favreau, who also helmed Iron Man and Elf.

"I didn't know acting. He taught me everything I know now. He taught me not to overact, to be very subtle. If something's coming at you, do what you would normally do."

Too scary?

The Jungle Book opens across Canada on April 15, but in India, where it's already in theatres, the censor board is requiring parents to accompany children under the age of 12 due to some intense scenes.  

The 12-year-old Sethi thinks the Indian censors are overreacting.

"All the dark, tense scenes — there is always some joke. Baloo will say something funny or something like that and it will break it and everything will be mellow and nice," he said. 

Regarding his future in the industry, Sethi has epic ambitions. As well as continuing as an actor, he wants to be a dentist, a basketball player, a football player and a baseball player.  

Disney might have a say in that: the studio has already begun work towards a sequel