Thank you to Disney for sponsoring my attendance at the #JungleBookEvent!
With one interview under my belt, I went into our interview with Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito feeling a little more at ease, but as soon as they both floated into the room, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it would be another easy interview.
Lupita Nyong’o (LN) is positively breathtaking and perfectly poised. She is an Oscar award-winning actress who was born to evoke emotion on the big screen, of that I’m sure. She is the voice of Raksha in The Jungle Book, and her part of wolf-mother was enormously believable, despite the fact that she is not yet a mother herself. She discusses below where she pulled the inspiration from and how her relationship with her own mother played into the role.
Giancarlo Esposito (GE) was full of positive, bounding energy. You could feel the spirituality and positivism emanating from his very being. The first thing he did was come in and marvel at how beautiful our spirits were. Giancarlo has his hands in many pots from acting to directing to producing to public speaking and more. He is an athlete and yogi, and you can tell from his energy that he lives and breathes positivity, which was intensely calming. He voices Akela, Mowgli’s wolf father in the movie. He discusses below how he came to love The Jungle Book from childhood, and it’s not in the way you might think.
Shortly before Lupita and Giancarlo walked in, one of my fabulous friends told me I looked 19 or 21, so I really went into this interview feeling like a million bucks and full of confidence, which is exactly what a girl needs when faced with a woman as beautiful as Lupita and a man as enigmatic as Giancarlo Esposito.
Question to Lupita & Giancarlo: Jon mentioned that some of you haven’t seen the film yet. Have you seen the film?
GE: We have not. We’ve seen parts of the film, because in our work, on the microphone, we did get a chance to see some of the film as it progressed. Especially in parts of it that referred to our scenes together, and our scenes with Mowgli, which has been really, really wonderful. We’ve been offered screening after screening, but we’re obstinate. We say no, we want to see it together as a family.
At this point, we all melted, because FAMILY!
Question to Lupita: I have a question [for Lupita] from the 6th grade at Logos Academy in York, Pennsylvania. They read The Jungle Book as part of their literature class this year, and they would like to know, what life experiences did you have to draw yourself to this character as a mothering role?
LN: Wow. Well, 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 have many mothers. And, my mom has a fierce love for her children, and she’s known to say things like, “If you die I’ll kill you.”
Which is hilarious because I say the same things to my children
(LN Cont) And so that, for me, that spirit, that tenacity of mothering was something that I thought of and 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 that she does it and doesn’t look back, and 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, you know, 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. 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, so those were things I was definitely thinking about. And I love my mommy.
Seriously? She’s adorable and I hope my kids love me as much as she loves her mommy. There were lots of “Awwwwws” going on at this point.
Question to both: So what drew you guys to this role? Why did you want to take it on? What was that process like?
GE: I had a very unusual story. I was working on the Destiny trailer with Jon. I’d done a show called Revolution with Jon Favreau and our show had finished, and he called me and said,
“Would you come and do a commercial with me for one day?”
It was the trailer of Destiny and the character was reading The Law of the Jungle to his son. It was a highly technical trailer that we did. I stepped away from reading this, and had a conversation with Jon about Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book. We had a wonderful and marvelous conversation, which ended when he said,
“Well, wouldn’t it be wonderful to do this movie again and re-envision it for a new generation?”
A year and a half later he called me and said, “Guess what?”
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
And he said, “Are you in?”
I said, “Of course I’m in!”
I had read the book when I was probably about 10 years old, and my mother and I talked about it afterwards. She’d have me read everything from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven to Shakespeare, to Kipling. I was really moved by Kipling because of his background and where he was raised. He was born in India, and he was raised through that caste system. He’s an Indian in London and this story was such a story of freedom, yet… in jazz music, they say there’s no freedom without time. You can’t be free without time. There has to be a parameter, a meter to measure to be free within! And it makes me think so much about this particular time period of this book, there was so much going on in the world then. So that’s how I got involved! Jon asked me, I was in and it seemed like, my life was coming full circle. To be able to be in this particular story which is told in a new way, with more eminent danger, yet with a great deal of compassion and understanding for the world which it’s placed in, which is our world of now.
I knew at this point I was going to ask him what his favorite book was as a child, there’s really nothing better than a well-read man, am I right?
LN: For me, this was the very first role that I performed after I got off the “12 Years a Slave train”. What appealed to me was this idea of playing a mother, something that I hadn’t yet done, and to do it in voice-over. I just opened myself up to something new! I have always loved children. I’ve been fantasizing about motherhood since I was probably 2 ½.
