Neel Sethi likes watching “Friends.” He’s 10 years old. Speaking as someone who used to watch “The Newlywed Game” when he was five and had zero idea that “Three’s Company,” one of his most-watched shows, was lousy with risque jokes, this isn’t too weird. Sethi feels the same way.
Is it over his head? “A little bit,” Sethi replies. “But it’s still really funny.”
One would assume director Jon Favreau’s new, effects-heavy film of “The Jungle Book” would be more his speed. Truth is, he didn’t even see the 1967 Disney film until he was offered a role in their super-sized new version. Sethi takes on the storied role of Mowgli, the orphan boy hero of Rudyard Kipling’s stories and the many films made from them, whose only companions are talking animals.
In this case, Sethi’s Mowgli is friends with state-of-the-art CGI creations voiced by celebrities. Ben Kingsley voices the paternal black panther Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson is the sneaky snake Kaa and Idris Elba his arch-nemesis: the murderous Shere Khan. And Bill Murray is very Bill Murray as Baloo, the carefree bear that becomes his new best friend.
Sethi mostly acted with people in motion-capture suits, interacting with a “SimulCam” that showed early but vivid versions of the animals. Technology made it a little easier to suspend his imagination.
“It would show a bear or another animal instead of a person,” Sethi recalls. “It looked like I was talking to a normal bear.”
He did get to meet some of the famous people he was acting with later on. “I went to Martha’s Vineyard and played football with Bill Murray while Jon Favreau made a brisket,” he says. “We just played football and ate lobster rolls.”
Sethi’s involvement in the film came suddenly and quickly. He lives in New York with his parents, and it was a dance teacher that told him he should audition. Two weeks after flying out to Los Angeles he was on a nine-month shoot.
“I’d never really thought about acting before,” Sethi says. “Everyone just told me it would be cool to be famous.” He’s very athletic, which is perfect for Mowgli, who’s prone to run about the Indian jungle, scampering about trees and vines.
“I was training in parkour every Saturday during filming. Then they realized I didn’t need it,” Sethi explains. “But it still taught me how to land safely and movie-run.” Sethi likes all sports, and on his six or seven trips to India, where he has family, he’s even picked up cricket. He swears it’s not as hard to figure out as some Americans (e.g., this one) think.
“It’s less complicated than baseball,” Sethi points out. “If they hit the thing behind you, you’re out. If you the ball farther than the opponent, you get points.”
As for Mowgli, he luckily found an affinity with the character he was stuck with for so long.
“We’re pretty similar,” Sethi feels. “We’re both very stubborn, both very adventurous and, I guess you could say, both very energetic.”
Since wrapping, Sethi has been in talks for other projects, which — this being Hollywood — he can’t talk about. He does want to continue as an actor, but that’s not his only goal.
“I also want to be a dentist, just like my parents,” Sethi admits. “That’s what I originally want to do. But now I want to do two things. Maybe three — like sports.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge