Lupita Nyong’o brought vulnerability and tenderness to her turn as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. She brought wisdom and courage to Maz Kanata in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and she will now bring compassion and strength as Raksha–the matriarch of the wolf pack and the only mother that man cub Mowgli has ever known in the Disney remake of The Jungle Book, the film based on the beloved novel by Rudyard Kipling.
Giancarlo Esposito, who has more than 100 film and television roles under his belt, had a deja vu moment in taking on the role of wolf pack leader and Mowgli’s father figure, Akela, in the upcoming film. As a child he wished he actually was Mowgli after reading the 1894 classic story of a boy who comes of age living amongst the animals of the jungle.
EBONY.com spoke with the two actors about why they chose these roles, how the roles chose them and what inspired their performances in the Jon Favreau-directed picture.
What made you take on The Jungle Book?
Lupita: I was very busy with the campaign for 12 years a Slave at the time that I met with Jon. He very carefully, quietly walked me through his idea for this version of The Jungle Book. And what struck me was the compassion with which he was talking about these characters. There was all this state of the art stuff. But at the heart of it was the love for the story and real adulation for each character he was going to bring to life. For me, that was what brought me to the role.
Giancarlo: This story came from my mother. I come from divorced parents, and I have a brother. So my mother would read Law of the Jungle to us. And it was us three and we had to survive and so it meant something very deep inside me. And it’s why I tell my four girls now, “never leave a man behind” – when you go anywhere never leave anyone behind.
How did you surrender yourself to the character and its characteristics?
Giancarlo: Reading the book as a child really made a difference. It allowed me to dream big, to have courage, to have connection. I always wanted to be Mowgli as a boy because there is a freedom within that, a freedom to be able to express myself the way I’ve always wanted to. I found that freedom in being an actor. So I’m honored to be a part of this movie because there’s so many different elements that go into making the film. I’m just a channel for this particular character that has to bring some compassion and tough love for this young boy.
Lupita, what was the draw of this film? Post Star Wars, here you are disappearing into yet another character.
Lupita: I like to try out new things – Star Wars was my first attempt at doing motion capture and this is my first voiceover role. I was attracted to it because Raksha is like the eternal mother. And she chooses to take care of this creature who is not one of her own. I remember I did a session, a voiceover, really early on and then a few months later Jon called me in again but this time he had Neel’s [Sethi, who portrays Mowgli] performance captured and that really grounded the mother-son relationship for me to see the vulnerability of this boy and the love that he had for the wolf – it only made my love for him grow even more. And it’s such a beautiful image to see these two very different creatures have this very real bond.
What really shines through in the film is your strong maternal instinct. Where did you have to go to get in touch with those emotions?
Lupita: I think my mother had a lot to do with what inspired me. She’s my example and she’s a very good mother. I asked myself a lot of questions about what it would be like to lose one of my own; although I’m not a mother myself I do love children. When I was 12, I preferred to stay indoors and babysit my cousins rather than go outside and play. So there’s that part of me that’s very much alive. I gravitate toward children. So yes, my mother definitely is who inspired me.
The animated, live action adventure, with its mind-blowing technology, also features Idris Elba as the terrifying Shere Khan the Tiger. The Jungle Book comes to life in theaters on April 15.