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Sunday 26 January 2020

Kingsley's the big cat's whiskers

Ben Kingsley gives a commanding performance as the voice of 'Colonel' Bagheera in The Jungle Book

Ben Kingsley at the British premiere of The Jungle Book in London.
Ben Kingsley at the British premiere of The Jungle Book in London.

Anne Marie Scanlon

Most people under 40 might struggle to tell you who WC Fields was, but they've prob-ably heard his famous adage "Never work with children or animals". Actor and director Jon Favreau has tackled both in The Jungle Book, a new take on the Disney animated classic from 1967.

On seeing The Jungle Book, it's hard to believe that the only 'real' person in the movie is Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, the Man Cub raised by wolves. All of the other characters and even the luscious jungle itself are the product of movie-making magic.

Apart from Sethi, who was 10 when he shot the film, the cast list reads like a Who's Who of the acting world. Sir Ben Kingsley provides the voice of Bagheera, the sleek black panther who originally rescued the infant Mowgli, while Baloo the bear is brought to life by Bill Murray, who is hilarious.

The villain of the piece, Shere Khan the Bengal tiger, is played by a very threatening Idris Elba, and erstwhile King of the Swingers Louis is as dark and menacing as only the voice of Christopher Walken could make him. The famous song, sung by Louis Prima in the 1967 cartoon, is reworked from a jolly ditty to a rather foreboding tune, and trust me, the monkeys make those flying fellas from The Wizard of Oz seem totally benign by comparison.

"You have to have a dark side," Kingsley says of the new version of the old tale. "You have to have that balance. Otherwise, what is the child triumphing over? What is he achieving? You've got to put those blocks in the path of the young hero for him to push through."

Kingsley gets a hard time in the British press - they love to hate him and bait him. I'm expecting Christopher Biggins with a bad attitude. Instead, I meet a small, unassuming man in a stylish brown leather jacket.

When I compliment him on his attire, he says a polite "thank you" before adding that this is the first time he has worn it. Where's the diva? Where's the pompous thes- pian? This man is perfectly pleasant. We're meeting in Brown's Hotel in London's Mayfair, where author Rudyard Kipling liked to stay and where, it's said, he wrote part of The Jungle Book.

Kingsley was a member of the Wolf Cubs when he was a boy and, as befits a knight of the realm, seems quite taken with the whole idea of empire. Bagheera, he tells me, is to his mind "Colonel Bagheera, a British officer, and like any great commander he teaches his recruits to fend for themselves in battle but also to come home safely. I love the military, I have huge respect for them". As the on-screen action is narrated by Bagheera, Kingsley says he took it upon himself to be "the voice of Kipling, because the narrator is Kipling."

Kingsley goes on to say that his performance was further influenced by the fact that Kipling lost his only son in the First World War. "The boy was 18 years old," he says.

Kingsley missed the original cinema release of The Jungle Book in 1967 because he was with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) doing eight shows a week. "Sometimes we would preform a matinee of one play and another in the evening," he says. He spent 12 years "on and off" with the RSC.

Kingsley tells me he has a bust of Shakespeare. "I chat to him. I thank him. He is the greatest voice the English language will ever have and it's beautiful that he can still have audiences on the edge of their seat," he says, moving to the very edge of his chair, "Four-hundred years after his death. It's beautiful."

This is the kind of thing the British press love to mock Kingsley for, but all I can see is a man who really likes his job. He goes on to say that Hamlet has been his favourite role. "That's the mountain," he says. "I think I played him at exactly the right time in my own life, which is always good. You're not quite sure whether Hamlet is playing you or you're playing Hamlet. It's such an intense performance and such an intense experience that there are times when one comes off stage and one can't believe that you've just had two-and-a-half hours on stage in that character. Something else takes over, a very thrilling experience. It's ephemeral, it disappears, but at the time it's very visceral and life-enhancing."

So how does he rate the new kids on the block? Has he seen Benedict Cumberbatch doing the Danish prince? To be fair to Kingsley, he does not dissemble. "I must be quite frank; I find it very difficult to watch other versions of it. I'm sure they're all marvellous, highly personal and beautiful, but because I had such a wonderful experience with that role I find it quite difficult."

Most actors don't want to watch other people interpreting the roles they've done. At least Kingsley is honest about it and there is absolutely nothing grudging in his praise for director Favreau and young Neel Sethi.

"On screen, he has the most wonderful rapport with those anim-als, as if he truly can reach out and stroke them. An absolutely beautiful performance, beautifully judged, which when the time comes for him to be judged by those who are in charge of judging..." He gives a slight laugh, and instead of finishing the sentence remarks that there is no "category" for Sethi's performance. (Sethi's story is almost as mythic as Mowgli's. The 10-year-old had no interest in performing and had never been to an audition but went to the open call on the advice of his Indian dance teacher.)

All of the voice work in The Jungle Book was done before the animation was completed, and Kingsley says he was "delighted and thrilled" by the end product. The film has some intense and hair-raising moments, especially when watched in 3-D. The actor says he "loves the popcorn flying".

Kingsley also lent his voice to the animated movie Box Trolls, and says he finds the work "very freeing as an actor" and would like to do another animated movie soon. He harks back to his days at the RSC (which he never abbreviates, always giving it its full name) and says he was lucky enough to share the stage "in small parts, mostly, with giants - vocally".

He may be small in stature and much-mocked in his own country, but Kingsley is also a giant.

'The Jungle Book' is in cinemas nationwide

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