Casting for a film is critical and usually takes a while.
So when Disney decided to cast a young boy from Queens, New York to play a live-action version of one of their most iconic animated characters after only auditioning once, heads began to turn.
Neel Sethi, is a 13-year-old Indian-American boy who loves to be active, but acting wasn’t part of his usual activities just a few years ago. “My dance teacher told me about it and said to audition for it. So I did,” Sethi said in an interview. That it happened to be for the role of Mowgli, the human “man cub” at the center of Rudyard Kipling story that was about to be turned into a live-action film.
The only frame of reference that casting scouts and director Jon Favreau had when looking for their movie’s star was Disney’s animated film version. In that film, Mowgli’s personality is what makes him truly unique. He’s a fun, kind, and curious boy who wants to find his place in the jungle. Sethi’s casting seem to have fit that description real well as this film is his first in the film industry “jungle”.
“Neel embodies the heart, humor, and daring of the character,” adds casting director Sarah Finn when they announced Sethi’s casting back in 2014. “He’s warm and accessible, yet also has an intelligence well beyond his years and impressed us all with his ability to hold his own in any situation. Even though he has no professional acting experience, his natural charisma and instincts jumped out at us.”
Director Jon Favreau also firmly stood behind Sethi’s amateur casting from the very beginning. “He heard me audition once and then flew me and my family to LA,” Sethi said at the film’s global press conference last week. “We had dinner at his house and while I was away, my mom told me that he said ‘As far as I’m concerned, he got the part.'”
Production began in March 2015 and Sethi was immediately thrown into that production jungle in a very unique scenario: he was to be the only live character throughout the whole film. Everything around him, including the animals and plants were all digitally added once filming wrapped with Sethi on a soundstage in Downtown Los Angeles, California.
“There was nothing around him, so we had to make relatable things for him to react to on camera,” said Favreau. While most experienced actors tend to panic due to the lack of setting or actors, Sethi’s experience as an active athlete came into play.
Favreau continued, “I had to act like a coach for Neel for a few scenes. When he needed to run and act tired, I told him to go and take third base before you get tagged out.” Favreau also called upon Jim Henson’s puppet shop to create puppets for Sethi to work with while interacting with his to-be CG animal characters. “It was weird, but it was super fun,” Sethi later said of his work.
His work was later validated when he and the rest of his co-stars like Lupita N’yongo and Sir Ben Kingsley joined together for the first time at the D23 Expo last August. There they debuted the first trailer for the film to the audience. And to the cast. Let’s say that Sethi couldn’t believe it and neither could the audience.
So, will this “super fun” acting stuff continue to be in the future of Disney’s live-action Mowgli? Sethi thinks so. “If I don’t become a dentist like my parents first.”
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