It was through complete serendipity that 14-year-old Rohan Chand, the star of Andy Serkis's new live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's beloved book The Jungle Book, became a child actor.
"I was 6 years old and playing little league baseball when one of the other mums who was a casting agent for Adam Sandler's movies saw me, and asked my parents if I could be seen for a role," says Chand, a New Yorker. His parents, born in Kenya and of Indian descent were slightly surprised, but they acquiesced. "Basically, the next thing I knew, I was working with Adam on Jack and Jill."
Chand hasn't looked back since. He is the Indian-American teenager who can count some of the most famous names in film as his colleagues. He assisted Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor, played a young version of Manish Dayal in The Hundred-Foot Journey, starred as a spelling bee entrant in Jason Bateman comedy Bad Words, and sidled up to The Rock and Kevin Hart in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Playing the title role of Andy Serkis's long-gestating and technically innovative Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, Chand can now also count Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch amongst his co-stars.
Serkis is famed for his motion-capture roles playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, the titular character in the 2005 movie, Star Wars's Supreme Leader Snoke and Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films. This time, sitting in the director's chair, Serkis brings his know-how to Mowgli, mixing Chand's performance with creatures embodied by Hollywood royalty. Bale is the cunning black panther Bagheera, Cumberbatch plays conniving tiger Shere Khan, Blanchett is python Kaa and Serkis himself plays the loveable bear Baloo.
The process of making the film was complicated and time-consuming. Mowgli as Chand explains was practically filmed twice. "The way it worked was I flew to England and Los Angeles with Christian and Cate, the main cast, to capture their performance. Six months later, I went back to England and then South Africa to shoot primarily my own performance with different motion-capture actors who emulated those actors," he explains.
“It was challenging because I would have to remember how Christian played the part, while being opposite someone who wasn’t Christian, which is hard, as every actor performs differently and I had to keep my performance organic.” It’s a tough task for any actor, let alone one who was 10 when he first became involved in the project and 11 when the second phase took place.
It took two years of post-production to get the animated images right, and it was further delayed to avoid clashing with the release of the hugely successful Disney live-action version of its cartoon classic.
Chand brushes off the suggestion that he could be a pioneer for young Indian-American actors in the same way that Dev Patel seems to have inspired young British actors of south Asian heritage. "Some people have called me a pioneer, but obviously Andy is a pioneer, I prefer to call myself a guinea pig."
Chand travelled to India for the premiere of Mowgli – his second journey to "hectic" Mumbai. His grandparents came up from south India for the screening, alongside a plethora of Bollywood stars who lend their dulcet voices to the Hindi dub. "India is where Mowgli is loved the most," says Chand. "So to bring the story back to its roots was great. It was almost like a historical night where Bollywood meets Hollywood."
Indiewire has named Chand one of the 20 best actors under 20 and it seems directors agree. He has a few more roles lined up, but can’t say what they are. When I retort that it sounds like he’s got a superhero movie, he laughs and says, “That’s my dream to play a superhero or be in a Star Wars film.”
Thankfully, with Black Panther coming in the wake of Riz Ahmed appearing in Rogue One, that ambition no longer seems like an impossible mission for an actor of South Indian heritage in America.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is on Netflix from December 7