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Raising Mowgli: THE JUNGLE BOOK’s Lupita Nyong’o & Giancarlo Esposito

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Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK is as much a movie about what it means to be a family, as it is a family film. An action-packed re-imagining from director Jon Favreau (IRON MAN, CHEF) and based on both the 1967 animated feature and the original stories from Rudyard Kipling, at the heart of the story is Mowgli, the man-cub found and raised by Panther Bagheera, a protector who placed the child in the care of wolves Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito), who welcome the youngster into their pack, and raise him with the same love and values as their own flesh and blood. At the recent JUNGLE BOOK press junket, I joined a group of fellow writers to spend some time with Nyong’o and Esposito to gain a little insight into their creative process for the film, and how their own familial experiences helped shape what they brought to these famed wolves.

Lupita Nyong'o

Lupita Nyong’o: “I have a lot of very, very powerful women in my life, my mother being the first and most important. But in my culture, my mother’s sisters are also my mother. And my father’s sisters are my mothers, too. So I’ve had many mothers. She has a fierce love for her children, and she’s known to say things like, ‘If you die, I’ll kill you.’ For me, that spirit, that tenacity of mothering, was something that inspired my version of Raksha, because it takes a woman with one huge heart to take on not only a child that’s not hers, but of a completely different species. The fact that she does this, and she doesn’t look back, and she does everything in her power to protect that child… and then to have to let go of that child as well, that takes even more love, to allow your children to do what they need to do. All mothers go through that. I know… I went through that with my mother, and as a child, you don’t appreciate it until you’re much older, and you realize how hard it is to make new connections, and then how hard it is to lose those connections. Those were things I was definitely thinking about. And I love my mommy!”

Giancarlo Esposito

Giancarlo Esposito: “I have four daughters, and I have to say that, with these questions in regard to Raksha and how Lupita feels about her mom and being a mother, I feel the importance of the female and the mother presence in our society is greater than ever.”

“I have four daughters, the eldest is 19, the youngest is 12, and I’ve watched all of them journey into motherhood. Motherhood is very deep. It starts when you’re very, very young. Now, my 12 year old comes in, wants to put me to bed. She’ll put her hand on my forehead and say the prayer with me, as for years I’ve done for her! It’s a very beautiful, natural transition.”

“While Lupita and you guys have been talking back-and-forth about motherhood, I have this vision that I’m really watching each one of my daughters start to become women, and mothers. And this is what’s gonna save our planet. I know it. Because there’s such a grace and understanding in the female persona when women have really come into their own, part of that is to have children, and to be caring for those children, and not only in the care for them, but also in the nurturing and raising of them, they have to pass on their souls, and their intelligence. Those things can’t be taught. It’s something that in the essence of a woman, the essence of a mother, a mother knows! I have learned to listen through raising four daughters, but I’ve learned to become a progressive man because I have four women in my life — And their mother, who I’m not married to anymore, but who impresses me because of our relationship. We have a very deep and friendly relationship that is completely about who we really are now.”

“Before, it was husband, wife, mother, father. But now it’s about who we are as human beings, because we didn’t give up on each other, and because we didn’t hurt each other and blister each other from a divorce. We became tight. Best friends. And more than that even, because now we’re best parents. So our children look at us differently. When my former wife said to me, ‘Hey, whatever’s best for the children,’ she meant it! And when I said that, too. It is this strength of the mother that is going to change the way the world is. It’s the compassion, the love, the very open-spirited mother, and woman that will move us forward in this new century. It’s no doubt.”

Having seen the film, I can attest to the fact that Lupita and Giancarlo were able to fully infuse their characters with their full depth of love and emotion, but as a takeaway, Esposito nails it with a real sense of both love and play…

Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito

Giancarlo Esposito: What we want to remember in life is to play! We want to remember to be playful! We’re here in this wonderful and incredible world! Like, the grand architect of the universe created this playground, and we’re supposed to have fun, and we’re supposed to play. So when you think of the four letter word called work, you want to think, how, how do I translate that into play? To be playful? To help bring people to their best selves? To not be so about me, me, me all the time. It took me years to learn this. I got over myself! And now I can play more! I cannot worry that the hair is out of place, or the, the eyelash is not happening! I don’t care anymore! I just want to serve up the goodness and grace that’s been given to me because I made a choice that lined up with my passion. And that’s what I tell my kids. What I want people to get from this movie is that sense of freedom, that sense of abandonment in the ride – the sense of connection with family, even if you don’t have a family. The sense of trust that someone’s gonna adopt you and take care of you. That sense of really being engaged by the world. That is what I would love people to take from this film, because that’s our life! We think it’s all these other things until we get to a certain point… some of us never get there, where we go, oh my gosh! Did I just miss it? This is what life’s about! It’s not about all the other things we may think it’s about! If anything, all the folks who’ve come and talked to us have said that their hearts have been opened!”

“If this movie is opening people’s hearts in this way, it’s doing its gig! And if it’s entertaining you as well, and you’re seeing all of this great story that’s an amalgam of all this technology and the human challenges that came with it to put a human being [Neel Sethi] in this film, it’s precious! This is the precious gem, and I love it. “

Finally, with Director Rian Johnson having just posted a picture of Maz Kanata from the set of STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII, and with STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD, someone had to address the elephant (or wrinkled orange alien) in the room. I mentioned to Lupita that when we last met, there was little she could say about the actual film, instead using our time together to discuss more about the legacy of STAR WARS, and her childhood connection to the Saga. Was it hard to hold back, or was she itching to say more?

Rian Johnson's teaser of Maz Kanata in STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII
The teaser of Maz Kanata that Rian Johnson posted on Twitter.

“I wasn’t itching to tell you anything,” quipped Nyong’o with a wide-eyed smile and a shake of the head that perfectly recalled her on-screen character, Maz Kanata.

“Really… I mean that it’s so much more fun to do the work than to talk about it. I will have to admit that. Because the work is there, everybody gets to decide how they feel, and what to take away by themselves, and that’s what you hope for — that people will take away different things and have different experiences from the work we do as actors. So I don’t like to prescribe how to feel about the work I do. But, playing Maz? She was so much fun. I mean, right now, on Broadway, I’m playing a 15 year old. And to go from playing a 1,000 year old female to 15?  I just love that kind of range to be able to do those things. Maz was a riot to work on, and I hope you enjoyed her.”

Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK opens in theaters everywhere, Friday, April 15, 2016. Get tickets now via Fandango. STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII opens in theaters on December 15, 2017.

For more coverage, visit http://www.therockfather.com/thejunglebook and http://www.therockfather.com/starwars!

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