You heard it here first, Lupita wants kids some day!
LN Cont: I loved to babysit my cousins, and nieces, you know, but I also had, like a kind of fear about being a mother, and doing work like this makes you really put yourself there. I like being put in those kinds of uncomfortable places that help me to expand my empathy, and so that was what attracted me to Raksha.
Lupita, I just want to tell you that even those of us who already have kids – THREE kids, even – we’re still fearful of being a mother too, so you’re not alone there.
Question to both: What was the recording process like?
GE: Very different because technology has changed so much in the last few years. I love being on the mic. There’s a special relationship that your whole being nurtures when you’re on the mic. I started working with RKO when I was seven years old and couldn’t get my face in front of a camera because I wasn’t black enough back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a really interesting situation. So I went on the mic because I wasn’t regarded as black ‘cause I’m half Italian and from Europe and all these things. But because I spoke well, I would do recordings that would teach young black kids how to speak English. So I gained a relationship with the mic. With this, Jon put up three different cameras that sort of, in a way, captured our motion so that he could blend our physicality with the physicality that he was planning for the wolves. I learned so much from just being in the studio a couple of different times. t’s great to hear Jon talk about it because he’s such a Disney fan. I just think Walt Disney was way ahead of his time, and now we have a guy who’s remade this movie with new technology. It was interesting and fascinating because you weren’t really seeing pictures. You had to take your own timing the first time we were in the studio, and then the next time we had sort of a rough picture, and the next time the rough picture was also combined with Lupita’s voice, so then you had something to play off of. But it was a process, a very, very, very interesting process that was fun and made to be very organic and natural by Jon’s presence.
Question to Giancarlo: Did you identify with Akela in any way as you were playing the role?
GE: Oh, in so many ways. You know, I’m a male, and on the way in, Lupita was talking about another film she did, and there was a lot of testosterone, energy! I have four daughters, and, and, I have to say that, these questions in regard to Raksha and how Lupita feels about her mom and being a mother, I feel like 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. My 12 year old comes in and 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 almost like a very beautiful, natural transition.
So while Lupita and you guys have been talking back and forth about motherhood, I had 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.
All those things can’t be taught. It’s something that in the essence of a woman, the essence of a mother, a mother knows! So to me, you know, I have learned to listen through raising four daughters. 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, [I meant it] too. So now I have two daughters who live with me in Austin, one daughter in college in New Haven, one daughter who lives with her, but we all convene! But this is what’s going to change, 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. No doubt.
At this point basically every woman in the room melted into puddles in the floor, because YES! WOMEN RULE THE WORLD! Preach!
Question to both: What is one thing that you want children to take back from your character? What’s one example or role model quality that you want kids to see from you as adults and parental figures in the movie?
LN: Well, I think what Mowgli is dealing with is finding belonging, and what Raksha offers him is home, her… as home, and as an anchor. I think that’s a really important thing for children to have, so that they can veer away from it, but always be able to come back when they need to.
GE: That’s really beautiful. It’s like, movies look like my life. You know, my youngest daughter lives with us and my 17 year old daughter is going to college next year in Paris. [The little one] looks at me and goes,
“So, Papa, where can we go? What Can we do?”
Her mama wants her to come home because her math and science grades fell a little bit. Well, you know what?
I told her, “The only way I can fight for you is for you to heal the grade. Heal the grade first. Then Mama has issues about me always being on the road, and you not having enough nurturing. Now, I know you’re 12 years old, and you’re independent, you got your own life. You’ve made 40 Youtube movies! However, you need some nurturing, too, right? So here are the choices: You come on the road with me, which I don’t really want, because I want you to be socialized with people of your own age. You pull those grades up, you stay in Austin, we get a good nanny, and I try to make my next film in Austin!”
I tell her all this, and she looks at me, she goes, “Okay, cool, cool. But don’t forget I’m only 12 years old.”
So I go, “Yeah, 12 going on 24!” and I laugh really hard, and I say to her, “That’s great!” because 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 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’m so sick of seeing myself in movies that I got over myself! And now I can play more! I can not worry that the hair is out of place, or the, the eyelash is not happening! You know what I mean? 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 of this film, 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, you know? 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?”
