Netflix’s Mowgli: Christian Bale on how Bagheera might be his biggest transformation ever
As someone who has received numerous accolades for his transformative performances, Christian Bale can’t help but wonder if modern technology will make his skills obsolete in the future. “Maybe one day, instead of actually gaining weight (for a role) I’ll just sit on a chair with cameras around my head and it’ll all be created digitally,” Bale said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
The Oscar-winning star of films such as The Dark Knight, The Fighter, and American Hustle, was in Mumbai to attend the world premiere of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle - the first of its kind to be held for a major Hollywood film in India - along with director Andy Serkis and co-stars Freida Pinto and Rohan Chand.
He plays Mowgli’s mentor and friend, the panther Bagheera, in the film, through state-of-the-art motion capture technology. “Andy is the master of motion capture,” Bale said, and ‘it was a very different kind of filmmaking experience.’
Watch our interview with Christian Bale here
Bale’s take on Bagheera - keeping with the film’s revisionist tone - is unlike any version of the character we’ve seen before. “The thing I found really intriguing is that the sentiment, the feeling of this film is one that I would usually associate with an independent film,” he said. “It’s very bold, it doesn’t make compromises in the way that many big-budget films do, because naturally, they have to make their money back.”
This unexpectedly dark rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, which is popularly known as a whimsical children’s story, is perhaps what gave Warner Bros. cold feet. A few weeks after having debuted the first trailer and announcing an October release date, the studio announced that it had sold the film’s distribution rights to Netflix. But Bale, like Serkis, said that ‘the themes’ in this version ‘stay very true to Kipling’s writings’ - more so than any previous version. “It’s a fascinating piece,” he said. “It’s really quite beautiful.”
The most astounding achievement of the film is probably its use of motion capture, a technology that Serkis is considered a pioneer of. He has previously played iconic characters such as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, King Kong, Captain Haddock in the Adventures of Tintin and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot series through the same technology. But because of the intensive visual effects work, and because of Warner Bros’ wanted to distance the film from director Jon Favreau’s 2016 live-action remake, Bale said that his relationship with Mowgli has been rather unusual.
“It’s been a film that I would visit from time to time,” he said. “I’m very fond of Andy and I know the struggle he’s had in finishing this; it’s been a real labour of love for him.”
Bale said he first met with Serkis about the film when his son was two months old. “And now my son is four.” But unlike lead actor Rohan Chand, who essentially grew up with the film in the four years it took to make, Bale would ‘go off and make other films in a more intense manner, and then speak with Andy and go back and do a couple of days here and a couple of days there.’
While Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was overcoming the many hurdles - from delays in the release to that last-minute dumping by Warner Bros - Bale starred in four films, and scored an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Big Short. He will reunite with director Adam McKay in Vice, and likely earn his fourth Academy Award nod for playing former US vice president, Dick Cheney.
For many years, there has been a vocal contingent in the film community that has advocated for Andy Serkis to be considered for the Oscars, for his groundbreaking performance as the ape Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy. The passion with which Serkis approaches the technology - which captures an actor’s movements and translates them into digitally created characters - is evident in the unique characterisations in Mowgli.
Bale’s Bagheera has elements in common with both the protagonist of the film, Mowgli, and with the antagonist, Shere Khan. He was ‘brought up in confinement’ and abused by men, ‘but he chooses to be compassionate and full of love’ when he could have chosen ‘hatred and bitterness’ - like Shere Khan. Bale said. “He calls Mowgli ‘little brother’, and he’s a very noble creature, but he’s also capable of savagery when he requires it.”
Making another reference to Kipling’s writings, Bale said that the author’s belief that ‘man is the weakest and most defenceless of any animal’ is reflected in Bagheera’s relationship with Mowgli (played by Rohan Chand) in the film. “He treats Mowgli more harshly than anybody else, but out of love. He wants him to be able to survive.”
Bale, along with stars Rohan Chand, Naomie Harris (Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother, Nisha), Benedict Cumberbatch (Shere Khan), Cate Blanchett (the hypnotic Kaa), Freida Pinto (Mowgli’s adoptive human mother, Messua), and Serkis (Baloo), will be seen in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, on December 7, when it will be made available on Netflix. The film has been given a limited theatrical release in the UK and the US.