You know? This is what life’s about! It’s not about all the other things we may think it’s about, and, I think people are gonna feel it in this film. If anything, all the folks who’ve come and talked to us in press today, 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 human challenges that come with it to put a human being in this film, it’s precious! This is the precious gem that we’re gonna take away, and I just love it. I can’t wait to see it tonight. I’m really excited.
Question to Both: So you were very well read as a child. Do you have a favorite book, either of you?
GE: Oh my goodness. Well, Jungle Book was certainly one of my favorites. I also liked the poems of Edgar Allen Poe. They were very dark. And, there’s one other book. I have to think about it, though.
Giancarlo Esposito totally had what I lovingly refer to as a “Summer Moment” where he couldn’t remember the name of one of his favorite things, and I just loved him even more for it, because it was like watching myself try to pull something up from the depths of my mind. Lupita interjected at this point because she had something really important to tell me about her childhood:
LN: What comes to mind right now is The BFG, I love that book. That’s it for now. I didn’t like to read when I was younger. I much preferred climbing trees and making up my own worlds.
I love that she said that, because it brings the whole thing back to what Giancarlo was saying about play.
GE: So there’s another one, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. And I love Sid Arthur a lot as well, another great book.
Question for Giancarlo and Lupita: So what’s next for you?
GE: Today, or next in life? Oh my, you really want to know?
Of COURSE we want to know! We want to know where to be looking for this vibrant and energetic personality!
GE: Well, that’s so nice! Most press ask about the The Jungle Book! well, I feel really blessed. I’ve just made my second feature film as a director called, This is Your Death. It stars Josh Duhamel, Famke Janssen, and myself, and it’s an unflinching look at reality television. It’s very provocative and profound. I locked picture on Friday and I’m praying that my investors at Gray Point Media will say yes. I’ll be finishing the movie this month in Vancouver, doing all the technical stuff that I need to do on it, and I’ve started on Maze Runner 3, the Death Cure.
Which literally made me break out into goosebumps. I cannot wait to see it!
GE: We’ll go back May 15th and finish that film. I really I feel so blessed to be in creation. I’m working with the History Channel on a story of the first black US Marshal named Bass Reeves. In Indian Territory he was the right hand man of Hanging Judge Parker, who brought law to an untamed land, so it’s a story about their relationship. I’m excited because I’m able to do very different things, and it’s kinda lovely to be able to play in television and play in film, and I’ve got, this coming out, and Money Monster coming out in April. I feel like I finally have gotten back and I’m hitting my stride again. It’s kinda nice.
LN: Well, I am on Broadway at the moment doing a show called Eclipsed by Danai Gurira. You might know her from The Walking Dead, she plays Michonne, and she’s an incredible playwright. She’s written this five female play about women in the Liberian civil war and how they each individually deal with war, and get themselves out of very dire situation. We are the first all female performed, directed, and written play on Broadway and we’re all black.
We erupted into clapping at this point, because it’s a BIG deal. A big, big deal.
LN: It’s a milestone. I’m really proud of. I love going to work every day. It exhausts me. And I earn my rest! And I wake up and I do it again, and I just feel so blessed to be able to do this story that means so much to me, means so much to my continent, and is meaning so much to, the very diverse audience that’s coming to see it. So if you’re in New York, come check us out. And other than that, I have things I cannot talk about yet, but I have another film where I play a mother, this time live action mother, in the Queen of Katwe which comes out this year. It’s another Disney picture about a Ugandan Chess Prodigy. So anyway, I play the mother, and I hope you’ll see that, too. And, I may be talking to you again.
I know she wasn’t talking directly to me, but I REALLY, REALLY hope I get to talk to her again, because she was breathtaking and I really want to see The Queen of Katwe, and to have the chance to interview her again would be amazing.
We closed out the interview by asking a question about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which she hilariously answered by saying she wasn’t itching to say anything about the film at that press junket.
When we walked over to the corner of the room to take the group picture, Lupita caught me looking at her, so I told her how absolutely breathtaking I thought she was. She thanked me then told me she loved the henna I had done on my arm specifically for this trip and asked where I had it done. It may have been one of the highlights of my trip.
Definitely make sure you go see The Jungle Book on the big screen in 3D, RealD 3D, and IMAX 3D on April 15th. It’s a must-see!
For more Jungle Book press trip fun, check out my tell-all about the red carpet and after party where Jon Favreau raved about my ink (yes, that happened), our trip to the set of Walk the Prank, and a hilarious “SQUIRREL!” interview with Director Jon Favreau and Neel Sethi who plays Mowgli.